The Future of Work and the ILO Centenary

The “future of work” as a means of achieving and maintaining sustainable livelihoods for all is being called into question these days. Technological change is typically identified as the main culprit, but there are plenty of other candidates to blame – globalization, climate change, demographic trends, human migration, and yes, even trade liberalization, just to name the more obvious ones. In this year 2019 of the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization (ILO), it is timely to reflect on what this means for the future of work – but also for the prospects of the ILO as the social pillar of our global architecture. The ILO, after all, was established in 1919 to mobilize the world’s capacity for sustainable livelihoods through a just and fair social order in the world of work. One hundred years later, the ILO is using this occasion to redefine its mission, including in the form of a “Centenary Declaration” on the future of work.

It seems a bit out of date these days to even think in terms of a social pillar and a global architecture. Here we are operating with a tumultuous brew full of uncertainty about the future.  Populism, protectionism, divisive “identity politics” are being enflamed by the ingredients of growing inequalities, growing racism, growing civil strife and growing anti-global rhetoric. Some doom-sayers are even suggesting that the dramatic and awesomely rapid technological composition of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – or whatever you may want to call it – are heralding the end to the comfortable casserole of formal lifelong employment and a corollary increase in the curdling of socio-economic inequalities. In the midst of all this uncertainty and gloom, it is tempting to close down the kitchen and resign ourselves to a dismal future of fast-food.

On the other hand, a strikingly upbeat recipe is emanating from that ancient and seemingly moribund (even a bit mouldy?) institution overlooking the lake in Geneva, none other than the International Labour Organization. For its 100th anniversary celebration, this savoury concoction is taking the form of a ten-point action plan  (a full menu?) issued by the  Global Commission on the Future of Work, for the centenary. Established by the ILO Director-General in 2017 as a blue-ribbon panel of experts with diverse backgrounds and perspectives on the future of work, one would not expect anything less than a comprehensive cuisine. But this is only the more formalized aspect of a transformation that has been brewing at the ILO and among its constituent groups since the turn of the century – to redefine the identity, effectiveness and relevance of its function as a global social resource for sustainable livelihoods in the twenty-first century.  But enough of this culinary imagery! Check out the Commission’s full report here.

What worked for the twentieth century, we all seem to agree, is simply not the same as what is called for in the twenty-first century.  So a new declaration is intended to describe how the ILO is already reconstituting itself for these twenty-first century challenges. Back in 2003, at the beginning of this new century, and thanks to generous support from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, I had written an article (available here) to elaborate on my own view of the transformation that was needed, both in the ILO and in the world of work generally. I chose these three words deliberately – identity, effectiveness and relevance. They constituted what I saw to be the three “crisis points” for the ILO – and for continuing to be in the forefront of managing a global framework of rules for the world of work at the very beginning of the twenty-first century.

Identity, effectiveness and relevance, these were the crisis points in 2003, but I would have to say that they still are crisis points. In fact, it is notable that the ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, referred to the same issues in remarks concerning the forthcoming centennial – using the words “efficacy, legitimacy and relevance” to describe the same concerns but in slightly different order. Nonetheless, or perhaps because they relate to the main strengths of the ILO, they are where much has happened in the course of its 100-year history – and also in the ever more dramatic changes of the more recent past of 15 (now 16) years – to justify the remarkable and continuing viability of this institution.

The ways in which the centenary is addressing the challenges to these previously impactful strengths of the ILO deserves recognition – and even commendation. These three strengths are:

  • A participatory process of social dialogue and tripartism
  • Rules and regulations to define common ground
  • A commitment to decent work – a global social pact, as it were

Not only has the ILO been transforming itself, but the ways in which the centenary is addressing the challenges to these three strengths should give us a sense of hope for the future of work itself as the basis for sustainable livelihoods and and a just social order. This does not mean that the crisis points have been or are being dispensed with, but rather that we need a global institution that articulates how to ensure a future of sustainable livelihoods and a just social order, and we can’t expect any other institution than the ILO to do it any better. As the Global Commission on the Future of Work has put it, we need a “human-centered agenda for the future of work”, and the ILO is clearly the place to lead the way. It’s sort of like “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all the rest.”  And the prospects for the ILO do seem to reinforce this famed Churchillean observation insofar as it applies to the ILO’s role in articulating an ambitious human-centered future for the world of work.

