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The ILO Centenary-Promoting Workers' Rights and Interests

Workers in Barbados will join with their counterparts across the Globe on October 29, this year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The year long celebration of global events to mark the achievements of the ILO’s first 100 years will start this month (January) with the launch of the report of the Global Commission on “The Future of Work”.

Why should the ILO’s centenary celebration be of importance to the workforce in Barbados, you may ask?

So, let’s begin by imagining a Barbados, and, indeed a world where there are no weekends, no vacation leave with pay, no eight-hour working day, no minimum working age, no social justice, no safety and health legislation, and no protection for pregnant or vulnerable workers, or no national insurance.

That is the workplace you might have faced in Barbados if there was no Barbados Workers’ Union, and, globally, if the International Labour Organisation (ILO) did no exist.

Moreover, the ILO is the only tripartite institution at the international level where representatives of governments, employers and workers can express themselves in total independence and play a role of equal importance.  Since the creation of the ILO in 1919, the trade union world not only recognises this collaboration, made necessary by the immense scope and variety of problems of the world of work, but it also regards the ILO as a support for its action and its key point of contact at the international level.

Also of significance as it relates to working conditions, the international labour standards adopted by the International Labour Conference, the Conventions and Recommendations constitute the International Labour Code. The Code covers most of the aspects of working conditions, e.g. industrial relations, human rights, labour administration, employment, vocational training, among other things. The Code prohibits forced labour, discrimination in employment and occupation, and employment of children, among others, and provides in particular for freedom of association of workers and of employers. Conventions are binding on those member States which ratify them

Created in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, the ILO is set to mark 100 years of working for social justice. And the Barbados Workers’ Union, notably through General Secretary, the late Rt. Excellent Sir Frank Walcott, who served on the ILO Governing Body for close to two decades, its former General Secretary, Sir Roy Trotman, who was Chair of the Workers’ Group in the ILO’s Governing Body, and its current General Secretary, Senator Toni Moore, who sits on the ILO Governing Body, has played a major role in the life of the ILO.

The ILO, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland, was created in 1919, at the end of the First World War, at the time of the Peace Conference which convened first in Paris, then at Versailles in France. The need for such an organisation had been advocated in the 19th Century by two industrialists, Robert Owen of England and Daniel Legrand of France.

After having been put to the test with the International Association of Labour Legislation, founded in Basle in 1901, their ideas were incorporated into the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation, adopted by the Peace Conference in April 1919.

The initial motivation behind the setting up of the ILO was humanitarian. The condition of workers, more and more numerous and exploited with no consideration for their health, their family lives and their advancement, was less and less acceptable. The preoccupation appears clearly in the Preamble of the Constitution of the ILO, where it is stated, “conditions of labour exist involving…injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people”.

The second motivation was political. Without an improvement in their condition, the workers, whose numbers were ever increasing as a result of industrialisation, would create unrest even revolution.

The third motivation was economic. Because of its inevitable effect on the cost of production, any industry or country adopting social reform would find itself at a disadvantage vis-à-vis its competitors. The Preamble states that “the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve conditions in their own countries”.

Another reason for the creation of the ILO was added by the participants of the Peace Conference, linked to the end of the war to which workers had contributed significantly both on the battlefield and in industry. The idea appears at the very beginning of the Constitution:”Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it’s based upon social justice.”

The ILO’s Constitution was written between January and April, 1919, by the Labour Commission set up by the Peace Conference. The Commission was composed of representatives from nine countries – Belgium, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, and the United States, under the chairmanship of Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labour (AFL). It resulted in a tripartite organisation, the only one of its kind bringing together representatives of governments, employers and workers in its executive bodies. The ILO Constitution became Part X111 of the Treaty of Versailles.

The first annual International Labour Conference, composed of two representatives from the government, and one each from employers and workers’ organisations from each Member State, met in Washington beginning on 29 October, 1919. It adopted the first six International Labour Conventions, which dealt with:

    • Hours of work in industry;
    • Unemployment protection;
    • Night work for women;
    • Minimum age; and
    • Night work for young persons in industry.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in 1939, the ILO moved temporarily to Canada, becoming one of the few international organisations that functioned uninterrupted throughout that war.

In May 1944, as the war was coming to a close, the ILO adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia. This reaffirmed the ILO’s vision and defined a set of principles that placed human rights at its heart to meet the “aspirations aroused by hopes of a better world.”

The Declaration’s emphasis on human rights was to bear more fruit, with a series of international labour standards – legally-binding Conventions and advisory Recommendations – dealing with labour inspection, freedom of association, the right to organise and collectively bargain (which up to now Barbados has not ratified), equal pay, forced labour and discrimination.

The end of the fighting opened the way to a new phase of ILO activity. In 1945, the ILO became the first specialised agency of the newly formed United Nations, based in New York.

Another post-war change for the ILO was the expansion of its membership. Industrialised countries became a minority, outweighed by developing economies, and so the essential ILO characteristic,

In 1969, on its 50th anniversary, the ILO was awarded the Nobel Prize. Other important milestones include the International Labour Conference’s unanimously-adopted Declaration condemning Apartheid, in 1964, making the ILO one of the first organisations to impose sanctions on South Africa.

In the 1980s the ILO also played a major role in the emancipation of Poland from dictatorship, by giving its full support to the legitimacy of the Solidarnosc independent trade union.

As the 20th Century draw to a close, the ILO’s role continues to evolve to meet changes in the world of work, notably the growing march of globalisation. When the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were formally adopted by the international community, decent work was a crucial component, notably Goal 8 which aims to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment `and decent work.

This month, the month of January, will bring the launch of the report of the Global Commission on the Future of Work. It will mark the start of a year of global events to mark the achievement of the ILO’s first 100 years and to look ahead to the next.