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Monday, October 29, 2012

ILO Nine Decades Later

THE International Labour Organisation (ILO) a tripartite body of the representatives of governments, employees and employers, came into existence in Paris on April 11, 1919, under the Treaty of Versailles, as an organ of the League of Nations. However, though the League of Nations suffered demise after the outbreak of the second world war in 1939, the ILO survived. On May 10, 1944 the 26th International Labour Conference at Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, US) adopted a declaration reaffirming the major objectives of ILO and strongly underlining the universal dimension of the struggle for social justice. This declaration is termed as the first universal Charter of Fundamental Human Rights to have been adopted by an international organisation.


Subsequently the Philadelphia Declaration was permanently annexed to the ILO’s constitution whose very first article states that the ILO would promote the objectives set forth in the declaration. The fundamental principles proclaimed in the Declaration are as follows:

“Labour is not a commodity.
“Freedom of expression and of association is essential to sustained progress.
“Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.

“All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.”

As per a resolution of the 27th session of the ILO held at Paris on November 3, 1945, the ILO entered an agreement with the United Nations whereby the latter recognised the former as a specialised agency responsible for labour issues. Since then the ILO is a constituent of the UNO.

Starting with 42 member states, the ILO now has more than 170 member states.

Under article 2 of its constitution, the organisation of ILO is composed of a general conference (better known as International Labour Conference of ILO or ILC) composed of the member states’ representatives, a governing body elected every third year in the ILC, and the International Labour Office located at Geneva and controlled by the governing body. The ILO director general is the functional head, elected by the governing body every third year. Then there are the chairman and two vice chairmen from the governments, employers and employees respectively, elected by the ILC. 

The member states are entitled to send four representatives to the general conference of whom two shall be government delegates and one each representing the employees and employers.  However, each delegate may be accompanied by not more than two advisors for each item on the agenda of the conference. When women’s questions are to be considered by the conference, at least one woman advisor has to be sent. The governing body consists of 56 persons, of whom 28 represent governments and 14 each are from employee and employers. They are elected every third year in the ILC.

The ILC is a jumbo tripartite conference held every year at the huge UN buildings complex at Geneva for two weeks --- generally around June 1 to 14. The vastness of the conference can be understood from the fact that as per current practice more than 4,500 participants attend the conference. They are representatives of governments (including around 200 ministers from different countries), trade unions and employers’ organisations from the member states.

Here it is necessary to note that representation in the ILC, in the governing body, in various committees set up by conferences and the International Labour Office, deployment of employees or experts in the office etc, etc continue to be the absolute monopoly of ITUC --- the class collaborationist international trade union body. But the class oriented trade union organisation, World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), is denied representation. Refusing to accept the scientific norm of proportionate representation, representation in all the ILO fora is decided on the ground of number of unions participating there, without considering the membership represented by the affiliates concerned. This is an atrocious injustice of ‘one size fits all,’ against which the WFTU has been consistently campaigning. This distortion is seriously affecting the quality of ILO’s functioning. The interest of the working class is often compromised by class collaborators in league with the employers’ side.     


Since its inception, one setting international labour standards through adoption of ‘conventions’ and ‘recommendations’ has been of the most vital functions of ILO. These are decided in the ILC. Once an item is undertaken for consideration, it is for the ILC to determine what kind of instrument should be adopted for the item concerned.  In any case two-thirds of the votes cast by the delegates present is necessary for the adoption of an instrument. The obligations of member states in respect of conventions and recommendations are regulated under article 19 (5) and 19 (6) of the constitution respectively. The difference is that while the conventions are communicated to all members for ratification, the recommendations are communicated for consideration.

In the matter of ratification and administration of the instruments, ILO extends various services to all three constituents in the member states. This is called ‘Technical Cooperation,’ defined as “assistance to governments and employers’ and workers’ organisations to fulfil their functions and roles in the standard-setting and supervisory system.”

