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The UN’s Top Labor Expert Resumes Work on ‘Our Common Agenda’ as Controversy Clouds World Cup


Guy Ryder at UN press conference
Guy Ryder, former head of the UN’s International Labor Organization, takes up his new post as under secretary-general for policy at UN headquarters this week. A Briton, he will be carrying out the Common Agenda proposals meant to reinvigorate the UN system, including shoring up multilateralism and protecting migrants’ rights. Here, he marks the 100th anniversary of the labor organization, April 10, 2019. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

Guy Ryder, 66, immediate past director-general of the International Labor Organization for 10 years, begins his new role in New York City as the UN under secretary-general for policy, about 10 days into a World Cup rocked by accusations of human-rights violations of foreign migrant workers. Ryder, who is British, starts in the UN secretariat this week. He has specialized in labor rights for most of his career.

Sources told PassBlue that Ryder’s appointment by UN Secretary-General António Guterres was premised on Ryder’s carrying out the UN chief’s Our Common Agenda, a far-reaching vision that reimagines a range of socioeconomic policies that would need the support of all UN members to succeed in the next 25 years. The agenda encapsulates the major tenets of the UN, including a focus on human rights, international law and protecting migrants.

In Ryder’s first five-year term leading the Geneva-based labor organization, the agency opened investigations into Qatar’s treatment of migrants working for years on infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. The organization closed the investigation within three years, in 2016, saying the Qatari monarchy government had committed to reforming its contractual mechanisms for bringing in workers temporarily. The World Cup, hosted in Qatar, opened on Nov. 20.

The emirate and other Middle East countries operate a system called kafala, which ties workers to their employers, deprives them of their passport and uses a race-based wage structure for payment. Qatar committed to dismantling the system by improving labor rights, allowing workers to set up committees, or unions, and providing better accommodations for the migrants.

Despite the organization giving Qatar the all-clear, the Guardian newspaper said that it had verified 6,750 deaths of migrants working on infrastructure for the World Cup preparations, from 2010 to 2020. The records of deaths identified by the British publication were laborers from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. There were no records of deaths of workers from the Philippines and Kenya, other main sources of labor hired for the World Cup. Thirty-seven of the people who died were working directly on the stadiums for the soccer tournament.

Migrant complaints continued after the ILO’s pass was made in 2016, indicating that the reforms Qatar promised could have been more far-reaching. The complaints also indicate how difficult it is to commit governments to a single but major piece of change.

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Richard Ponzio, director of the Global Governance, Justice, and Security Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, said that the agenda that Ryder is now tasked with carrying out for Guterres represents ideas whose time has long come to the UN. The institution’s reputation has been battered intensely by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine this year, given that Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, is violating the UN Charter. The UN’s systemwide campaigns to curb global warming also face barriers thrown up by powerful governments and lobbyists and Guterres’s constant pleas for rich countries to share Covid-19 vaccines more equitably with other countries have not been fully realized.

Ponzio, who has written extensively about Guterres’s Our Common Agenda plan, said that he hoped Ryder would drive genuine reforms at the UN, based on the agenda’s 90-plus proposals.

“It would be terrible if Our Common Agenda was watered down in a way that weakened many of the progressive ideas that were introduced in 2021,” Ponzio said in an interview with PassBlue, referring to the launch of the agenda that September. “Even worse would be . . . no attempts at Security Council reform, in light of the war in Ukraine and positive pressure generated by the September 2024 Summit of the Future.”

The agenda is a result of an extensive survey that emerged from the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020, when member states requested Guterres to write a plan to ensure the UN’s future as the world’s major multilateral institution. Still, it is subtle in its wording for reforming the Council, given the limited choices available for changing the UN’s most important decision-making body of five permanent members and 10 elected to two-year terms.

“Member States now acknowledge that the Security Council could be made more representative of the twenty-first century, such as through enlargement, including better representation for Africa, as well as more systematic arrangements for more voices at the table,” Guterres wrote in the document setting out the Common Agenda ideals. He proposed that the Council restrict its interventions by supporting preventive measures, such as strengthening the UN Peacebuilding Commission, and that its permanent members commit to using their veto power less often. (The P5 are Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States.)