The 2003 article that I wrote on the social dimension of globalization had a focus on labour standards and the central role of the ILO in implementing those standards for a just social order in the world of work. Thus, the context of addressing the three crises of identity, effectiveness and relevance was mostly about the ILO’s reliance on its standards and its tripartite governance process to achieve that just social order, although the article also touched on the ILO’s policy role in both employment promotion and social protection. (The ILO had just reorganized itself at the time around the four strategic objectives of employment promotion, social protection, social dialogue and fundamental principles and rights at work.)

The social dimension of globalization, of course, encompasses much more than the world of work, and we can look to things like the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals for a broader look at what the world needs to do to end poverty and hunger, promote health and education and energy, and gender equality and jobs and sustainable consumption and production and climate change and social justice – well, there are 17 of these goals. This commentary, however, does revert back to the world of work and the considerable scrutiny we are all giving to the FUTURE of work, given how dramatically the world of work has been changing in the past 15 or so years. So now, we take a look at these crises one by one in the context of what they mean for us – and for the ILO going forward.

Identity as a Crisis Point

On the first of these crisis points, identity, the ILO has thrived as a uniquely tripartite institution. It has the global public policy legitimacy of being part of the UN system but incorporates a participatory process of social dialogue and tripartism that distinguishes it from all other international organizations in the UN system. Before addressing the “identity challenge” as it affects the ILO, however, I would like to mention how useful it has been to advocate the value of this tripartism in other international settings. Its has actually been a crucial selling point for advocating the participation of other non-state actors – and especially the private sector – in some variation of international governance in these other settings.

The argument is that all interested parties should be included in the public policy debates of any particular issue – much like the ILO includes representatives of workers and employers in its governance. It’s better to have all of the vested, identifiable interests included in the process rather than excluded from the process.  With the increasing number of non-state actors in the international arena over the past few decades, this ILO approach has an appeal as an important model for inclusiveness in the increasingly varied participatory processes.

The participatory idea, of course, has encountered resistance in many other international organizations – and especially the World Health Organization (WHO) but also the World Trade Organization (WTO). Both have been the subject of participatory challenges from non-state actors, and both have only grudgingly and selectively accommodated limited roles for them. In the WHO, the accommodation has been limited to non-state actors who are deemed to support the WHO’s public health objectives, with specific exclusions of the tobacco and arms industries and further exclusionary measures spilling over to other private sector industries such as the food and beverage industry. There is even a presumption that commercial interests are inherently not compatible with public health.

The WTO goes even further to exclude all non-state actors and even a goodly number of intergovernmental entities from its formal deliberations. Although the WTO has found ways to engage them in parallel summits or other free-standing events, the organization has been the target of strong anti-globalization sentiments that operates to keep even the pro-WTO non-state actors at arms’ length.

Above and beyond these WHO and WTO examples, a variety of ad hoc arrangements do seem to be emerging at the UN itself and at other UN organizations (specialized agencies, programmes and funds), especially in the unfolding of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2030 Agenda even includes the building of partnerships as one of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 17). It is also significant that some of these ad hoc arrangements, such as the Global Committee on Food Security, have found ways to include a variety of non-state entities in their policy debates – although not yet as voting members.

At the ILO, the representatives of workers and employers do have voting rights, along with the governments of the 187 states that currently constitute its membership. The crisis point at the ILO, however, is that the tripartite governance is premised on just that- an exclusive definition of tripartism through national channels for representativity for governments, to be sure, but also of worker and employer interests, meaning that they supposedly represent all worker or employer interests at the national level even where their memberships are not all inclusive. This exclusiveness has meant that the tripartite constituents have defined themselves as distinct from any other non-state actors by virtue of their mandates.

The extensive and continuing existence of an informal economy in many countries of the world, however, means that many of the workers or employers operating in the informal sector are not technically represented.  As critics will quickly point out, union density has been on the decline, especially in the private sector, and thus, many workers around the world, even where they are in the formal sector, are not associated with the workers’ organizations that operate in the ILO governing bodies.