Up to the ILC 2011, 189 conventions and 201 recommendations had been adopted. These conventions broadly pertain to freedom of association, employment and training, matters related to conditions of work including health and safety, social security etc. The conventions on freedom of association, abolition of forced labour, non-discrimination, equal remuneration, employment policy, social security, migrant workers, labour inspection and tripartite consultation are generally considered to be the major ones. There are also the core conventions which are discussed later.

In standard setting activities, if the ILO was very fast in its early years it slowed down gradually. Within the first two years of its establishment, it adopted as many as 16 conventions. More than 50 per cent of the conventions were adopted within 20 years of its existence and less than 50 per cent conventions in the next 55 years. Thus from the angle of issues covered and number of conventions adopted, the period 1919-60 was termed as the “Golden Age of Standards.” The period since 1991 has been the worst --- only 17 conventions in the last 21 years. Clearly the evil onslaught of neo-liberalism has seriously hampered the standard setting process. Later we will see how the imperialist powers wanted to break the ILO itself.  


So far, hardly 30 per cent of the conventions have been ratified (with varying figures) by member states. The ILO conventions are adopted by its conference, half of whose participants are from the governments of respective member countries while the other half are equally distributed between the employees’ and employers’ organisations of member countries. As the governments’ and employers’ representatives constitute three fourth of the total “tripartite” body, they have a decisive voice in adoption of conventions whose adoption requires two-third votes in favour.  Moreover, it is they who oppose the ratification of various conventions in their respective countries.

This is a glaring instance of doublefacedness. A convention is binding on a country only after its government ratifies it. Thus, saving a few, the whole lot of adopted conventions are confined only to the record book. Advanced capitalist countries are leading defaulters in the matter of ratification of ILO conventions. While the G-7 countries have ratified on an average 77 conventions, the USA and Japan have individually ratified only 11 and 40 respectively. Out of the 189 conventions, India, a member of ILO since its very beginning, has so far ratified 43 only.

Article 24 of ILO constitution says that on receipt of representation against any member state’s failure for effective observance of a convention to which it is a party, the governing body may invite its government to make statement. As per provision, if no statement is received within a reasonable time or if the statement received is not deemed to be satisfactory, the governing body has the right to publish the representation and the statement. Obviously, in absence of any punitive powers regarding violation of democratic decisions of the world’s highest tripartite body, the ILO could not achieve the trust of the working class. 

The governing body of the ILO has identified eight conventions as fundamental to the rights of working class. These, given alongside, are referred to as the core conventions.

S No
Convention No
Year of Adoption
Total Ratifications As On December 31, 2007
Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise
Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining
Forced Labour
Abolition of Forced Labour
Minimum Age
Worst Form of Child Labour
Equal Remuneration
Discrimination (Employment and Occupation)
Of these, India, a founder member of ILO and holding a non-elective seat in the governing body, has so far ratified only four --- Convention No 29, 100, 105 and 111 in the years 1954, 1958, 2000 and 1960 respectively. Notably, it has not yet ratified the two most important core conventions --- 87 and 98.


The 86th session the ILC, held at Geneva in June 1998, adopted “The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and Its Follow-up,” identified as a new instrument for promoting these principles and rights, especially for the member states that have not ratified conventions 87 and 98. The declaration itself is really the result of an intense campaign by trade unions demanding more vigorous promotion and monitoring of fundamental rights by ILO. This achievement of the trade unions was recognised “as an important step towards securing more universal respect for the fundamental rights of workers as essential values of the ILO and the international community as a whole.” Since 2000, ILO has been bringing out a Global Report every year on any one of the four fundamental principles and rights at work, and also conducting special plenary sessions during the ILC.   

The adoption of this declaration put every member state under obligation to respect the fundamental rights of workers irrespective of whether it has adopted the concerned conventions or not.  Para 2 of the declaration notes: “…..all members, even if they have not ratified the conventions in question, have an obligation, arising from the very fact of membership in the organisation, to respect, to promote and to realise, in good faith and in accordance with the constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those conventions.” 

The declaration further said: “It should be remembered that proceedings can be initiated against governments even if they have not ratified the ILO conventions No 87 and 98. Indeed, membership of the ILO presupposes formal acceptance of the obligation of its constitution, which proclaims the principle of freedom of association.” 

