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GENEVA: Five candidates are battling to take over the United Nations' International Labour Organization, winding up two days of hearings on Friday that set out contrasting visions for the ILO's future.

Founded in 1919 the ILO is the oldest specialised UN agency, with 187 member states, which are, uniquely in the UN system, represented by governments, employers and workers.

The job of director-general of the ILO is one of the plum posts at the UN in Geneva.

The five candidates are Togo's former prime minister Gilbert Houngbo; former South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha; entrepreneur Mthunzi Mdwaba of South Africa; ILO deputy Greg Vines of Australia, and France's former labour minister Muriel Penicaud.

Headquartered in a vast 1960s-designed rationalist rectangular block, the ILO's aims are to promote rights at work, encourage good employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.

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The race is on to succeed British former trade unionist Guy Ryder when he reaches the end of his second five-year term.

Live-streamed grillings

This week's live-streamed "dialogues" with the candidates sees them give a brief presentation of their vision for the ILO, followed by 16 questions from member states' representatives.

A further private round of hearings will be held in mid-March, with an election to follow on March 25.

The new director-general will take office on October 1.

Besides producing global labour statistics, the ILO also sets international labour standards in fields such as working hours, forced labour, domestic workers, maternity protection, night work, unemployment and workplace harassment.

The ILO convention banning the worst forms of child labour in 2020 became its first convention ever to be universally ratified.

It calls for the prohibition and elimination of child slavery, forced labour and trafficking and bans the use of children in warfare, prostitution, pornography, illegal activities such as drug trafficking, and in hazardous work.

Recently the ILO has turned its focus on work during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has triggered economic crises around the world and seen millions shift to working from home.

Hats in the ring

Penicaud, 66, was France's labour minister from 2017 to 2020, initiating the major social reforms of President Emmanuel Macron, including unemployment insurance, promoting apprenticeships, gender equality and changing the labour laws.

Kang was South Korea's first female foreign minister, in post from 2017 to February last year. Beforehand, the 66-year-old held various UN posts, including deputy human rights chief, deputy emergency relief coordinator and then senior policy advisor to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

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Vines has been the ILO's deputy director-general for management and reform since 2012. Before that, he represented Australia at the ILO, chaired the Timor Leste civil service taskforce and was Victoria state's public sector standards commissioner.

Houngbo was the prime minister of Togo from 2008 to 2012, before spending four years as an ILO deputy director-general.

He is the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

He started out in finance before taking up a senior post at the UN Development Programme.

Mdwaba runs various companies in Africa and has held several senior positions in employers' organisations.

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