International Labour History

How can we start to define International Labour laws? It basically wants to protect working rights by observing them and ensuring that they are recognized (Mainwaring, 1986, p.1). Today it is a part of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (Mainwaring, 1986, p.1). At its beginning, its goals were considered very controversial. In fact they still are today because but to a lesser extent since the there has generally been a steady spread of liberalism and its core values of human rights and fundamental freedoms. These values can often be conflicting with the state’s agenda or other actors in the international system that I must acknowledge for the sake of this essay. The ILO initially had high standards set for itself. It first of all wanted to improve the redistribution of wealth (Mainwaring, 1986, p.1). Second of all, it wanted to “improve the conditions of work” through different methods such as encouraging the association with unions and drafting treaties (Mainwaring, 1986, p.1). Third of all, it wanted to help “strengthen” administration systems of labour by providing programs that directly aid the country in need (Mainwaring, 1986, p.1). While it has had its failures especially with the first goal, it has considerably well succeeded with the second and the third.

Before indulging furthermore into the actions of the ILO, it is important to understand its history, its purposes and its internal structure which stands out amongst other international organisations. The ILO was a one of the “products” of the Treaty of Versailles and was officially formed in 1919 (Galenson, 1981, p.4). The leading country in the world, the United States waited until 1934 for several reasons but became more interested once it noticed how dominating the role of the American Federation of Labor would be if it did entered (Galenson, 1981, p.4). Eventually it became clear not only to the American administration but also to Austria, Egypt, the Russian Federation, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Iraq , Turkey , Mexico, , that also entered in the 1930s (ILOLEX) . However during this period there were also some of the funding members, El Salvador, Germany, Honduras, Italy, Nicaragua and Paraguay that left the organisation. Most of them re-entered after the creation of the United Nations (ILOLEX). Today the ILO consists of 182 member states from each populated continent.
Its main purposes were straight forward making it both difficult for attracting new members and difficult for member states to be able to implement the correct policies to ensure it is respecting the ratification of its charter. According to writer Walter Galenson in The International Organisation: An American View, this is the list of purposes of the ILO:

1. Regulation of working hours, including the establishment of a maximum working day and week
2. Regulation of the labor supply
3. Prevention of unemployment
4. Provision of an adequate living wage
5. Protection of the worker against occupational disease and injury
6. Protection of children, young persons, and women
7. Provision for old age and injury
8. Protection of the interests of those working in countries other than their own
9. Equal pay for equal work
10. Protection of freedom of association
11. Organisation of vocational and technical education (1981, p.9)
Later on the, through the 1944 Philadelphia conference the following were added:
1. Full employment and increased living standards
2. Provision for migration and training so that workers can be employed at their full skills
3. Effective recognition of the right of collective bargaining, and labor management cooperation in improving productive efficiency
4. Extension of social security to provide basic income and medical care
5. Provision of adequate nutrition, housing and facilities for recreation and culture
6. Equality of education and vocation opportunity (1981, p.10)

The later addition as you can see included some other factors that have to do with the condition and opportunity of a person by stressing the importance of “living standards” and “education”. The reason why it is important to have a full list of its purposes will be evident when case studying the efficiency of the organisation.

The International Labor Organisation is divided into 6 major departments, the first being Standards and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Sector (STANDARDS), the second being Employment Sector (EMPLOYMENT), the third Social Protection Services (PROTECTION), the fourth Social Dialogue Sector (DIALOGUE), the fifth Management and Administration (EDMAS) and the sixth Administrative Tribunal (TRIB) (ILO) . The title of each pretty much speaks for itself thus we will examine the particular tripartism system it functions with that makes it so unique. Basically it puts each actor that influence, or live the consequences of labor conditions are on equal grounds, putting together, the government, the employer and the employees in an ideal position for open “consultation, negotiations and exchange of information” (ILO).

