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The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was founded in 11 at the post-war Peace Conference in Paris as Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles, it remains the only surviving major creation of the Treaty. The ILO became the first specialized agency of the UN in 146 and seeks promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights (Sim, 00).

The ILO has a unique tripartite structure with workers and employers participating as equal partners with governments in the work of its governing organs (Swepston, 14). Its tripartite structure makes the ILO unique amongst world organizations in that employers’ and workers’ organizations have an equal voice with the governments in shaping its policies and programmes (Sheperd, 00). It remains unique, even though international bodies have increasingly been forced to involve non-governmental bodies in their policy formation processes (Lee, 14).

The ILO was established in a world which was ravaged by war, threatened by revolution and haunted by the misery and poverty of working people. Its aim was to build a social framework for peace and stability within which economic processes could generate prosperity with social justice in the life of workers and in the world of work. Since its inception, it has sought to create this framework through a combination of normative action, institution building and public policies (Swepsten, 14). Through many social and political struggles, the ILOs message has been embodied in the law and practice of what are today considered the most developed societies (Sheperd, 00).

The initial impetus behind the creation of the ILO was humanitarian, sparked by concern for the condition and exploitation of workers and their families. This recognised the need to protect the fundamental human rights of all workers, to foster a humane society and to avoid destructive forms of international competition (Lee, 14). These principles are embodied within the Constitution of the ILO. The preamble to the Constitution states that …universal and long lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social and universal justice.’

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Given the wartime setting, governments welcomed the introduction of a body like the ILO to try to prevent popular unrest similar to that caused by the economic devastation of the 10s. Governments were also nervous about revolution, such a fear was manifested after the Russian Tsar was swept from power by popular uprising (Sheperd, 14). Hence, the second motivation underlying the creation of the ILO was, primarily, politically grounded. The fear was that without an improvement in their conditions, the workers, whose numbers were increasing rapidly as a result of widespread industrialisation, would create industrial unrest, perhaps even to the extent of revolution (Lee, 14). It was conjectured that if action was not taken to relieve the inequalities and injustices suffered by workers around the world, the entire social order would be threatened (Swepsten, 14). Given the influence of Karl Marxs dogma and Lenins aspirations for Russian communism at the time, the fear was not unreasonable. The Preamble to the ILOs Constitution reflects such a concern. It holds that injustice produces unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperiled.

The third reason for the establishment of the ILO was economically grounded. That is to ensure countries with highly developed social systems are not put at a competitive disadvantage to those without such systems. It was thought that any country adopting social reform would find itself at a disadvantage compared with its competitors, so the ILO was to embrace all countries to level the playing field of increasing international competition (Work Study, 000).

An examination of the ILOs roots draws interesting insights. The reasons for its formation were essentially defensive-to stop something worse, such as revolution, from occurring. Similar fears of war, discord and financial chaos triggered the formation of the UN and its major bodies, the World Bank and the IMF. With the passage of time, the role of the ILO has changed. Fear of revolution no longer drives it. Greater altruism is a major driving force, to further the interests of its tripartite membership and to defend and extend its conventions and standards (Sheperd, 00).

As noted, the ILO holds as its, primary, agenda the maintenance of social peace and improvement of the situation of the worlds workers. The framing of conventions and recommendations, which set minimum labour standards, is the main tool with which the ILO work to accomplish such goals (Work Study, 000). Often called the International Labor Code, these standards have helped form the basis for many social and labor laws in most of the counties that have gained independence since 11. The social partners work together in ILO bodies as equal participants in the creation of these international standards (Swepston, 14).

ILO standards concern a wide range of issues including freedom of association, promotion of employment, equal opportunity, working conditions, and industrial relations. The significance of these standards lie in their practical effect. They reflect what is possible now and promote future social and economic progress (Work Study, 000). Basic human freedoms and rights are central to the instruments adopted by the ILO. The fundamental freedoms are freedom of association; freedom from forced labour; freedom from discrimination; freedom from child labour.

ILO Conventions are open to ratification by member States and once they are ratified they impose legal obligations upon the member State to give effect to the terms of the Convention through national law and practice. In contrast, ILO Recommendations are not open to ratification but give guidance on policy, legislation, and enforcement and usually supplement Conventions, laying down general or technical guidelines or best practice examples to guide the implementation of the Convention (Sim, 00).