As for the employer side of this tripartite structure, it is also true the employers’ organizations are also not all-inclusive of employers – or more generally, of the array of businesses that employ workers. This came up as an issue some years ago when I was representing the ILO in negotiations with the World Bank to organize a jointly-sponsored tripartite regional dialogue. The World Bank’s organizers objected to our ILO request that the business side of the dialogue should only include representatives of employers’ organizations. They were quite willing to defer to the organized workers’ representatives for the labour side of the dialogue, but what the World Bank wanted for the employers’ side was to include “real” businesses in the dialogue. They even said that these “real” employers were better at understanding business requirements for stable economic growth than any of these employers’ organizations.

This was unfair, to be sure, since employers’ organizations are obliged to be representative of employers’ interests, just as workers’ organizations are obliged to be representative of all workers’ interests. But one could not ignore then (or now) that many businesses are multinational in their human resources practices, while others are too small to operate or be active in a national employers’ organization, and still others aren’t drawn into the organization because they don’t negotiate with their workers for whatever reason. So the national employers’ organizations that are part of the ILO’s tripartism are also not truly inclusive of employers’ interests, just as national labour unions are not truly inclusive of all workers’ interests. Back in 2003, this disconnect was highlighted in the growing movement for multinational enterprises to embrace corporate social responsibility as an alternative to the inadequacy and inconsistency of depending on national-level enforcement of international labour standards, but one cannot ignore the fact that the bulk of small and medium enterprises in the formal economy as well as the economic entities operating in the informal economy are also missing from this picture.

Adapting to the Identity Challenge

Nonetheless, the ILO mandate has remained with the traditional “social partners”, that is to say, the national representatives of both workers and employers. On every occasion that the ILO’s membership has been called upon to articulate new interpretations of its tripartism, the outcome has consistently been a reaffirmation of the centrality of basic tripartism.  The 2008 Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, which helped to consolidate the ILO’s mission around four strategic objectives, retained the traditional vision of social dialogue and tripartism as one of those four. In the cycle of recurring assessments by the ILC of each of the four strategic objectives, the review of this one, on social dialogue and tripartism, has reaffirmed its centrality to the ILO. In fact, yet another plan of action for the reaffirmation of this basic form of social dialogue and tripartism is on the agenda of the ILO Governing Body at its March 2019 session. (See the latest action plan here. )

Although recent ILC resolutions on tripartism have emphasized that the social partners do need to reach out through their own networks to partner with representative organizations of workers or economic entities in the informal economy, this is not a workable solution for the kinds of non-state actors that are not likely to be affiliated with one or the other of the social partners. My own personal experience representing the International Federation of University Women (now known as Graduate Women International) at ILCs is illustrative. This organization is an advocate for gender equality but is neither a workers’ organization nor an employers’ organization.

In years past, the IFUW typically spoke up on gender issues in ILC committees and even routinely organized a side event on gender issues. At a recent ILC, however, after I spoke on behalf of the IFUW at the opening session of an ILC committee, I was requested to leave the floor of the committee room and sit in the blocked off section for observers.  No more options for interaction were available. It appeared that almost all of the other groups who had spoken as non-state actors at the same time as the IFUW, however, were absorbed into the workers’ side of the floor. So there you have it. Affiliates of the social partners, including those who might be identified with the informal economy, were essentially integrated into the tripartite structure, but other non-state actors were not.

On the other hand, beyond the restrictiveness of the governance parameters of the ILO, there does appear to have been a lot of progress. The ILO today boasts of having established partnering relationships with some 238 partners since 2008, when the Director-General initiated a new policy direction to seek both coherence with other international institutions and collaboration with other non-state actors. Even before that, of course, collaboration with business and workers had been informally cultivated in the early 2000s to address the new ILO policy on HIV/AIDS in the Workplace.  Subsequently, a tentative outreach to build a Business and Disability Network was more structured, and a Child Labour Platform soon followed. Other platforms are now in place for a Global Business Network for Social Protection Floors, a Better Work Buyer Partnership and the Alliance against Human Trafficking and Labour Exploitation.

In addition to these specific partnering initiatives, one should also note that cross-border social dialogue more generally is being addressed by a Committee of Experts convened by the ILO in February. This is clearly a subset of the identity issues, but it may also contribute to a broader initiative of the ILO on decent work in global supply chains (based on conclusions and follow-up to an International Labour Conference discussion in 2016).