As for the management of the organisation, the 2006-2007 budget was of an expenditure of $594,310,000 USD with the income being 100 per cent from its member states and approximately 11 per cent going to policy-making organs, approximately 74 per cent for strategic objectives, approximately 9 per cent for management and services and approx 17 per cent for other costs and fees (ILO budget doc). Afterwards, the most important details in the budget is how the money is being allocated to different countries, or in a more general term, continents. Field programs in Africa were receiving about 30 per cent of money going towards field programs, the Americas 25 per cent, in the Arab States 6 per cent , Asia and the Pacific 27 per cent, and in Europe and Central Asia 10 per cent (ILO budget doc). While providing funding to field programs, this international organisation has also been providing reliable statistics, databases, publications and researches.

This essay will be focusing on an analysis of the successes and failures of the International Labor Organisation. The bulk will be on a case study between two former colonies, Hong Kong and Nambia and the role the ILO played in protecting worker’s rights and how it failed or succeed and why. The last part of the essay will be concerning other ILO projects that have either been rewarding or an embarrassment to the organisation. I am attempting to show how many factors contribute to ensuring people are given their rights and that they are working under good conditions with the aid of the ILO.
Hong Kong

China has been a part of the ILO since 1919 during which China is a British. Britain controlled Hong Kong from 1841 to 1997 and consequently was a major player in the tripartist negotiation tactics of the International Labor Organisation(commonwealth online).Sek Hong, the author of Labour Relations and Labour Conditions in Hong Kong identifies the major issues with labor in Hong Kong which were “(i) work schedules, shift arrangements and other procedures governing task operation; (ii) working conditions and environment; (iii) employee fringe benefits and welfare amenities, including recreation, transport canteen and meal provisions, etc.; (iv) occupational health and safety; (v) employee training and career development; [and](vi) employee discipline, moral and labour/staff relations at the workplace” (1989, p.114).

These issues can be studied by looking at the six different types businesses present in the early 1980’s. The first had the most open employee-employer relationship because it was the “small, privately owned Cantonese enterprises”. The second, the “large, privately owned Cantonese enterprises” was basically divided into three. There was the permanent core which was basically relying on a patrilineal system with the non permanent core which had outsiders playing important roles and then there was the periphery which constituted ordinary workers mostly in the textile, knitting, plastic and food industry (Sek Hong, 1989, p.116). The closer you were to the permanent core the more respect was given to you as a worker. The third of these business types was the “large, privately owned Shanghainese enterprise” that was a solid base enterprise, for it had a relatively long history that started in the 1940’s and 1950’s (Sek Hong, 1989, p.116). Because of this experience, they were more organized and most of them provide more to their workers such as meals and money for transportation. The fourth includes the “multinational enterprise”. This one is dominated by scientific led hegemon, the United States. In these areas of work, the employees are provided with even more than the Shanghainese enterprise, however there was zero tolerance in trade unions and not much interest in “joint consultation”. The fifth were “joint-stock British companies”. Workers were provided with similar benefits as in multinational enterprises but there was one big difference – there was a shift from patrimonialism to paternalism. This means that there were contracts that put everyone on relatively equal level and all family ties were ignored. The last of the different types of enterprises is the “government enterprise”. Basically this was the best when it came to benefits and to top that, the government was fairly optimistic in allowing unions to be formed.

International labour Conventions were able to help in the creation and respect of standards to help protect women and young workers by banning working hours between 10 pm and 6 am who were important victims, especially in the privately owned Canotnese industry in the 1920’s (Sek-Hong, 1989, p.158). In addition to those bans, by 1932 there was also the “complete ban” on hiring children younger than 12 years of age (Sek-Hong, 1989, p.158). Meanwhile, the first ban grew from 10 pm to 6 am to 9 pm to 7 am (Sek-Hong, 1989, p.158). Although these rules were quite well respected through the 1920’s and 1930’s, it became difficult for the government and the large privately owned Cantones enterprises, the large privately owned Shangainese enterprises, the multinational enterprises, even the joint-stock British companies and the government enterprises to respect these rule on the outbreak of World War II.
It is important to recall the key role that Britain played since it was the colonial power of Hong Kong at the time. Having this crucial position, policy decisions were done with the Crowns consent and approval. Hence, Britain’s interest in Hong Kong on an economic level deeply influenced when such rules were implemented and why.