Ryder is a newcomer to New York City. He was born in Liverpool and studied social and political sciences at the University of Cambridge and Latin American studies at the University of Liverpool. According to his official UN biography, besides his mother tongue, he speaks French and Spanish.

He was awarded Commander of the British Empire in the 2009 honors list and has been involved in trade unions throughout his career, starting in 1981 as an assistant with the International Department of the Trade Union Congress in London. In 1988, he became assistant director — and in 1993 — director of the Geneva branch of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

He joined the UN system in 1998, as director of the Bureau for Workers Activities in the International Labor Organization, or ILO. He moved into the director-general’s office as director the following year. In 2006, Ryder was back at the ICFTU, elected as its first general secretary, he then became head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) when it was created in 2006. He returned to the UN’s ILO in 2010 as executive director. During that two-year stint, he was responsible for international labor standards, fundamental principles and rights at work, his biography notes. It said that he pushed for unified labor standards among member countries, including the Middle Eastern emirate of Bahrain, where he amplified his work on protecting the rights of foreign migrant laborers.

On Oct. 1, 2012, Ryder was elected as the director-general of ILO, a position he held for two terms until Oct. 1, 2022. He was named to Guterres’s inner circle after Volker Turk, an Austrian who held the job before Ryder, was named the UN high commissioner for human rights on Sept. 8 and started his job on Oct. 17, based in Geneva.

One diplomat who works for the European Union told PassBlue that Ryder’s experience in labor rights was one reason Guterres named him for his new post, to try to satisfy Global South countries that back progressive labor standards, mostly in South America.

The Common Agenda that Ryder must push forward calls for a “reinvigorated multilateral system,” with the UN at its core and the best way to deal with the world’s most intractable problems. The report introducing the agenda was launched in September 2021, with an ambitious plan to abolish the use of coal by the end of that year. That has not happened, as the recent UN-led climate conference, or COP27, held in Egypt, attests.

The Common Agenda vision has gained more importance amid the grueling Russia-Ukraine war this year, which has  divided the multilateral system with little chance for unity in sight as fighting escalates and documented war crimes by Russia mount. There have been no UN sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine because Russia has veto power in the Security Council. Instead, unilateral embargoes have been slapped increasingly on the Kremlin and others, like oligarchs, to hurt Russia’s war treasury. But the sanctions have triggered recessionary headwinds throughout the globe.

Guterres’s agenda may be too radical for some governments, yet that may be a negotiating baseline as it aims to reconstruct how the gross domestic product is calculated, create universal social protection mechanisms, ask governments to make work more decent and establish a more inclusive multilateral system, among many other reforms.

Ryder, a soccer lover and the honorary chair of the Geneva-based Center for Sport and Human Rights, has a daunting task to move the needle on these reforms, facing expected government pushback from democracies and autocracies alike and a global economic downturn that would affect G7 countries like Britain.

He may also confront intense resistance from Russia on Common Agenda proposals, given that in his role at ILO earlier this year, he condemned the country’s “aggression” against Ukraine and demanded that Russia unconditionally withdraw all its troops from its neighbor. The agency’s administrative council also suspended technical cooperation and assistance to Russia, except for humanitarian aid, “until a decision on a ceasefire and a peaceful settlement is reached.”

Ponzio told PassBlue that much effort is being made toward advancing the execution of the agenda’s goals, such as the Summit of the Future, originally planned for September 2023 but moved to September 2024. The conference will be preceded by a ministerial-level forum on Sept. 18, 2023, at the UN. Countries have also been chosen to co-lead the agenda’s initiatives, like the Declaration on Future Generations and a digital global compact, putting the onus on member states to commit to the proposals.

“Not since the UN60 Summit, held in September 2005 in New York City, have world leaders gathered to consider systemic reforms across the world body’s three pillars of peace and security, sustainable development, and human rights,” Ponzio wrote in an essay for PassBlue. The Summit of the Future, he noted, “will need to identify the best ways to marshal the world’s talent and resources with new voices, tools, networks, knowledge, and institutions.”

This article was updated.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Guy Ryder's new job?

Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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The UN’s Top Labor Expert Resumes Work on ‘Our Common Agenda’ as Controversy Clouds World Cup
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