The freedom and rights conferred on workers by convention 87 can be summarised as follows: 1) The right freely exercised by workers to organise for furthering and defending their interests. 2) The right to establish or join an organisation of their own choice, without interference from public authorities. 3) Organisations have the right to establish and join federations and confederations, which shall enjoy the same rights and guarantees; they also have the right to affiliate with international organisations. 4) The acquisition of a legal personality by these organisations shall not be subject to restrictive conditions. 5) A country’s laws will not impair the guarantees provided in this convention.

The salient features of convention 98 can be thus summarised: 1) Protection to workers in exercising the right to organise; non-interference from employers’ organisations. 2) Promotion of voluntary collective bargaining. 3) Workers will enjoy adequate protection against anti-union discrimination. 4) They cannot be refused employment on ground of trade union membership. 5) They cannot be dismissed or harmed in any other way for the reason of membership or participation in trade union activities.

Outlining the immense importance of these core conventions, the Global Report, submitted by the ILO director general to the 97th session of the ILC, noted: These enabling rights make it possible to promote and realise decent conditions at work. Strong and independent workers’..… organisations and the effective realisation of right to engage in collecting bargaining are major tools for engagement between employers’ and workers’ organisations to address economic and social concerns….. The exercise of these rights has a major impact on work and living conditions.”


Recently the ILO commissioned a worldwide survey to update the data on right to collective bargaining in different countries. However, the ILO report 2004 on the coverage of collective bargaining --- the proportion of workers in a country whose pay and conditions of employment are set primarily by collective agreements --- presents the picture as below.

In most EU member countries as well as some others like Australia and Norway, coverage is 80 per cent or higher.  In Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands, sectoral agreements are extended to employers and employees who are not members of the signatory organisations. Coverage is lower in other developed countries, ranging from 37 per cent in Switzerland, 34 in Canada, 20 in Japan down to 15 per cent in the US.

The figures for developing and so called transition economies are less reliable. In Asia, coverage ranges from less than two per cent in India to 14 per cent in the Republic of Korea, 19 per cent in Singapore, and 33 per cent in the Philippines.  In Latin America, the variation is noticeable, ranging from 65 per cent in Argentina to less than three per cent in Costa Rica.  The information available for African countries shows a coverage of 30 per cent; in South Africa it is almost 50 per cent.

Though there is no explicit ILO convention on right to strike, convention 105 (1957) --- on the abolition of forced labour, prohibiting the use of forced or compulsory labour “as a punishment for having participated in strikes” --- mentions it.  The recommendation 92 (1951), on voluntary conciliation and arbitration, states that there should be no provision which “may be interpreted as limiting, in any way whatsoever, the right to strike.” Apart from that, there are specific ILO resolutions and specific observations of the Committee on Freedom of Association (since 1952) and the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (since 1959) established by the ILO governing body which emphasised the recognition of this right by member states.

In the context of convention 87 and 98, it is observed that without the right to strike, the right to collective bargaining cannot have a decent outcome. As an expert opined, “The right to strike is the logical corollary of the effective realisation of the right to collective bargaining. If it does not exist, bargaining..… becomes a dead letter.”


The government of India has been continuously refusing to ratify the some core conventions under different pleas. Its stand can be noted from the writing of a former secretary to the union ministry of labour: “The guarantee provided for in conventions 87 and 98 are by and large in conformity with the relevant provisions of the Indian constitution, national laws and regulations. The rights guaranteed under these two Conventions are also available to industrial and other workers through laws and practices. However, there are some technical problems in ratifying these two Conventions.” On non-ratification of two other core conventions --- 138 and 182 --- the government’s position is: “these conventions will be considered only when their provisions are fully brought out into our national law and regulations.”

The core conventions stress four fundamental components of trade union rights: (i) Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. (ii) Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour. (iii) Effective abolition of child labour. (iv) Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. Now the working class has to intensify its fight for these basic trade union rights in context of the bourgeois onslaught that is going on since the last five years.