Nonetheless, these rights and others were recognized and valued more in the late 1940s. There are four conventions that are the cause of this trend. The first was the “Right of Association Convention” of 1947 which gave applied to the “non-metropolitan” territories were traditional ways were the norm and labour conditions were not concerning (Sek-Hong, 1989, p.59). This convention gave workers the opportunity to protect to use collectiveness as a tool of protection while being sure that their unions were also protected (Sek-Hong, 1989, p.59). This open lines of communication between the employer and the employer that were previously one-way lines of communication.

Than the ILO drafted another convention, in 1949, named Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention. This one protected employers from the outcome of the first convention by preventing discrimination towards unions and union members (Sek-Hong, 1989, p.60). The combination of this convention and the Trade Unions Ordinance later in 1971 would secured the “right to associate and organise” for employers as much as employees throughout the years.
In the same year of the second convention, Hong Kong decided to create the “Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention”. This convention firstly allows any official form of workers’ organisation to “draw up their own constitutions and rules, freely elect their representatives and organise their administration [and] activities” without the interference of the employer (Sek-Hong, 1989, p. 61). Other important rights came along with this convention, such as “freedom from suspension or dissolution by administrative authorities” (Sek-Hong, 1989, p. 61). Even if this convention was not drafted by the ILO itself, the consistent pressure that it was putting on the Hong Kong government contributed as well to its creation. Another factor was Britain that did seem to want to cooperate furthermore on protecting workers’ rights in Hong Kong. Despite that, it is not quite clear if it was because of the devastation that followed the end of WWII or if it was its membership to the United Nations that has strong moral values for human rights and fundamental freedoms and to which the ILO had become an integral part of.

The third convention that helped make an issue out of poor working conditions was later in 1971. This convention was basically to seal the protection of union members against discrimination. In a whole, Hong Kong trade unions under the British control were independent from government as long as there are no legal consequences that would impede an employee by associating themselves with these unions (Sek-Hong, 1989, p.62).

A part from the conventions, the ILO was also able to make sure that member states were loyal to their commitments by obliging them to provide a report per two year detailing exactly how the state, and its colonies as for the case of Britain, have been implementing the ratification of the conventions (Sek-Hong, 1989, p.43). these obligations along with the ILO in a whole became an integral part of the United Nations in 1946 (ILO origins and History).

The major issue in the Namibia, which was formally known as Southwest Africa, was also a colonial influence. In the case of Hong Kong it was the colonial influence that was non traditional and hence accorded certain standards before the traditionally owned industries. However, in Namibia the German colonial system had imposed the Apartheid which was a racial degrading system. Unlike Hong Kong that was a member of the ILO early on, 1919, because of Britain, Namibia became a member state only in 1978, two years before achieving its independence from South Africa in 1990 and a decade before South Africa decided to end its Apartheid administration in 1988 (ILO online; Gillian, 1979, p.5-13). Germany was a member of the International Labor Organisation from 1919 to 1935 and then from 1935 on but was not interested in treating Southwest Africans with the working conditions that were accorded to them through the International Labor Organisation (ILO online). Although there are lots of other factors that may have contributed by making the ILO’s mandate in Namibia more or less difficult, these are the other elements relative to the successes and failures of the ILO in Namibia: first, there were two major industries that absolutely did not respect working conditions; second, there was the apartheid economy; third, there was no right to organise.

