The Cheat Sheet

100 years of ILO, and the future of jobs and social justice

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on July 25, 2019 Published on July 24, 2019

ILO hits a ton; that’s great news!

Indeed. The International Labour Organisation will become 100 years old in October, and the celebrations have already begun. You may recall the ILO was set up as an arm of the League of Nations barely a year after World War-I ended in 1918, as part of the Versailles Treaty. Ever since then, the global labour watchdog has played a pivotal role in highlighting labour issues across the globe, triggering debates that led to polices that eventually helped improve the conditions of workers worldwide. In fact, the formation of ILO was based on the belief of its founders (which included unionists and politicians etc) that we can achieve “universal and lasting” peace only if it is based on social justice.

How many countries have signed up with the ILO?

So far it has 187 member states. Sparing Andorra, Bhutan, Liechtenstein, Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru and North Korea, all the UN member states are part of the ILO today. But even non-member states look up to the ILO for guidanceand policies on work and social justice. If you have noticed, the ILO has seen it all: from the Great Depression, decolonisation, the fall of communism, rise and fall and rise of capitalism of myriad hues, apartheid and its fall to the rise of the robots and automation and their impact on the future of work and social justice.

Quite a journey this has been!

You said it! When the ILO began its journey, the world looked a wreckcourtesy the WW-I, and there was rampant unemployment and poverty. By the time things started looking up, entered the Great Depression of the 1930s and the World War-II. Employment and social justice were going through one of their worst phases in history then. But soon the Bretton Woods Institutions — the World Bank and the IMF — were set up at a meeting of 43 countries in the US in 1944, with the aim to rebuild post-war economy and to promote international economic cooperation.

Which meant more jobs...

Yes; and this was a period when John Maynard Keynes and his seminal 1936 tome — General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money — started influencing public policies, mainly in the US and in several other economies. Keynesianism — which meant more government spends to stimulate business and increase employment — boosted the prospects of the working class across the globe. Equally important was the influence of The New Deal in America America. For starters, this was a series of programmes and reforms US US President Franklin D Roosevelt introduced between 1933-1936 in response to the Great Depression. It provided This worked well, providing jobs to millions. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (under which people worked in national forests) alone employed over 2.5 million people for a decade.


You can say that workers had a nice time in these decades. But not for long. As Judith Stein observes in her book Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, the expansion of finance capitalism in the 1970s, among other factors, lured and prompted regimes across the globe not just in the US, to shift priorities from manufacturing to services and financial markets. When factories were replaced by finance, the very idea of work started undergoing a transformation — a process that is still on thanks to the way gig economy and digital-powered employment are confusing labour policies, while subjecting workers to a myriad kinds of exploitations.

But many say such a shift was inevitable...

Considering how the world was getting ‘integrated’, especially after the end of the cold war and the fall of the Soviet Bloc, and the arrival of globalisation, some of the tectonic shifts in the labour markets were unavoidable. But the fact remains that this process paved way for weaker labour laws and emaciated unions in the 1990s and 2000s. To cut the long story short, today, when the global workforce stands at over 3.5 billion (of a total population of over seven billion) and the very idea of work is facing an existential crisis thanks to the arrival of automation, location-agnostic work, outsourcing and business models such as that of, say, Uber where workers are defined rather vaguely, robbing them of social security cover etc, the relevance of global overarching bodies like the ILO becomes really important.

The bottomline?

As economist Paul Krugman observed, organised labour is an essential force for equality, both because it gets higher wages for ordinary workers and because it’s a political counterweight to the power of organised money. So, the 100 years of ILO reminds us that work may not be worship, but decent work and decent pay is essential for establishing social justice, which is still a long-distance dream in many parts of the world today.

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Published on July 24, 2019
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