Hundred Years of International Labour Organisation

By Siddharth singh ,Sinhgad Law College,Pune

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a fascinating object of study for historians from more than one point of view. Born in 1919 out of the political and social turmoil of the First World War and its aftermath, it is today one of the oldest organizations of the United Nations system. Its unique tripartite struc- ture, in which decisions are taken by representatives of governments, employers and workers, adds to its distinctive status. But that is not all, and it may not even be half, of the explanation of why the ILO is such a rich resource. The main reason is that the ILO opens up windows through which we catch a view of a vast field of themes that have dominated the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. ILO’s attempts to create “global social policy” are at the core of this analysis. It provides a perspective on the ways in which the Organization, over a hundred years, has sought to influence the debates on this issue. It examines the ILO’s practical contributions to improving the conditions of work and to promoting social policies that have gone beyond the strict confines of the labour environment – above all, but not only – through the definition and adoption of international labour standards.The ILO has been constructed around the idea of social justice. While the term itself may have had different connotations over the years, it has remained a guiding principle in the ILO’s work. However, the exact meaning in terms of con- crete policies is as controversial as ever. There has never been a clear definition, let alone a stable consensus, on what social justice entails; nor has there been agreement on the means by which it could (or should) be attained. Perhaps the very fact that social justice evokes quite different understandings of its content and implications has served to make the term a point of reference in the ILO’s work for 100 years.

For a long time, historical studies on the ILO were few and far between. Except for research from political scientists and scholars in international relations, Antony Alcock’s account, published in the wake of the ILO’s fiftieth anniversary (1969), was the only monograph available that dealt with the organization from an explic- itly historical point of view. This situation has changed radically in recent years. Many of the gaps in research that Jasmien van Daele (2008) and the authors of a pioneering ILO Histories anthology (2010) identified a decade ago have been filled. Many articles and contributions have discovered the ILO’s activities as a fruitful field of study. Three anthologies, coordinated by the ILO, have contributed to this development: Globalizing Social Rights (2013),14 The ILO from Geneva to the ILO history.

The first ones to introduce the idea of international labour standards into the public debate in Europe in the early nineteenth century were philanthropic entre- preneurs, whose primary interest lay in the material and moral betterment of the working classes.

Around the turn of the century, governments took the initiative to harmo- nize labour legislation on an international scale. In some cases, they tried to arrange for multilateral treaties governing particular social and labour issues. For example, in 1890, the German government convened a group of European states in Berlin in a first attempt, although ultimately unsuccessful, to establish inter- national regulations concerning women’s and children’s work.

A second source of inspiration for international social policy measures was the socialist labour movement, loosely united in Second International founded in 1889. Although the Second International was deeply divided between a Marxist (revolutionary) and a reformist wing for most of its existence, it provided impor- tant impulses to the debate. In countries with the strongest labour movements – Germany, France, England, Switzerland, and Belgium – opinions initially differed widely on whether an improvement of working conditions could be achieved by legislative means.

The First World War

At the beginning of the First World War, the initiative shifted. Now, the interna- tional trade union movement began to take on a much more important role in the promotion of international social policy.

While trade unionists in many Euro- pean countries had taken an active part within the IALL’s national sections in the years preceding the war, the same could hardly be said about the international trade union movement as such. Its most important representation was the Inter- national Secretariat, founded in 1901 and located in Berlin, which was renamed International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) in 1913. During the last year of the war, and the closer the conflict came to a close, governments once again began to reassert their primacy in negotiating peace and constructing the international order of the post-war era. Against this background, trade unions remained observant but increasingly took a back seat in the discussions of international social policy.

The Labour Commission in Paris

When the war entered its last year, the preparations for the peace began in earnest. On 8 January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress on the war aims of the United States. In the last of his “Fourteen Points”, in which Wilson outlined his ideas of a durable peace based on a new diplomacy, he called for a “general association of nations“ to be formed as part of a future peace treaty. Although Wilson did not make any specific mention of labour or social issues, other governments’ considerations about a future “League of Nations” soon con- nected it to the ongoing debate on the place of international social policy in the post-war order.

