An open field in the race for the top ILO job

The process of electing a new Director-General at the International Labour Organization (ILO), to replace Guy Ryder, whose term expires on September 30, is in full speed.

The ILO is a tripartite organization which brings together representatives of governments, employers, and workers in its executive bodies. The 56-member Governing Body (GB) elects the D-G, and is composed of 28 Governments, 14 Workers and 14 Employers. There are five candidates for the top job, three men and two women, listed here alphabetically. With the exception of the South African Mthunzi Mdwaba, all are supported by their respective governments:

  • Gilbert F. Houngbo, current President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), submitted by the Government of Togo
  • Kang Kyung-wha, former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, submitted by the Government of the Republic of Korea
  • Mthunzi Mdwaba, Vice-Chairperson and Officer of the Governing Body of the ILO, submitted by members of the ILO Governing Body
  • Muriel Pénicaud, former French Minister of Labour, submitted by the French Government
  • Greg Vines, current Deputy Director-General of the ILO, submitted by the Australian Government

The race to succeed Ryder officially started today, with ‘public dialogues’ conducted by the Chairwoman of the organization’s Governing Body (GB), Swedish Ambassador Anna Jardfelt. Streamed live on the ILO’s website, the sessions will extend to tomorrow. The GB will conduct further discussions with the candidates in mid-March, before electing the new Director-General at its March 25 session.

The race is already shaping up to be a formidable contest. The candidates’ profile and vision will matter, of course, but in a tense global political landscape, with continuously rising inequalities and the devastating economic effects of the pandemic still impeding recovery around the world, several other factors will weigh in on the ILO’s nomination: expect geo- and bloc-politics to play a massive role.

To some extent, the pandemic is yet another addition to an already long list of far-ranging, lasting, transformative, and unprecedented disruptions that the world has been dealing with over the last decade, mainly driven by technology. The sum of these changes has been rising social and economic inequalities. Rebuilding social cohesion in such conditions is a daunting task, and the ILO will be playing a central role in that rebuild—which is why this election may matter more than previous ones held in quieter times.  

The situation is still fluid at this early stage of the election process. It appears, however, that without the support of his own Government, the candidacy of Mthunzi Mdwaba stands little chance, ILO watchers tell The G|O.

France’s Muriel Pénicaud has the unwavering support of her government. Emmanuel Macron went out of his way to introduce her—a former French labor minister—to his colleagues during the last G20 meeting in Rome in November. Paris is betting on a common European vote in her favor, but knowledgeable diplomatic sources here tell us that her candidacy, while strong, is vulnerable in light of the persistent tensions between the Macron government and the French unions. The Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), France’s largest union, has announced that it will not lend its support to her candidacy. In 2020, Pénicaud’s actions as labor minister actually led to a complaint being lodged at the ILO.

In turn, the situation has split the ILO’s Workers’ Group which was hoping to reach an early consensus around a single candidate. The G|O has been told that the Workers’ Group is now hoping to rally behind Gilbert Houngbo, a former prime minister of Togo. Diplomats also point out that he would have important support from practically all African governments, and that he could be a very strong competitor if backed by other emerging countries.

However, Houngbo, who previously served as Deputy-Director-General in charge of Field Operations at the ILO, left the organization for Rome in 2017, after being elected President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and was just reelected to that position in 2021—largely thanks to the support of France and other European governments. His decision to throw his hat in the ring for ILO D-G so soon after his reelection to a second term at IFAD is seen by some ILO watchers as a faux pas which might negatively impact his candidacy.

Beijing has so far provided no indication about its intentions. With allegations currently under review at the ILO of forced labor and discrimination in Xinjian province, it will be interesting to observe Beijing’s position. From a strictly traditional geopolitical point of view, given the tensions between China and Australia, and South Korea’s alignment with the West, diplomats familiar with the ongoing discussions tell The Geneva Observer that Beijing would not support either Greg Vines (Australia) or Kang Kyung-wha (South Korea). Both could, however, be supported by the West—and by the Employers’ group. Some speculate that in such a complicated race, despite her lack of background in labor, former South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyun-wha could well emerge as a compromise candidate.  

-JC, with PHM