Geneva — South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa has served all three legs that make up the International Labour Organization (ILO) - representing at one time or another, workers, employers and now the government.
The Geneva, Switzerland-based ILO is the only tripartite UN agency. Founded in 1919, it brings together governments, employers and workers and it is celebrating its centenary this year.
This week Ramaphosa introduced the ILO's forward-looking report from the Global Commission on the Future of Work, which some observers noted will be easier to integrate into the developed world than in developing and poorer nations.
As a former national trade union leader and later employer, before he became president, Ramaphosa was appointed to co-chair the ILO commission in May 2018, along with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.
Also attending the launch was another South African, Mthunzi Mdwaba, the employers' vice-chairperson on the ILO Governing Body. Representing the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), which at 99 years is slightly younger than the ILO, he is the first African to serve as global spokesperson for the world's employers.
'Labour is not a robot'
Ramaphosa stopped over in Geneva on his way to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, to introduce the future of work report on the ILO's 100th anniversary.
He called on governments to commit to measures to address the challenges caused by an "unprecedented transformational change in the world of work". He said that "In the 20th century, we established that 'labour is not a commodity'. In the 21st century, we must ensure it is not a robot.
"Targeted private and public sector investment, coupled with the right technology, can create millions of new, decent, sustainable jobs in the green economy, the care economy, infrastructure development, and rural areas," he added.
"In short, the future of our societies depends on how we deal with the challenges and opportunities related to the world of work. We need to reorient policies as well as actions to deliver a human-centred agenda, which is what this report basically focuses on," Ramaphosa. stressed.
Answering questions, the president spoke of the importance of the motor industry in South Africa, noting that the number of workers had reduced due to robots.
"We are now involved in a real, serious conversation with the automakers about how best we can limit the loss of jobs... as a result of robots being deployed," he said.
Mdwaba, born in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, is CEO of TZoro IBC, a global strategic investment consultancy and vice-president of the IOE, which represents 50 million companies.
He had a different take to Ramaphosa's on the future of work report.
He said the report captured the positive tone and aspirations of the Global Commission by recognising the remarkable opportunities that advanced technologies offer. But, he added in an interview: "It is questionable whether the governments, employers' and workers' organisations can have the ability to implement such proposals."
A Universal Labour Guarantee, social protection from birth to old age and entitlement to lifelong learning are among 10 recommendations made in the Commission's Report on the Future of Work outlined by Ramaphosa.
Mthunzi said the Universal Labour Guarantee, universal social protection from birth to old age and universal entitlement to lifelong learning would be very costly, although the IOE is aware the investment may be necessary.
He critiqued the report for having no concrete recommendations aimed at improving the business environment or promoting business dynamism and investment.
"We are saying the investment agenda needs to be underpinned by a supportive business climate and incentives for long-term financing. So, we are calling for a better arrangement of the enabling environment for business success with the conditions for implementation of the human centred agenda, mentioned in the report."
Crucial role of private sector
"The private sector has a critical role in realising the human-centred agenda to the full," said Mthunzi. The private sector had some mentions in the report, "but they do not go far enough."
On South Africa, he said, "we have impressive labour legislation. Yet, for me, the biggest frustrations in South Africa is that we keep introducing labour law after labour law because we failed to implement, monitor and police the last labour law that we had."
South Africa does not do regulatory impact assessments, he said, thus "creates a rigidity that that is unworkable for the employer."
Mdwaba also said that unlike some other African countries South Africa keeps sliding down the global competitive index in an environment that ignores productivity.
"Productivity is not mentioned once in our national development plan, a plan which, the president mentions a lot. Productivity needs to be taken seriously," said Mdwaba.
He also said the much of the corruption mentioned that has come to light recently in South Africa comes from within the governing African National Congress and those connected to it.
The IOE vice-president observed that the official unemployment rate in South Africa rose to 27.5 percent in the third quarter of 2018, around a level that has remained consistent since the early 2000s.
Answering a press conference question, Ramaphosa dealt with how South Africa hopes to draw the investment needed to get people to work.
"We'll be taking a message to Davos to say, we have been through a very difficult nine-year period. In some ways, we departed from the ethos and the values that had defined us as a nation, particularly under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. As a nation, we are humble enough to admit that.
"In the recent past corruption had run rife in South Africa", and the country had departed from its principles. "We are in a period of renewal," he added, and the government was engaging with both labour and business."
"Now we have a resurgent South Africa," Ramaphosa proclaimed before moving on to Davos.