The Declaration of Philadelphia in 144 marked the beginning of the ILOs period of greatest creativity in the adoption of standards (Swepsten, 14). It hallmarked the ILOs intent to expand its operations especially in setting and monitoring basic labour rights signifying a renewed statement of purpose. The Declaration promoted the aims and purposes of the ILO, and the principles that should inspire the policy of its Members. In essence, ‘The Declaration of Philadelphia’ exemplified the ILOs attempt to adapt itself to the new world order (Sheperd, 00).

The work of the ILO expanded in new directions after the adoption of the Declaration, while at the same time retaining its original activities in formulating and supervising the implementation of international labour standards. A major change was the extension of the scope of international labour standards into broad areas of economic and social policy and well beyond the narrow confines of labour legislation and the conditions of work (Lee, 14). Conventions such as the Employment Policy Convention, 164 (No. 1), and the Human Resources Development Convention, 175 (No. 14), define broad objectives and guiding principles for national policy in these fields. Accompanying recommendations which prescribed more specific and detailed guidelines for national policies and programmes followed. With regard to the Conventions on economic and social policy, ratifying countries were subject to the supervisory machinery of the ILO which thus had the ability to monitor and influence national policies in these fields (Sim, 00).

The expansion of the scope of international labour standards reflected the growth of research and operational activities into the wider fields of economic and social policy, which were to be undertaken by the ILO. A key development in this respect was the growth of technical cooperation activities throughout the 150s. This period witnessed the great wave of decolonisation and the entry of a large number of newly independent developing countries into the ILO (Lee, 14). It also marked the period of high growth for the United Nations Technical Assistance Program, which was directed at promoting the accelerated economic development of these newly independent countries as well as other low-income ones (Lee, 14).

With particular regard to poverty and the promotion of the economic and social advancement of the less developed regions of the world, the ILO’s renewed focus gave the organisation a clear mandate to play a leading role in this United Nations Technical Assistance Program (Swepsten, 14). In spite of this, there was opposition in the Governing Body to the proposed role of the ILO in such assistance. Some, especially from the Workers group, feared that such a role might lead the ILO to abandon its traditional standard-setting activities which was primarily sought by the Employers group. Others feared that the ILO would become the instrument of United Nation’s policy (Chomsky, 000). Apprehensiveness arose as to where involvement in technical assistance would lead the organization. The role of the ILO in technical assistance was nevertheless accepted, not least on the basis of the argument that participation in technical assistance was the only way in which to make a reality of the standards the Organisation was setting through Conventions (Lee, 14).

In 161 the International Labour Conference unanimously adopted a resolution calling on all Governments to adopt, as a major goal of social and economic policy, the objective of full, productive and freely chosen employment. This led to the adoption in 164 of Convention 1 on employment policy which incorporated this injunction from the 161 resolution. This was followed by a resolution adopted by the 167 International Labour Conference which called on the ILO to prepare on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 16, a world plan for employment and human resource development. In response to this the World Employment Program was launched in 16. The first decade of the World Employment Program marked the high point of the ILOs efforts to give effect to the lofty objectives it had set for itself (Lee, 14). The program set out the daunting objective of tackling the vast problem of unemployment, underemployment and poverty in developing countries. It approached this task by taking the logic of the interdependence between economic policies and social outcomes to its furthest limits. A series of Comprehensive Employment Strategy Missions was launched which undertook wide-ranging reviews of economic development strategies with a view to recommending policy reforms which would lead to levels and patterns of growth that maximised the rate of productive employment creation. These recommendations were highly comprehensive in that they covered the whole gamut of economic and social policies such as the sectoral allocation of investments, exchange rates and commercial policy, choice of technology and reforms in capital and labour markets.

The comprehensive framework developed by these missions led to a major program of research centred around key aspects of development strategy (Lee, 14). This work fed into a major synthesis in the form of the ‘Basic Needs Strategy’ which was presented to the World Employment Conference in 176. The strategy covered national policies for employment promotion as well as direct measures for alleviating specific manifestations of poverty such as inadequate nutrition, clothing, housing, sanitation and education. It also discussed international issues such as the employment-creating effects of trade liberalisation for developing countries (Lee, 14).

