INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANISATION, 1919-1939
DO YOU THINK IT WAS A SUCCESS?
In most textbooks, all you are told about the ILO is that it failed to implement a 48-hour week. This is unfair; the ILO did much, much more than that. This detailed analysis will tell you what the ILO tried to do, and will help you decide whether you think it was a success or a failure.
Like the PCIJ, the ILO was a new, radical idea – the idea of an international forum for regulating the conditions of labour had only been mooted (by the Swiss government) in 1885.
Nevertheless, the idea of an ILO was warmly supported by President Wilson, so on 11 April 1919 the Paris Peace Conference created an ‘International Labour Organisation’, and instructed it ‘to proceed at once with its work’.
At first, the membership of the ILO was identical to that of the League, but when Brazil left the League in 1926 it did NOT leave the ILO, and in 1934 the USA joined the ILO but not the League. This was a critical event in the history of the ILO, because the Depression was at its height, and the political situation was becoming increasingly difficult; unlike the League, the entry of the USA saved the ILO. It survived the war and in 1944, at Philadelphia, the ILO restated its founding principles, and it has continued it work ever since under the aegis of the United Nations.
In 1921, the ILO had 250 officials to do its work; by 1930 this had risen to 400 (the figure in 1969 was 2800), so it was permanently understaffed (and it is amazing that it achieved what it achieved with so few officials). Throughout its life, also, it depended on the donations of member-countries, so it struggled for money.
The ILO met once a year, in July in Geneva. Each country sent a delegation comprised of two members of the government, a representative of the employers, and a representative of the workers/unions (2+1+1). Delegates were frequently challenged as being ‘unrepresentative’, and one case even got as far as being taken to the PCIJ.
Actions of the ILO – was it a success?
1. Direct intervention
The ILO made only one attempt at direct intervention, when it tried after 1924 to find employment for Armenian refugees displaced by persecution; by 1929, it had found jobs for only 50,000, and was obliged to pass the task back to the League of Nations. In this, the ILO failed, and it never tried again.
2. Research and Technical Assistance
The ILO got a reputation for expertise in labour matters, which caused many governments to seek its advice; in this, it was a success.
a. Information and statistics
In this area of its work, the ILO has been very successful, since it has ‘spread the message’ of good practice, and helped countries which wished to improve to do so:
b. Advisory Missions
After 1930, the ILO started to carry out ‘advisory missions’, helping governments to set up labour systems – e.g. helping Greece and Romania set up systems of social insurance (1930), helping China introduce factory inspection (1931), helping Egypt (1932) and Cuba (1934) to set up Labour departments, helping the USA to set up its system of social security (1936) etc.
In this area of its work, again, the ILO has been very successful, since it has ‘spread the message’ of good practice, and helped countries which wished to improve to do so.
The ILO produced two kinds of decisions:
1. Conventions – these are intended to have the authority of international ‘laws’;
2. Recommendations – these are a kind of ‘model code’ which are meant to stand as an example which countries are encouraged to try to copy.
When a Convention has been formulated and passed by the ILO, those countries who are prepared to obey the Convention ‘ratify’ it; this does not mean that they do obey it, only that they promise to do so. Thus, the Conventions adopted by the ILO are only binding on the countries which ratify them, and even they may not obey them.
a. The Conventions
At its first meeting, at Washington, the ILO passed twelve detailed Conventions.
By 1946, the ILO had adopted 67 Conventions, which had together received 902 ratifications from a total of 50 countries.
Not every area that the ILO has made rulings has been a success; click on the headings to see what you think:
b. Monitoring and Effect
The system by which the ILO sought to enforce its Conventions was called ‘mutual supervision’ – every year, member states were supposed to submit a report to the ILO stating how successfully the Conventions it had ratified had been implemented.
Until 1926, the ILO had no process to scrutinise these reports, so it just accepted them without comment. From 1927, however, a special committee was appointed to analyse the submissions and produce a report, but the ILO has no means by which to force countries to implement Conventions if they do not wish to.
However, there is an argument just agreeing and publicising international labour ‘laws’ and their implementation has a massive effect; it carried an immense moral weight pressurising governments and employers to adhere to international standards. So, although a number of individual Conventions failed, it can be argued that the ILO’s work was a great success.
While the value of the ILO's mission to work for peace through social justice has been recognised in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, it is only too obvious that social justice has not yet been realised... Must the conclusion follow that the ILO has so far been a failure? if the 'Big Three' at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, who gave their blessing to the ILO at its birth, could have met to ask themselves whether their hopes for it had been justified, Clemenceau the realist might have said 'Yes', Woodrow Wilson the idealist certainly 'No', while Lloyd George, the master of compromise, might have said: 'Failure or success, the ILO has never stopped trying'.
GA Johnston, The International Labour Organisation (1970)
GA Johnston was British. he worked for the ILO from its start, rising to become Assistant-Director in 1948-53.