An Experiment in Social Justice: 1919–1939

After the Paris Peace Conference, the International Labour Organization (ILO) got down to work. Much of what happened during its first years was in many aspects unprecedented and unchartered territory. An international bureaucracy had to be built up from scratch, and the position of the ILO with regard to the scope of its work, and its position in the new world order emerging from the war, had yet to be defined. In order to secure the survival of the Organization in the volatile inter- national environment of the post-war era, Albert Thomas, the ILO’s first Director, interpreted his role in a diplomatic and political, as well as in a technocratic, way. He set out to position the ILO within a broad network of social actors beyond its immediate tripartite constituents.

Virtually everything was new when the International Labour Office started its work. Premises had to be found, staff had to be hired, and work had to be organ- ized. To secure the survival of the fledgling organization, to stake out and, if pos- sible, expand its areas of activity were the primary tasks during the ILO’s first decade.

The Governing Body confirmed Thomas as Director at its first regular meeting on 20 January 1920. Next, practical matters had to be settled. An immediate question was where the Organization would take up its headquarters.

European bias of the ILO more pronounced than in the field of colonial labour. When the ILO was founded, hundreds of millions of people, a significant part of the world’s population, lived and worked under the colonial domination of European powers. Yet, their problems hardly ever reached the agenda of the ILO’s meetings.

The disastrous crisis that hit the world economy in the wake of the 1929 New York stock market crash deeply affected the International Labour Organization (ILO) in a variety of ways. Confronted with a global economic downturn of an unprecedented dimension, Albert Thomas – who died at the height of the crisis in 1932 at age 53 – and his successor, Harold Butler, vigorously promoted the social and economic benefits of social legislation. Under Butler’s leadership, the ILO took a distinct economic turn, committed itself to a Keynesian pro- gramme of reforms, and brought the fight against mass unemployment once again to the centre of all the Organization’s activities. The sense of urgency with which the ILO acted during this period was heightened by the presence of powerful authoritarian alternatives to the liberal model represented by the Organization. The mostly antagonistic stand of the Soviet Union towards the Organization and the withdrawal of Nazi Germany and (later) Fascist Italy from membership were reminders of the increasingly hostile environment in which the ILO operated.

The 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia stands out as a turning point in the history of the International Labour Organization (ILO). After the painful experiences of the immediate past – the social and political upheaval caused by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, and the world’s descent into war – the Declaration embodied the hopes for and the will to renewal of the liberal democracies gathered under the Organization’s auspices. Its central demand, derived from the lessons of the past, was as simple as it was radical. The value of all future ILO policies should be measured exclusively in the light of whether they contributed to the realization of an overriding social objective designed to serve all people.

Post-war Planning

At the end of 1941, the US State Department created a new Division of Special Research, led by Leo Pasvolsky, later dubbed the “father of the United Nations”. When the Division began to set out ideas for the future architecture of interna- tional organizations, the ILO played a reasonably prominent role. The initial ideas that were circulated granted the ILO responsibility not just for social policy but also for the entire economic dimension of the reconstruction programme. This would have transferred to the Organization practically all the economic functions previously carried out by the League of Nations. However, after the United States had entered the war, diplomatic and military concerns soon pushed these consid- erations to the background, and the ILO quickly began to lose ground.

Unperturbed by these diplomatic manoeuvres, the ILO staff in Montreal spent the first months of 1944 preparing a long memorandum on the “Future Policy, Programme and Status of the International Labour Organisation”.