The capitalist class had had its own motive and interest behind the foundation of ILO as a part of the League of Nations. They wanted to defuse the then rising struggle of the working class in the post- First World War situation and also to divert the growing working class enthusiasm on the USSR providing an alternative to capitalism. 

But with the setback because of the demise of the USSR and the socialist states of Eastern Europe, the earlier equilibrium of forces in the world has seriously altered. It naturally has its implications for the ILO, as is reflected in its slide to a ‘Northward bias.’ This has been admitted by none other than a former ILO director general: “The end of bipolar world dissolved a structure of international relations that took shape in 1945 and generally influenced the work of the organisation.” Similarly, a comparative study of the role of ILO during the Keynesian state sponsored demand management so as to save capitalism during the great depression of the 1930s and then during the period of neo-liberal economic onslaught is startling. While the study termed the former period as the ‘golden period’ in regard to adopting standards, the latter is the darkest one in the life of this 93 years old organisation.   

During the period of neo-liberal onslaught of capitalism, till the outbreak of the current systemic crisis of capitalism which exploded with a financial meltdown in the USA, the ILO was made to play to the tune of the bourgeoisie, unabashedly neglecting the issues and interest of the working class. Moreover, during 2006-07, when reforms (!?) of the UN system were attempted, imperialists tried to erase the ILO’s autonomy. To push the ILO into the grip of imperialist globalisation, a proposal was mooted to have annual meetings among ILO, IMF, World Bank, WTO etc. Yet another proposal was of merging the different UN agencies including ILO and to switch over to a so-called structure of “four Ones” --- one leader; one programme; one budgetary framework and one officer. These would have ended the distinct identity of the ILO, making it just a tool of imperialist powers. It was the stiff resistance from trade unions that threw the move into the cold storage.

Interestingly, the directional demarcation in the policy documents of ILO is noticeable. Immediately after the onset of the current crisis a report of the then ILO director general came out eloquently against the neo-liberal policies: “This crisis was preceded by growing imbalances in the way globalisation unfolded, notably a protracted aggravation of income inequalities amongst and within countries. Moreover, the crisis occurred in context of a dominant policy vision that overvalued the capacity of markets to regulate themselves, undervalued the role of the state and devalued the dignity of work, respect for environment and the delivery of public goods and social protection.”

Analysing the crisis as the culmination of more than a 100 crises, the report further said: “Since the 1970s over 100 systematic financial crises of various kinds have been recorded. Since 1997 we have experienced the Asian crisis, followed by crises in the Russian Federation, Turkey, Brazil and Argentina, the bursting of the “dot-com” bubble in 2000 and now the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the United States and its reverberations throughout the world. That is a lot in just ten years and suggests that there are fundamental imbalances in the mechanisms of the new global economy that need attention.” 


Despite all the limitations and shortcomings inherent in the ILO’s structure and functioning, it has played a significant role in equipping the international working class with valuable labour standards in the form of conventions and recommendations. Of course there has always been attempt to maintain an inclination towards the governments and employers’ class at the cost of the working class. But it is certain that the ILO has deep insight into the impact of the world situation on workplace and workforce. It has the privilege of regularly exchanging views with government representatives, employers, workers and others. This gives it a great deal of varied insights into what is happening in the world of work and the reasons thereof. While steering clear of any illusions, we can well utilise its conventions, its recommendations and the other voluminous materials it has been producing, so as to expose the pro-capital and anti-labour faces of governments and to sharpen the class struggle.

When the ILO is now preparing for its centenary celebrations, the working class in our country has to organise various phase-wise joint programmes in order to mobilise for in protracted a countrywide campaign. Through propaganda and action, it has to popularise the core conventions among the mass of workers and effectively prevail upon the government to make it ratify the remaining core conventions.

It is a matter of great encouragement that the 10-point charter of demands adopted by the central trade unions for uniting the entire working class on one platform includes the demand for ratification of conventions 87 and 98. In view of the growing ferocity of attacks on trade unions rights, ratification of these conventions has acquired an urgency, and the trade union movement in the country has to launch powerful struggle to compel the government on this score. 
By : Swadesh Dev Roye
 Courtesy :

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