Remembering a Historic Gathering at the International Labour Organisation
On 24 May, 2019 the International Labour Organization and the French Agency for Development are holding a conference on “Decent Work”. Discussion will focus on innovative solutions and strengthening partnerships in view of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.
In May, ATD Fourth World is highlighting the informal, often unrecognized, work of people living in poverty. Because these people are not part of the traditional labor force, labor advocacy groups often fail to represent them. Yet people living in poverty frequently have job expertise that goes unnoticed. With their capabilities, they can earn money and develop support networks.
“With our dreams and our hands, we can build the future. Everyone has something to give.”
This year marks the centenary of the International Labour Organization, which was created at the end of the First World War. Establishing the ILO affirmed the hope that social justice would bring peace. Many members of ATD Fourth World still remember an event that took place in 1985. It was the International Youth Year when a thousand young people gathered at the ILO in Geneva. There, many expressed their dream for a better world and their desire to help create it.
Currently, the economy seems more and more determined to do without people at all. And the message of the young people in 1985 that “all hands are useful” is more essential than ever for the purpose of both justice and peace.
At the time, Joseph Wresinski wrote in the journal Feuille de Route (Roadmap):
“Why did young people from ATD Fourth World ask to go to [the ILO in] Geneva? And how can a large international organisation be affected by, and sensitive to, the words of young people from the most disadvantaged families? The answer comes from young people themselves: ‘We want to learn a profession. We want to build our future through working and we don’t want to be useless’. That is why they decided to go to Geneva to talk to the highest authorities in the world of labour.”
ILO chief executive to young people: “The International Labour Office is your home”
Francis Blanchard, ILO chief executive and an ally of ATD Fourth World, welcomed the young people who came from four continents:
“I’m delighted to welcome you to this house that is your home. There are a thousand of you gathered here. There could be millions of you asking to be first of all recognized and respected, seeking to meet other young people and build a more humane world with them. There is no place in the world where this call could be better heard than in Geneva. [The ILO] makes the struggle for young people and for youth employment one of its central efforts.
“This meeting is not the finish line. It is the starting point for a long, difficult journey, no doubt, but one supported by the tenacious hope that is yours to build the world of tomorrow. We will make every effort to see this dream come true.”
Mr. Francis Blanchard invited all the officials present to join the young people in a common effort.
Young people want to build the future
Joseph Wresinski asked young people what they wanted to do with their lives, a question that we all ask ourselves on many occasions. “Build the future” was the recurring response. The desire to give sense to one’s existence is so universal. Addressing the very youngest in the group, Wresinski said:
“Many of us have experienced great poverty since childhood. We believe that camaraderie makes us free, that those who work for justice and truth can convince and that humans wield an unseen power to change. We—many of whom have already fought so hard to live—venture to say that the world is going well on the condition that we use it well.
“We young people are citizens like everyone else. We live in a land where our parents and ancestors worked hard. We live in a village, a city, a neighbourhood where our parents both suffered and loved one another, a slum where our families were humiliated, a vacant lot where we risked being kicked out. Many of us started work at a young age in order to support our family and provide them with enough to eat. Now, we want to do more. Together with those of us who have been luckier, who have benefitted from more healthcare and education; we want everyone, thanks to us, to be able to live and be respected here on this planet.”
“Nowadays, more than in the past, poverty is unacceptable and incomprehensible”, Wresinski continued, “Today, more than in the past, people have the material and technical means to overcome extreme poverty. We want to bring down the borders and we ourselves are already bringing them down, because we know from experience that they are obstacles that prevent the world from providing work for everybody. They prevent the establishment of peace among people, prevent us from reflecting on truth, from experiencing freedom, and from freeing ourselves of oppression and exploitation. We young people want to break through borders that separate people from now on. We want to be those who bring them down today, those who will make them disappear tomorrow. […]
Our challenge for us, the youth, is to trust that our hands are useful, that our knowledge is useful and that our solidarity can change the world.”