With the onset of the international debt crisis and the problems of stabilisation and structural adjustment in the 180s the ILO again ventured into the domain of international economic and financial policies. It organised a limited amount of work on the employment and social aspects of structural adjustment and convened a High-Level Meeting on the issue in 187. The objective of these activities was to attempt to influence policy makers towards paying greater attention to reducing the social costs of adjustment, respecting labour standards and recognising the value of tripartite consultation in the formulation of structural adjustment programs (Chomsky, 000; Lee, 14).

The primary goal of the ILO today is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. The goal is not just the creation of jobs, but the creation of jobs of acceptable quality. The quantity of employment cannot be divorced from its quality (International Labour Conference, 1). All societies have a notion of decent work, but the quality of employment can mean many things. It could relate to different forms of work, and also to different conditions of work, as well as feelings of value and satisfaction. The need is to devise social and economic systems which ensure basic security and employment while remaining capable of adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances in a highly competitive global market. The ILO’s new strategy is summed up in four strategic objectives. Decent work is the converging focus of all four strategic objectives the promotion of rights at work; employment; social protection; and social dialogue (International Labour Conference, 1).

In the last two decades the traditional cornerstones of the ILOs activities have changed, shifted by the transformation of the economic and social environment brought about by the emerging global economy (Treblock, 16). Policies of economic liberalisation have altered the relationship between the State, labour and business. Furthermore, economic outcomes are now influenced more by market forces than by mediation through social actors, legal norms or State intervention. For the ILO, whose vocation lies at the intersection between society, the economy and the lives of individual human beings, these are seismic changes (International Labour Conference, 1). All this ensues that the relevance of the ILO has rarely been challenged as much as it is today. The need for the ILO to reexamine their role and the way it works is necessary to ensure its continuing significance in today’s rapidly evolving society.

The important question is really whether the underlying role of the ILO still constitutes a valid purpose for economic and social development at the national and international level in todays greatly changed world.

Possibly the most important feature of the new global economy is the rapidity of change, together with different priorities of nations and people. Seen positively, globalisation creates prosperity and employment, it lessens unemployment and misery. By generating prosperity, liberalisation can be the driving force behind social progress. However, globalisation may also have negative consequences which become particularly evident when it coincides with mass unemployment and large-scale poverty. Such negative impact is particularly true in countries in transition (ILO Enterprise Forum 6). Theoretically, globalisation gives the ILO an unparalleled opportunity for responsive change, providing it with the necessary impetus to review and revise its programs and to create a new niche for itself (Smyth, 14). The ILO should be the international institution which deals with the social dimensions of the global economy but in doing so it should ensure that social considerations enable rather than hinder free trade (Swepston, 14). The ongoing relevance of the ILO may only be realised by a shift in its emphasis from standard-setting to needs-oriented practical assistance that encourages employment creation and provided assistance to governments in the creation of an enabling business environment (ILO Enterprise Forum 6).

The call to give a human face to the global economy is coming from many quarters. Conceptually, the ILO finds itself well positioned to answer such calls, as its primary instrument of progress is social dialogue between business, labour and governments (International Labour Conference, 1). However, the end of the Cold War has witnessed a weakening in the sense of common purpose among the constituents. It has been further eroded by the impact of globalisation on all the social actors (Swepston, 14). The decline of ideology and class conflict, the multiplication of social interaction beyond the workplace, and the trend towards enterprise-level bargaining, have all led to a greater fragility of consensus among the ILOs tripartite membership. It has meant that, while constituents have strong interests in individual programs, there are not many which attract active support and widespread commitment from all three groups (Smyth, 14). Therefore, to remain relevant there exists a need for the ILO to examine the way in which tripartism may be strengthened to address the emerging needs of its constituents. In essence, an ILO without internal consensus is an ILO without external influence (Williams, 1).

