The ILO at a Hundred

The ILO at a Hundred

In 2019, we celebrate a century of the ILO

20 March 2020 11:02


In 2019, we celebrate a century of the ILO. It is a remarkable history of an organisation like no other that was forged in the fires of two world wars. It was born, with the League of Nations, as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War in 1919 and was renewed with the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944. After the War, it became part of the new United Nations.

A centenary is more than an exercise in history. It is about looking into the past to examine the present and frame the future. There remains, however, no better prism for that process than the timeless values that informed the creation and renewal of the ILO. That is the basis to judge successes and failures of the ILO.

The creation of the ILO enshrined fundamental human aspirations and established a system to build social progress in the world community. For BWI, looking at the mission of the ILO is far from an academic exercise because we ground our daily work in the principles, standards and goals of the ILO.

Lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice

Not only was the ILO born out of the rubble of a terrible war, which resulted in the tragic loss of millions of lives and mass devastation, but it was also built on hundreds of years of permanent tension and conflict briefly interrupted by truces rather by the attainment of real peace. Unresolved conflicts inside nations led to conflicts among them.

Healthy societies resolve, rather than suppress conflicts. Democracy, political and industrial, provide processes for negotiations between independent parties that can resolve conflicts and hold societies together.

We are in turbulent times. To give just one example, millions of refugees and migrants are driven from their homelands by war, poverty, and gross injustices. Far too often, they flee to nations that “welcome” them with hatred, isolation, and hostility. ILO values of social justice and peace along with human rights, including ILO standards, offer hope and ways to meet these and many other challenges.

Labour is not a commodity

The idea that labour is not a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market is not only a principled distinction between people and goods but is a prerogative for social progress. By taking human beings out of competition, competition can be built on a basic floor of decency.

The development and implementation of universal labour standards for the human and labour rights of workers and social protections at national level, by forcing business to compete on factors other than exploitation made social progress possible.

Our current form of globalisation, however, has put labour back into competition. National de-regulation was replaced by corporate self-regulation. The financial crisis showed what that was worth.

National law, by itself, is no longer enough for respect of international labour standards. Weakening and elimination of employment relationships have added to the commodification of workers.

The principle that labour is not a commodity is not wrong or out-dated. The social impact of globalisation proves that it is still valid. However, for workers and their trade unions, fighting to ensure that labour is not a commodity requires both international and national solidarity.

Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere

Although there has been a reduction of poverty in a few countries in recent decades, a strong and sustained trend, inside and between nations, is growing inequality. According to the World Inequality Report, since 1980, the top 1 per cent of earners have captured twice as much of total world economic growth as the 50 per cent of poorest individuals.

BWI member organisations can see growing inequality at national level in most countries. At the global level, we observe that trend, including in our industries. One of the purposes of BWI solidarity is to link relatively strong unions with weaker ones so that they do not have to fight an isolated struggle and can take advantages of historical progress and social dialogue in other nations and, in some cases, for example, where we have global agreements, at international level. Our message to all workers in our sectors is, “you are not alone”.

Full rights to organise and negotiate all over the world would reduce inequality, but it is not only the workplace that has become more unfair. Changes also need to be made in taxes, where corporations and the wealthy have increasingly benefited from tax cuts, as well as improving the quality and access to public services, badly damaged by government austerity and privatisations.

Freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress.

The ILO has adopted hundreds of Conventions which, when ratified, become treaty obligations of governments and Recommendations, more detailed standards on which government legislation may be based. These standards cover a wide range of areas that apply to all workers, from occupational safety and health to social security, to child labour, to forced labour. They also address problems in specific occupations and sectors, with standards, guidelines, and codes. Sectoral instruments or guidance have been developed for construction and forestry.

The ILO has developed the best system of supervision of its standards of any body in the UN system. Nation-states have the obligation to report and their reports are reviewed by the ILO Committee of Experts on Conventions and Recommendation. BWI and other trade union or employer organisations can submit complaints to the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association. Issues may also be raised with the Experts. These mechanisms have brought tangible results. Trade unionists have been freed from prison, trade unions have been recognised, laws have been changed, negotiations have taken place.

Things could be better

Many governments have ignored their treaty obligations. Others, including in very large countries like China, the United States, and Brazil, have not ratified the basic Conventions on freedom of association, the right to organise and to bargain collectively.

The reason that adoption of good standards and strong over-sight of them has been so successful is its tripartite structure. However, in recent years, employers have grown increasingly hostile to the ILO Committee of Experts and less concerned about basic standards of freedom for workers, particularly on the issue of the right to strike.

The International Labour Office is not always as vigorous as we would like, particularly in action at national offices with worker rights violations, even if those offices have clear mandates. The ILO is subject to budget pressure and increasingly tempted to seek and accept money from private businesses. Such public-private-partnerships rarely, if ever, support the rights of workers to freely associate and form unions or to bargain.

ILO values continue to provide vision, guidance, and hope

The extension of the principles of many ILO Conventions to business was accepted by the ILO Governing Body in 1977 when it adopted the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. The Declaration has not been effectively applied, but the principle of guiding business with standards developed for governments lives on. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, extend, in effect, the principles of all human rights, including the labour standards of the ILO, to business. They are expected to respect those rights even if governments do not force them to do so. Those principles were adopted in 2011 and key provisions of them were incorporated in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises in the same year. Business obligations to respect right reach into their business relationships, including subcontractors and supply chains. Perhaps more than any other trade union organisation, BWI has integrated those principles in our corporate strategies.

The Director of the ILO at the time of the Philadelphia Declaration, Edward Phelan, wrote, “the ILO embodies in its aims and its actions some of the most profound aspirations of mankind.”

Those aspirations are ours. BWI deploys those values and standards in its daily struggle for workers in our sectors. They are central to our company strategies and global social dialogue, to international framework agreements, to organising all workers including migrant workers, training in industrial relations and occupational health and safety and in our campaigns including our global sports campaign for decent work.

In pursuing our work, the BWI and its affiliates have found support from the current Director General of the ILO, Guy Ryder. One of the major issues he addressed when he took the helm of the organization was labour migration recognizing that more than 70 per cent of migrant workers were searching for decent work. A strong supporter of BWI and other Global Unions in negotiating International Framework Agreements, the Director General has been present in the signing of a number of these agreements such as the one that BWI signed with Vinci and QDVC and Stora Enso at the ILO. Recently, the ILO has taken a more holistic approach in the area of sports by participating in global mechanisms to ensure that sports is clean from human and labour rights violations.

We share with the ILO its most fundamental value; workers should be able to join together with others to form independent trade unions of their own choosing, to define their interests themselves, and negotiate with their employers. Yes, that means wages, hours, and working conditions, but, more importantly, it also means basic human dignity