Joining the UN Family

As the war drew to an end, the planning for the post-war architecture of interna- tional organization became more concrete by the day. At all levels, governmen- tal and non-governmental groups continued to work on evermore detailed plans for a stable peace order following the Allied victory. If the ILO increasingly took but a back seat in the midst of these buzzing activities, it was due, above all, to the growing consensus among the Allies that collective security would have to become the top priority for the future world organization at the heart of the new international system. If the peace was to last, the key to its success lay in the degree to which the interests of the two “superpowers” emerging from the war – the United States and the Soviet Union – could be accommodated to form the pillars of the new post-war order.

Indian Independence and the First “Decolonization” of the ILO

The exposed position of the ILO and its dependence on the Western allies also influenced the way the ILO dealt with the onset of decolonization in Asia. In August 1947, India’s independence became the prelude to a movement that saw Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) following the Indian model. Elsewhere, in Indonesia, Malaya, and Indochina – but also in countries outside of Asia, such as Algeria – in the 1940s and 1950s the colonial powers waged bloody wars to counter what they saw as a domino effect of uncontrolled anti-colonial national- ism. Before long, the UN system became one of the main arenas of the ideological conflicts accompanying the decolonization process in which countries from the global South fought to establish “an entirely new conception of world order – one premised on the breakup of empire rather than its continuation”.

Between Decolonization and the Cold War: 1949–1976

During the long era of David Morse (1948–1970), the International Labour Organization (ILO) underwent a profound transformation. The Cold War and decolonization were the two main drivers behind this process, which changed the ILO’s face and its internal power balance and left hardly any area of its work untouched. The year 1954 proved to be an important milestone in this regard. One year after Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union took up its member- ship again. As a result, the ILO no longer occupied the status of a quasi-front organization in the Western campus, While this change “normalized” the ILO’s position within the UN system, fundamental controversies now reappeared directly on the agenda, including the question of the ILO’s tripartite compo- sition. The confrontation with the alternative social model of the communist bloc forced the ILO to continuously examine its foundations and search for a workable balance between the quest for universalism and conflicting ideas of social organization.

Indigenous Labour and the Andean Indian Programme

While much of the ILO’s technical work way until the 1960s was of rather limited scope due to the lack of funding, the new working area of “indigenous labour” paved the way to a broader vision of modernization beyond development. Here, an entirely new field opened up for the ILO after 1945, including both technical

Assistance and standard-setting. While the “Andean Indian Program” (1953–1962) provided the framework for one of the ILO’s largest development aid project of all times, two Conventions on indigenous populations (1957) and on indigenous peoples (1989) were pioneering instruments that made indigenous peoples and their rights, for the first time, a subject of international law.

The Human Rights Decade

When, in 1949, David Morse spoke about standard-setting as the “other half of the same coin” in relation to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) new activities in the field of technical cooperation, he was not talking about the whole International Labour Code set out in the ILO standards. What he had in mind were rather the basic principles of the ILO’s Constitution which had received a new human rights foundation with the Declaration of Philadelphia. The period between 1948 and 1958 became a decade when the ILO’s human rights principles were set out in international labour standards. During these ten years, the ILO adopted most of what today are regarded to be the Organization’s fundamental Conventions. The ILO was a major inspiration for the international human rights regime, which was canonized four years after Philadelphia in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). At the same time, these principles were immediately put to a test within the ILO itself.

ILO and Human Rights after 1945

The ILO was both insider and outsider to the international human rights regime emerging after the Second World War. While the Declaration of Philadelphia had inspired the UN Charter (1945) and the UDHR (1948), the ILO still did not fit easily into the new UN human rights framework. The relationship of the ILO’s labour standards, in particular, to the human rights norms enshrined in the UDHR and, later, in the two international Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Eco- nomic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) has never been clearly defined.

The debate on forced labour took off in the ILO in parallel to the discussions on freedom of association and equal pay, but it developed a different dynamic. As in the case of freedom of association, the topic had been discussed during the interwar years. In contrast, to the former, however, the abolition of forced labour had been subject to international labour standards directed primarily at colo- nial territories, with the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 (No. 29) as its center- piece.