The ILO Centenary Approach to the Identity Challenge

As for the Global Commission on the Future of Work, one of the ten recommended action items is to reaffirm the importance of collective representation and public policies that promote it. The range of public policies include company level arrangements, collective bargaining in its own right, and tripartite social dialogue on “the broader societal issues”. However, the recommendation also emphasizes how the traditional workers’ and employers’ organizations should broaden their memberships with innovative organizing techniques rather than relying on other types of collectives in civil society. So again, the Commission sticks with the ILO’s tripartite format rather than any sort of “tripartism PLUS”, even advocating the same recommendations for regional bodies, multinational companies and international trade union organizations where the issues “overflow national boundaries”.

One should not be surprised by this. What else would the ILO realistically do? The concluding sentence from the Commission’s recommendation says it clearly and unequivocally: “All workers – including the self-employed and those in the informal economy – and enterprises should enjoy freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.” (See p. 43 of the Full Report.) It is just that the growing diversity of situations in which work is performed – on top of the chronic dilemma of the large informal economy in most parts of the world – would seem to make this an unrealistic goal, even for those of us who need to be reminded of the mantra “It is impossible until it is done”. (Thank you, Nelson Mandela.) The Commission, furthermore, dwells at length on the “emerging phenomenon of digitally mediated work in the platform economy” as especially challenging in this regard. And the solution?

The Commission had as another one of its ten recommended action items the establishment of what it describes as a “universal labour guarantee”. Now that is what one might interpret to be an alternative – a form of top-down tool to achieve what has historically depended on some form of collective bargaining to achieve. And barring the full realization of universal collective bargaining, why not endeavour to achieve decent work for all through something that the Commission is calling a “universal labour guarantee” – with that guarantee including fundamental workers’ rights for all?  Presumably this would include all those digitally mediated workers in the platform economy.

For this growing diversity of situations in which work is performed in the digital world, the Commission does propose establishing an innovation lab. This would explore the adaptation and adoption of technologies in support of decent work – with an “expert monitoring group” to oversee the project. Of course, one would assume that these “experts” would be chosen from and by each of the three social partners. The key point here is that the preoccupation with who the appropriate stakeholders should be in articulating a future for decent work for all and not just the future of work per se is very much an ILO preoccupation.

In contrast, three other recent reports on the future of work and on how to ensure that work will continue to be the key to sustainable livelihoods offer considerable guidance on public policy priorities, without dwelling on the appropriate composition of the stakeholders. They illustrate how distinctive the ILO approach is on this point. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2019, entitled “The Changing Nature of Work”, looking primarily at the future of work in developing economies, promotes a “Human Capital Index” (still emphasizing a “human-centered” future for work) through heightened attention and measurement of health and of skills-driven education. The Council on Foreign Relations pulled together a task force to address “The Work Ahead: Machines, Skills and US Leadership in the Twenty-first Century” that also recommends a rebuilding of the links between work, opportunity and economic security through public policies that stimulate both growth and the demand for labour – and again emphasizing the strengthening of post-secondary education.

The third report on the future of work, “OECD Future of Work and Skills” is a 2017 study for the G20 that starts by noting that the magnitude and speed of changes to the labour market are highly uncertain. The focus, therefore, should be on enabling “individual workers and countries to weather these changes with the least disruption possible, while maximizing the potential benefits offered by the mega-trends”.  Unlike the other two reports, however, and on top of the usual prescriptions of adaptations for safety nets, increasingly different forms of employment, and transition and skills policies, this one does recommend public policies to support strong social dialogue – but interestingly only “at the firm level”.

To conclude this section on identity, then, it is a significant feature of the ILO approach that tripartism and social dialogue are so integral to its whole mission, and one might as well recognize that it will continue to be thus. (One should also note here that the ILO actually issued a scathing critique of the World Bank’s report. See the critique here.)  Other settings might facilitate a multiplicity of non-state actors with an interest in world of work issues to engage in policy deliberations, but the ILO will remain unique in its commitment to tripartism. Fair enough. Let us hope that the social partners will constructively engage in outreach to integrate the diversity of workers and employers and economic entities into their representational roles. It is interesting that the revised action plan on social dialogue and tripartism includes provision for an annual “flagship” report on the topic that should help to convey to the world how this outreach is actually being realized.

The “Effectiveness” Crisis

Effectiveness of the ILO’s role in the world of work in the past has had to do with the centrality of its standard-setting role. Yes, there is more to the ILO than that. There is the analysis of employment and world of work trends, with expertise on various world of work issues (working time, wages, safety and health, social security, employment contracts, retirement benefits),and then there is the expertise in technical assistance for countries seeking to stimulate more and better jobs. But let’s revert to the effectiveness crisis of ILO standards here and then look more comprehensively at the effectiveness challenge for standards going forward.

