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The future of work - new challenges to ecumenical social thought and action

World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit spoke on the future of work at an event held on 25 February 2019 in Geneva commemorating the centenary of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

25 February 2019

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC General Secretary

Geneva, 25 February 2019

Your Excellencies, distinguished participants,

Congratulations, to you dear Guy Rider, as our best neighbor and Director General of the ILO and to all your colleagues for the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the ILO this year. You got a wonderful birthday present with the Future of Work Report from the Global Commission on the Future of Work under the leadership of the President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa and the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. The report is clear in its analysis of the urgent challenges the world of labor is facing. But what makes it a precious document that has meaning far beyond the ILO is the way how it argues for a strong human-centred agenda that needs to shape the vision and practice of the economy, the work place as such and, indeed, of the society and its political democratic order.

This report resonates very well with the ecumenical social thought and action that has developed in the World Council of Churches with its 350 member churches from Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and other traditions with approximately 560 million members over the last 20 years.

We express this also in our motto that guides the work of the WCC in the present context: We are to be together on a pilgrimage of justice and peace.  Humility and commitment must go together – none of us can solve the challenges of the world alone.  Praying and walking together must also be working together.  For a world of decent work for all.

Member churches of the WCC share the basic conviction that human dignity comes first. Human beings shall never be reduced to a means for other ends. Our vision of the human family and how we relate as humans to other living beings in God’s creation needs to determine our understanding of the functioning of the economy and of the technological development - not the other way around. Labor for us is an essential expression of being human and a way how people can contribute to the common good of the society and sustain the web of life on our planet, the earth.

Some might ask: How can we speak as churches of the future of work in the age of digitalization and artificial intelligence? Our Bible does not say anything about the recent technological revolutions and how they change the world of work and many other aspects of daily life. We are confronted with profound changes that need to be shaped. They offer enormous new opportunities but can also aggravate existing inequalities and marginalization of so many people especially in the informal economy that benefits only marginally of social security and labor protection floors.

Nevertheless, I believe, the Bible and other faith traditions have something to say. They give a vision of what it means to be human. This is what really counts and what gets often lost when economic or technological considerations dominate. Whatever form the contributions to the common good and shared future will have, it is important for all that it serves justice and peace – a just peace in the communities, justice and peace in the market place, with the earth, amongst the nations.  There are many criteria to be applied when discerning the new forms of labor and labor markets.

I want to thank His Excellency Archbishop Gallagher for his substantial presentation on the future of work that was based on the solid foundation of the Catholic Social Doctrine and decades of sustained reflection on labor.  The human person comes first and only then the interest of capital and the needs of production and commerce.

The economy, science and technology have to serve the common good and a sustainable future of life.  One question is:  how will the technological developments and geopolitical dynamics influence economic relationships and economic growth, serve justice and peace – particularly for those who are less privileged and most vulnerable today? Another, even more fundamental question is: What is our vision for the human family and this planet? What are the values we cherish and that orient the choices we make? How do we want to live in twenty years from now as human communities in this world that is marked by scandalous levels of inequality and threats to life like the loss of biodiversity and climate change? And – not to be underestimated today: Will we be able to secure the multilateral cooperation at all levels – local, national, regional and international – that we need to respond effectively to these challenges and not to get lost in senseless competition of one against the other?

You can expect us to raise this kind of questions as churches and faith-based organizations. Let me say this again: For us, labor is an essential expression of being human and not just a means to earn income for life and survival. Conditions at the work place and the role of labor in the economy and the society need to reflect these convictions.

The World Council of Churches has been for many years a neighbor of the ILO here in Geneva in the different meanings of this word. At the time of the foundation of the ILO one hundred years ago, the decision was taken to include a Catholic and an Anglican representative on the staff of the ILO, ensuring sustained dialogue with the churches. Church leaders such as the Bishop of Manchester and later Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, made sure that the ecumenical Life and Work movement would develop its own reflections on church and society in close relationship with the ILO. Together with others, he encouraged the formation of an Institute for social studies that had its offices in the old building of the ILO here in Geneva. Ecumenical social thought and action developed in this way in dialogue with the ILO over the last hundred years.

More recently, the WCC has developed together with the ILO a project on promoting social justice and peace through decent work. It was clear to us from the very beginning that this project had to be open to inter-faith cooperation and could not just benefit the Christian community alone. Therefore, we approached Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt and the Great Imam of Al Azhar, Al-Tayyib, if we could implement this project in the cooperation of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Muslim community in Egypt, the ILO and the WCC.

The idea was to train young people in about fifty villages and cities in the country from both Muslim and Christian families to create small enterprises or get access to the labor market and at the same time to overcome prejudice and poisoned memories that could trigger hatred and violence among these young people of different faith communities. I want to take this opportunity to thank the ILO that it helped us implementing this project. It actually contributed to developing relationships between the WCC and Al Azahr that translated into a visit of the Great Imam with the Council of Muslim leaders to Geneva and my participation in the inter-religious summits first in Cairo and more recently in Abu Dhabi.

The World Council of Churches is committed to use all opportunities for inter-faith cooperation and dialogue that help to foster reconciliation and peace. We are working with the churches in the different regions that they contribute constructively to overcoming prejudice and other sources of violence and that they resist the instrumentalization of religion to create false loyalties and fuel conflicts.

I would like to conclude by thanking also His Excellency the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Jurkovic for his courage to organize this event. He gives us an opportunity as faith based organizations to show how much we have in common when we advocate for human dignity and the right to work.

Thank you very much for your attention