May 13, 2019. Azita Berar on ‘ILO: Celebrating a century of international cooperation on the governance of labour’. GLO Policy News No.1

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Azita Berar Awad is Director Policy of the Global Labor Organization (GLO), and Former ILO Director, Employment Policy

GLO Policy News No. 1 – Theme 3. Future of Work

ILO: Celebrating a century of international cooperation on the governance of labour

by Azita Berar Awad

This year is the Centenary of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Since its establishment in 1919,  by the Versailles Peace Treaty at the end of the first World War, the Organization has shown a remarkable resilience, unique amongst the multilateral institutions of global governance. Over 100 years, ILO has survived another major war. It also surfed over and navigated through  several global and regional economic and social crises and tectonic geopolitical shifts among its constituent members. Created in 1919, on the promise of sustaining peace by promoting social justice, the Centenary celebrations across the world, are a good opportunity to reflect not only on past achievements, but on the relevance of this  proposition for the future.

The Future of Work is the central theme of ILO’s Centenary deliberations. To this effect, an independent Commission composed of 27 members representing diverse interests was established in 2017 and issued its report in January 2019. The International Labour Conference, the main governance organ of the institution, bringing together governments, employers’ and workers organizations from 187 countries, will meet in June 2019 in Geneva  to draw its own conclusions in the form of a Centenary Declaration.

In this GLO Policy News, six issues drawn from a review of ILO’s rich history are highlighted. (See for a list of publications on ILO history.) They relate to the Organization’s foundational values and their evolution in a century of economic, social and technological transformations. On each issue,  we bring out key challenges, the resolution of which  will  shape ILO’s effectiveness in its second century.
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What we should know

  • The ILO was born at the intersection of the twin quests for International Peace and that for Social Justice. Its foundational act, the ILO Constitution, is  Part XIII of the Peace Treaty that put an end to World War I. It was adopted by the Versailles Peace Conference on 28 April 1919. The Constitution envisioned a new international order, against a backdrop of tremendous human sufferings during World War I, widespread poverty and appalling conditions of work in most of the 19th Century and early 20th Century. The  industrial revolution had brought about progress, but also misery and injustice. Protest,  social unrest and revolution had ensued. This vision in which “lasting peace can be established only if based on social justice”, resonates strongly  a century later, for all those concerned with the rising and widening economic and social inequalities, for the left-behind of globalization, and for all those who look to the future with apprehension. Will there will be work for all who seek to work and will it be decent, they wonder. While international wars have diminished in recurrence and intensity, millions of people are caught in numerous internal strife and protracted crises of various types in different regions of the world. Current conflicts that have dreadful internal and cross-border consequences,  such as the movements  of internally displaced persons (IDPs), economic migrants  and refugees seeking asylum.
  • ILO is the only of the three international institutions established by the Versailles Treaty still functioning a century later. The League of Nations and the Permanent Court of Justice, the other two institutions,  were paralyzed and later formally abolished to be replaced by the new global governance system of the United Nations. The ILO became the first Specialized Agency within the new frame of the United Nations System, soon joined by several other new international institutions with dedicated technical specialization.
  • The Philadelphia Declaration, adopted on the 10th May of 1944,  and embedded later into the ILO Constitution, while maintaining the ILO’s primary function of developing international legislation to promote humane conditions of work, broadened the original vision in several ways. (To date, there are 189 Conventions and 205 Recommendations and 4 Protocols covering a wide range of work related issues and adopted after elaborate international tripartite negotiations.) With emphasis laid on human rights, including the freedom of association (for workers and employers),  the Philadelphia Declaration is a precursor to the Universal Declaration for Human Rights adopted in 1948 and a source of inspiration for many rights included in  the two international Covenants of Civil and Political Rights and Social, Economic and Cultural rights adopted in 1966.
  • The Philadelphia Declaration also introduced the objective of full and freely chosen employment and the commitment to promote employment, acquisition of skills, and regulation of labour migration as contributing to full employment. Despite the Cold War and the confrontation between competing social ideals, ILO’s model of international cooperation adapted and evolved relatively well in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in a context of high growth, full employment and welfare state in industrial countries. During the same period, the decolonization process which saw the membership of the Organization grow rapidly from 40 countries in 1919 to 187 today, gave more sense to the universal relevance of the ILO while bringing out the different and diverse realities of the world of work in developing countries. The World Employment Programme launched in 1969, at mid-point in ILO’s history, responded to this developmental challenge by treading new field, uncharted before. Examples are its pioneering work on rural poverty, its coining of the concept of the informal sector and its innovative lens on the gendered division of labour.
  • The Philadelphia Declaration clearly  proclaimed the primacy of human and social progress “in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity” over economic and financial considerations. It mandated the ILO to examine all international economic and financial policies in the light of this primacy. We know that the globalization story in the 1980’s and the 1990s, and the neo-liberal model that sustained it and expanded it to all regions, unfolded differently. The International Financial Institutions (IFI) set  policy frameworks  based on the primacy of financial solvency, despite its high social adjustment costs. The policy responses to the 1997 Asian financial crisis and to the 2007/2008 global financial crisis, have shown that policy coherence, between the IFIs and the United Nations system, when addressing the social and economic challenges of globalization or responding to major global economic and financial crises, remains a challenge. The ILO’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work represents a rare consensus platform, a level playing field in globalizing economies in respect of the core labour rights  of elimination of child and forced labour, non-discrimination at work, and freedom of association.
  • It is good to recall that the ILO is the only United Nations agency that is not only inter-governmental but embodies an enlarged democratic system representing all three parties of the world of work. Since its foundation, the ILO functions on the premise of tripartite dialogue and cooperation at national and international levels. Governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations voice their views, negotiate and vote independently in all ILO’s organs and working processes. This pioneering and revolutionary model of tripartism is obviously  confronted with its own challenges. A major one is the representational challenge. The declining membership of trade unions reduces  their bargaining power and hence their voice in policy-making. The Employers’ organizations often do not include the two extremes of the business sector, that is the major multinationals and global supply chains that operate across borders and different national legislative frameworks, often setting their own ethical agenda and codes of conduct. They do not encompass either the myriad micro and small business operators , most of which are in the informal economy. The  growing movement of civil society organizations (other than employers and workers organizations) also claims a more active and systemic engagement with ILO.

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This brief could only touch on a few issues. It is merely an invitation to dig deeper into the ILO history, many aspects of which are yet to be researched and written. Looking into the second centenary, this is an invitation to reflect on the philosophical notions of human work and social justice and on the values of democratic dialogue and international cooperation in a context of fast technological disruptions such as the artificial intelligence and all embracing digitalization, environmental degradation and widening inequalities. Will the human agency prevail in innovative social engineering and in shaping the future in fairness in a more complex and uncertain world?

NOTE: Opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of the GLO, which has no institutional position.
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