The criticisms about the effectiveness of international labour standards back in 2003 were the following: too many standards with too many different levels of significance, many even being outdated with no efficient way to abrogate them; burdensome supervisory machinery with inconsistent and inadequate enforcement options; messy and incomplete data sources based on incompatibly comparable reporting methodologies; AND NO TEETH as in the World Trade Organization or even the Bretton Woods organizations. Oh me or my! What we had here was a comfortable history of informal behind-the-scenes negotiations to work with recalcitrant countries to fix non-compliance with ratified standards. And here was this globalizing world no longer divided by East and West but more by North and South, with a vastly greater number of member states and significantly uneven levels of development – and with newish international organizations that had teeth, as well as significantly different views on the appropriate policy mix for the world of work.

There was friction with the newly established World Trade Organization whose members had agreed to a liberalizing of trade between and among all countries, with economic sanctions to enforce the new rules – but not to enforce labour standards! There was friction with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund who were imposing conditionality and structural adjustment demands on developing countries – and again without embracing labour standards. One could argue that it wasn’t until the financial and economic crisis that hit the developed world in 2008 that these frictions finally dissipated – albeit with continuing cross-currents on many of the issues.

Adapting to the Effectiveness Challenge

Indeed, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were big changes. Economic growth was taking off, especially in the major economies emerging from the developing world; trade was growing even more than most countries’ GDPs; the HIV/AIDS epidemic was capturing worldwide attention; global health spending was exploding; and anti-globalization movements were fizzling out.   We were caught up with a new Global Compact for business and human rights, a burgeoning Global Reporting Initiative, revised OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, impasse after impasse over the next round of trade liberalization (the Doha Development Round) at the WTO, friction shifting from trade and labour to the interplay between intellectual property rights and health, and growing attention to the Internet and concern about a digital divide. But then voila! A new ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization was approved at the June 2008 International Labour Conference! And this was just BEFORE the 2008 financial crisis!

All of that is over-simplifying a decade of changes leading up to that pivotal year, and of course the drafting of that new ILO declaration did not happen overnight. The prominent ILO jurist Francis Maupain has written an excellent account of its development and significance (available here). While the immediate response to the “Great Recession” of 2008, was the ILO’s adoption in 2009 of a Global Jobs Pact, based on that 2008 Declaration, one has to acknowledge that this combined declaration and pact was a turning point in the effectiveness of the ILO’s standards.

A first step had been taken already in 1998, in the form of a Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up. This was the articulation of a “top tier” of those disparate and random standards that the ILO had adopted over the years but with considerable maneuvering among the ILO’s constituents to avoid elevating these standards to a higher degree or alternatively watering them down to a lower degree of obligations. It was commendable that they took off from what had transpired at the United Nations Social Summit in 1995, where the idea of a core set of labour standards was incorporated into the commitments for full employment. Thus the 1998 Declaration adopted that same core listing – “(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; (b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; (c) the effective abolition of child labour; and (d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.” It also set up various follow-up reporting procedures that proved to serve both aspirational and technical assistance purposes. (A recent publication on “The Teeth of the ILO” by Kari Tapiola, the prominent union leader and former ILO Deputy Director-General has an informative inside account of how this 1998 Declaration came into being and how it, too, contributed to strengthening the ILO’s effectiveness.)

The success of this approach was then incorporated into the 2008 Declaration as the “sine qua non” of standards for the achievement of a “Decent Work Agenda”. These fundamental principles and rights at work were the fourth of four “essential themes”, along with the goals of full employment, the dynamic evolution of social protection systems, and the importance of social dialogue and tripartism. Each of these thematic or “strategic” objectives had a variety of standards associated with them, and the effect was to give them a coherent structure, even described as the inseparable parts of a coherent whole. And the 2008 Declaration, like the one in 1998, was supplemented with an implementation scheme of review that has served to give a normative framework that distinguishes the ILO role from other institutions specializing in world of work issues.