On Shifting Ground: 1970–1998

When David Morse left the International Labour Organization (ILO) after 22 years as Director-General in May 1970, an era that had transformed the Organization ended. The two men who succeeded him in office, Wilfred Jenks and Francis Blanchard, were different in temperament and leadership style, but both, in their own specific ways, embodied continuity. When the Englishman Jenks became Director-General in 1970, he looked back on four decades of experience in the ILO. He had joined the Organization in 1931. From the 1940s onwards, he had occupied high-ranking posts, as Legal Adviser during the war period; as Assistant Director-General; and, finally, as Morse’s Principal Deputy. From an early point in his career, he had been well connected to the broader field of international organizations. He had been part of the ILO delegation at the Bretton Woods Con- ference and present at the foundation of the United Nations.

In May 1970, after only three weeks in office, Jenks announced that he would appoint a representative of the Belorussian Soviet Republic, Pavel Astapenko, as Assistant Director-General. Thus, for the first time, a national from an Eastern bloc country became a member of the Director-General’s senior management team. The main weight that this appointment carried was symbolic. While it seemed a long overdue step in the eyes of one of the two superpowers, the Soviet Union, it contributed to the withdrawal of the other world power, the United States, in 1977.

The Declaration and Its Critics

The Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work referred to a set of specific rights and obligations that were expressed in “Conventions recognized as fundamental”. It stipulated that all ILO member States, by the very fact of their membership in the Organization, were obliged to adhere to and promote the principles relating to the “fundamental rights” that were expressed in these Conventions, regardless of whether or not they had ratified them. The four cat- egories of fundamental rights were: (a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; (b) the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour; (c) the effective abolition of child labour; and (d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. The Declaration introduced a follow-up mechanism that included an annual review report and global reports, which would cover all four principles of fundamental rights within a four-year cycle.

In early 1999, the International Labour Organization (ILO) took another turn when the Chilean diplomat Juan Somavía became its ninth Director-General. Somavía was the first Director-General from the global South, and he brought a fresh perspective to the ILO’s work. Yet Somavía’s views were probably shaped less by his origins than by the many years he had spent at the United Nations, where he had been particularly involved with social and economic affairs. He was the Permanent Representative of Chile to the UN from 1990 to 1999; had served as the Chairman of the UN’s Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs; and had twice been the President of ECOSOC.

In October 2012, Guy Ryder, a British national and former general secre- tary of the ITUC, succeeded Somavía. As Director-General he has continued to promote decent work in the UN system. At the early stages of Ryder’s mandate, decent work coupled with economic growth became Goal 8 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2015.

The decent work concept has received an almost equal share of praise and criticism. Together with its proven value in (re-)connecting the ILO to the rest of the “international community”, it was lauded by its supporters as a timely reac- tion to the realities in the world of work under the conditions of globalization. In their view, decent work means a more inclusive approach to improving the conditions of working people worldwide.

Social Justice for a New Century

What lessons can be learned from 100 years of ILO history? The questions posed at the start of this book – whose organization is the ILO, what defines it as an international organization, and what could or should be its contribution to the quest for social justice – seem to be as valid today as they were in 1919 in Paris or 1944 in Philadelphia.

In the summer of 2011 the International Labour Conference produced some unusually colourful images of grassroots activists representing house- hold workers from many different countries urging delegates to the ILC adopt a “Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers”Their presence, their songs, chants, and slogans written on t-shirts and banderoles communi- cated in a very immediate way the importance they attached to a Convention that for the first time extended to domestic workers labour protections with regard to wages, regulation of working time, weekly rest, and overall working conditions.

Climate change and environmental destruction, global migration, the digital revolution, and the persisting growth of the informal economy are among the forces which will continue to have a major impact on the world of work. It is changing more rapidly than ever before, although by far not in the same way and at the same speed for all workers. In addition, in rich and poor, industrialized and non-industrialized countries, outrageously inhumane working conditions continue to exist.

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