The weakening of the constituents within the ILO indicates that there are a number of infrastructural developments hampering the continuing relevance of the Organisation. The advent of competing organisations which have intruded upon the traditional standard setting domain of the ILO offers another such development. When the ILO was established, and for a long time afterwards, it was the only international forum for setting standards for the workplace. However, World War II and the establishment of the United Nations system created a broader system, introducing new complexities. At first, these complexities could be negotiated fairly easily. In the early 150s, however, the complexities began to increase when international technical cooperation was established and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund rose to ascendancy (Swepston, 14). When money became part of the international agenda, there was different turf to contest, and the organisations with financial power tried to impose what they perceived as economically sound solutions to profound social problems. As part of this widening organisational scene comes a larger group of actors charged with setting standards for human rights. Obviously, this diversity complicates the search for unity among human rights standards (Swepston, 14). The proliferation of organisations with different visions of, and solutions to social problems will certainly continue, and the ILOs clear position as the leader in the social field is therefore subject to continued question. While no other U.N. organization has announced a clear intention to take the lead in these areas, this has been happening by attrition as the financial institutions, various bodies of the United Nations itself, and others gradually move to occupy part of the same terrain (Swepston, 14). However, the ILO itself appears not to have clearly enunciated and defended its own particular vision, hence, the ongoing relevance of the organisation’s work may be surpassed by the proliferation of other organisation’s seeking to transcend the primary position of the ILO.

Another phenomenon in this area has been the adoption of U.N. standards in areas that would appear to be under the direct mandate of the ILO. A recent example was the 10 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and the members of their families. Another instance of the creation of standards, by a different route, is the adoption of operational guidelines by the World Bank and other development agencies. In adopting these guidelines, international agencies lay down conditions that must be met before they will give financial or technical assistance, at the same time providing themselves with instructions on how the assistance projects will be implemented (Swepston, 14). These guidelines often deal with the same subjects as do the human rights and other standards adopted by the ILO. Moreover, certain ILO decrees have now become the direct sovereignty of others. For instance, contrary to popular belief, the ILO Preamble does not give it a mandate to create a level playing field. This is now the mandate of the World Trade Organisation. For the ILO to remain a relevant entity the Organisation must be clear that its message deserves to be communicated and it must articulate a clear and persuasive message for the future throughout the global economy (Smyth, 14).

It is important to note that the ILOs ability to respond to current events is hampered by the fact that its main tool, International Labour Standards, can not be effective unless ratified and implemented. Moreover, many argue that such standards no longer present a unified and clear vision of what constitutes “international best practice.” Examination of the entire range of ILO standards appears to bestow this notion with particular validity. ILO standards present a range of choices for all nations, at different levels of development and with different economic models (Smyth, 14). For instance, as some countries move toward establishing a 5-hour week, others are still struggling to extend the 48-hour week to large parts of their economies. Some countries find ILO standards to be obsolete, moreover, many of them appear outdated. However, instead of being a threat to the role of the ILO, this situation may be seen as advocating a new direction, especially through the activities of a Working Party of its Governing Body. The Working Partys discussions on the social dimensions of international trade have opened up new and fruitful perspectives for the Organisation, namely, the parallel development of international trade and social progress by means alternative to standard setting (Swepston, 14).

A critical assessment of the continuing relevance of the ILO draws interesting results. The issues of globalisation and emerging labour trends gives new public relevance to the facilities the ILO provides to the international community. The representational form of the ILO, the statutory framework of its conventions, the operational nature of its policing machinery, and perhaps the very nature of the ILO need fundamental re-assessment. It is a moment when the ILO must once again display its historic capacity for adaptation, renewal and change. However, it is the contention of this paper that such adaptation can occur via reformulation of the way in which the ILO seeks to establish social justice. The most immediate concern of the ILO should however be diminishing relevance through means of attrition. Such attrition takes place in the face of competing visions, competing standards and competing organisations. However if the ILO can face these problems and resolve internal conflicts, as well as conflicts with the rest of the international system, it has a long and influential future ahead.

Chomsky, M. 000. ‘The Philadelphia Story.’ International Labour Review. March-April. Volume 86 No. 4.

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Lee, E. 14. ‘The Declaration of Philadelphia retrospect and prospect.’ International Labour Review. July-August. Volume 1 No 4.

‘Report on ILO core labour standards.’ 000. Work Study. Volume 4 No. 4

Sheperd, E. 00. ‘The International Labour Organisation - An Overview.’ Asian Labour Update. July � September. Issue No. 44.

Sim, P. 00. ‘The ILO may be imperfect, but we must make full use of its functions.’ Asian Labour Update. July � September. Issue No. 44.

Smyth, D. 14. ‘Achievments, new directions from 14 ILO conference.’ Monthly Labour Review. September. Vol. 117 No.

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Williams, F. 1. ‘Soft bark and not much of a bite - Examining the growing debate over the effectiveness and priorities of the ILO.’ Financial Times (England). June , 1, Wednesday.

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