On at least the one level of the effectiveness debate, one can argue that the effectiveness crisis for ILO standards has by and large been addressed.  The fundamental principles and rights at work have served as the model for other initiatives involving the world of work to follow – the UN Global Compact, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the Global Reporting Initiative and many others. There are, of course, continuing concerns about coherence with the interpretation of ILO standards even where they have been superficially endorsed. The recent critique by the ILO (available here) of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2019 is just one such example, where the differences show a strong divide between a regulatory approach and an individualized approach to employability.

There have also been internal challenges to the effectiveness of ILO standards since the euphoria of consensus on the 2008 Declaration and 2009 Global Jobs Pact. In particular, there was a standards crisis, as it were, when the Employers’ Group blocked the workings of the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards and Recommendations for two years in 2012 and 2013. The trigger was a report that appeared to endorse a certain interpretation of the right to strike.

The Employers’ Group’s challenge has indeed led to a longer process of conducting a multi-faceted “Standards Initiative”.  The strengthening of the supervisory system is one facet of this initiative, while another is coping with the nature of judicial review and yet another involves a mechanism for “cleaning up” the standards on the books. This last seems to be making some headway in areas like a more consistent packaging of occupational safety and health standards. So an effort is clearly being made but the internal divisions are not yet fully resolved.  Even as recently as the report on launching the centenary celebrations the Director-General took note of the continuing turbulence on standards and their enforcement. So it’s not over yet. See the decision points on these matters from the most recent Governing Body session in November 2018 here and here.

The Crisis of Relevance

On the third matter of relevance, the ILO’s dilemma is an ever changing one – more so even than for the challenges of identity and effectiveness. Back in 2003, the critique was two-fold. The core labour standards, as they were unfolding in the 1995 Social Summit and the 1998 and 2008 ILO declarations were themselves described as perhaps a bit overly ambitious. (And the rest of the ILO standards, as previously noted, were too random and uneven.)  On the other hand, the set of standards that made it into the “fundamental principles and rights at work” list was not the same as the list of priority standards that were cropping up in consumer-driven codes of conduct and other settings incorporating labour standards. Since then, the dramatic technological changes of the phenomenon that we are calling the “gig” or “platform” economy plus the growing evidence of inequalities and heightened awareness of environmental effects on sustainable livelihoods are all reinforcing the need to accept change and to accommodate a future of uncertainty. Hence, the challenge of the ever changing dynamic of relevance.

With regard to the critique of standards being overly ambitious for an increasingly diverse global economy, one can certainly argue that the criticism is no longer valid. That core group of labour standards has become quite the global standard, enabled by a nuanced appreciation for what compliance means. At the ILO itself, the 1998 and 2008 Declarations were more aspirational than anything else and did not introduce any new compliance mechanisms as such. With their incorporation into parallel initiatives like the UN Global Compact or the Global Reporting Initiative, as well as their integration into EU and US-led trade agreements, they have acquired a further reinforcement of their core relevance. Although there are continuing concerns about how to ensure them in all settings, one can set aside this critique as no longer particularly significant.

The criticism of basic workers’ rights that were not part of this core but were in fact significant parts of other initiatives has continuing relevance today. As noted in my 2003 article, this was a matter of omission, rather than commission. For example, a survey of over 250 voluntary codes of conduct showed that the priorities pertained to occupational safety and health, non-discrimination, minimum wages and no child labour. US trade law had also established a list of labour standards that could be used to deny trade benefits.  These included standards on minimum wages, safety and health standards and ending child or forced labour but did not initially include non-discrimination. (Eventually, though, the latter concern was added.)

Specific trade agreements, such as the Labour Side Agreement for the North American Free Trade Agreement, gave a higher priority to occupational safety and health, wages and child labour than to any of the others.  (See more on these developments in my 2003 article.) More recently, the labour provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement included freedom to form unions and bargain collectively, the elimination of exploitative child labour and forced labour, protection against employment discrimination, and laws in place on acceptable conditions of work related to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health. (There are more details on export processing zones, combating trade in goods made by forced labour and transparent complaint mechanisms, too. See the full list here.)

Adapting to the Relevance Challenge

The recent work by the ILO constituents on approving a process to consolidate and clean up its occupational safety and health standards as a priority in the newly established Standards Review Mechanism is a good sign that OSH issues are indeed relevant. It is interesting, too, that the Centenary Commission has incorporated a recommendation that the protection of OSH at work should not only be part of implementing that “universal labour guarantee” (mentioned above as a key action item in the Commission’s report) but also that it should be recognized as a fundamental principle and right at work. That is to say, while the proposal recommends that this universal labour guarantee should recognize fundamental workers rights, an adequate living wage, maximum limits on working hours for everyone as well as protecting OSH at work, it is only this last issue that is specifically proposed to be elevated into the fundamental principles category. Although the 2019 International Labour Conference might have difficulty endorsing a comprehensive and universal “labour guarantee”, one can hope that the conferees will at least recognize the heightened priority of protecting OSH at work.

Many other proposals have been embraced by the Commission, largely reflecting the dramatic changes in the world of work over the past couple of decades. Who could have expected the amazing surge of the Internet and the ICT behemoths back in 2003? Or the Great Recession and slowed economic growth since then? Growing awareness of income disparities? Near universal scientific forecasting of devastating climate change? Well, there is a lot of churn out there, and we should all appreciate the wisdom of looking at how to improve preparedness for adapting positively to change along with fixing the negative things that hinder that adaptability.

The Commission report is a rich menu of ways to strengthen the ILO’s relevance for the twenty-first century’s challenge of preparedness for the uncertainties in the world of work – adapting to a lifelong learning ecosystem, supporting mechanisms to facilitate labour market transitions, closing the gender pay gap (including the sharing of unpaid care work), establishing a universal social protection floor. There is an interesting proposal on expanding “time sovereignty” that sounds a bit far-reaching. Another one on establishing an international governance system for digital labour platforms also appears to be rather premature. But yes, we really should be concerned about the regulation of data use and artificial intelligence and the phenomenon of “digitally mediated work” in the platform economy. For these concerns, the Commission has proposed an innovation lab on digital technologies to support the overriding interest in decent work. As noted previously, the idea of establishing an “expert monitoring group” for this pilot exercise might actually open up the social dialogue.


One could say a lot more about the details in this report from the Centenary Commission, but suffice it here to observe that its ten-point action plan packs in a lot of new ideas while reaffirming the normative importance of a human-centered approach. Some of it may be controversial (e.g. establishing a universal labour guarantee or a lifelong learning ecosystem as a basic right), but it does move the ILO in a forward direction for the twenty-first century. One might want to see a bit more on the kinds of skills that workers will need for the future or on the strengthening of job creation initiatives or coping with a just transition to a green economy. But the overall impression is that the action plan captures the optimism about productive work as the future for everyone, and not just the few that is inspiring the ILO to forge ahead with a vision for the next centenary!

A draft outcomes document is being prepared with consultations among different constituents – and other kinds of stakeholders, too, including other non-state actors. This will then serve as the starting point for a “committee of the whole” at the International Labour Conference in June to articulate a new ILO declaration on a par with the 1919 constitution and the 1945 Philadelphia Declaration. Happy 100th Anniversary! And many happy returns for another hundred!

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One Reply to “The Future of Work and the ILO Centenary”

  1. Many thanks Katherine for forwarding your article. There is more that can be included involving linking trade and labor standards. Chuck, as President at the 1994 ILC (75th anniversary) made reference, which Kari noted (see page 21 of his recent book). I did not attend the 1995 UN “Social Summit” in Copenhagen as the AFL-CIO was in a bitter fight between Tom and John to succeed Lane and Chuck did not want to get us involved by going. The next major event was the WTO Ministerial in Singapore (which Barbara, as new International Director, I and Mark Anderson attended) where serious linkage of labor standards and international trade were effectively locked out. The issue of building a meaningful linkage is still a (difficult) work in progress.

    Another area; When I was worker spokesperson in the STM Committee, it was hard to find Global Union Federations (other than the IUF and sometimes the BWI) who had significant numbers of members in the informal economy. I supported the affiliation of SEWA into the ITUC and advocated unions needed to seriously organize in the informal economy since I wrote “The Challenge of Change” as the theme document for the 1988 ICFTU Congress.

    Last (brief) area; globalization and the shrinkage of the nation-state. Since the end of the Second World War, capital has grown more global, “empires” (Dutch, French, British and more recently, the USSR) have shrunk. The European Union is in trouble and the upcoming elections in May result in a turn to the right. Immigration (over the decade from Ukraine) was the reason behind the Brexit vote. Barcelona and the Basque country may still depart from Spain and Scotland from the UK. Those are just the front burner countries.

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