The most important economy in Namibia was and still is mining. The job was done of course by black people in life threatening conditions (Gillian, 1979, p. 52). Workers were given a place to sleep which apparently looked and felt like a prison and they would work from 7 am to 5 pm mining without any breaks at all (Gillian, 1979, p.53). The Tsumeb Corporation which owned American Metal Climax Inc and Newmont Mining Corporation would also take black workers as gardeners and busboys. Though the pay in the mining industry was better than any other industry, the black labour received nothing in comparison to the white workers who basically only gave orders (Gillian, 1979, p.53). Not only would the black workers do the hardest work but they were also humiliated in diamond minds that demanded they remove all their clothing to be x-rayed at the end of work while white workers only needed to remove items from their pockets. The agricultural industry followed a similar pattern but the pay was even worst. Whereas in the mining industry, there was a need from strong enough and healthy enough workers, in agriculture this was not an as important prerequisite. Thus there were a lot more young workers and a lot more old workers (Gillian, 1979, p. 65).

Although the apartheid administration no longer exists the ILO still faces some of the consequences of it today. In 1977, Namibia’s primary economic sector had about 28.8 per cent of white workers in it and 31.5 per cent of black workers in it; the secondary sector had 12.8 per cent of white
workers in it and 9.7 per cent of black workers in it; and the tertiary sector had 58.9 per cent of white workers in it and 58.9 per cent of black workers in it but in contrast to the white workers that were in concentrated in the government sector at 42.5 per cent, the black were concentrated in the domestic sector at 31.1 per cent (Gillian, 1979, p.23)

It was virtually impossible for workers to come together and for unions. The strength that can come in numbers was continuously “broken by authorities” sometimes by simply shooting the workers that were stirring up trouble (Gillian, 1979, p71). The government took away all methods that could be used to oppose it so that even striking had become illegal (Gillian, 1979, p.73). These actions taken by the government to ensure white supremacy in the area have had long term effects on Namibia which still has most of its major industries owned by white people.

So as you can see, the International Labour Organisation had to face issues not only with working conditions related to the employers willingness to give but also with racial discrimination that is still present today even if the Apartheid has been abolished. Woman, even if they were not discussed in this version of the Namibian worker’s history, along with children who are primarily in the agriculture sector are still vulnerable victims in this environment. To help protect them, the ILO has “helped in data analysis and the writing of the report of The Child Activity Survey” and from 2000 to 2002 it has vigorously supported the “Department of Woman Affairs” which has now become the” Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Child Welfare”. The ILO can be credited for this transformation in that provides “technical assistance” to a conference aimed at economically empowering women in an attempt to also eradicate poverty. Still regarding women’s position in the economy, the ILO has also “trained commissioners within the Employment Equity Commission” with issues of gender equality. So not only is it trying to change a state’s approach to workers’ rights but it is also trying to perfection its system in order to become more efficient in its own work. And like Hong Kong, Nambia ratifies some conventions – seven out of the Fundamental Conventions.
Other Cases
The International Labor Organization was again influenced by many factors. There was a an incident of violation against human rights just as a much as against workers rights in 1969, where workers from a trade union were killed because they were striking (Panford, 1994, p. 133). The problem here was that the incident was reported to the international organization in a form of a “complaint”. Consequently the ILO did not send the Committee of Freedom of Association to investigate the claim. Again in Ghana, there was another incident where the government fired over 200 employees. When the complaint was received it took too much time for the ILO to make a decision which gave the government the time to reconstruct its administration and withdraw the complaint in order to have a good image (Panford, 1994, p. 133).

When the Kenyan government attempt to do the same, the complaints were taken seriously and the ILO reacted quickly by “restoring the trade union rights of the workers affected” (Panford, 1994, p. 134). The government on the other hand disagreed with the decision that had been rendered by the ILO and almost immediately “stripped” the unions of collective bargaining rights (Panford, 1994, p. 134) there was nothing left for the ILO do to afterwards.

The International Labor Organisation has been able to use its negotiation tactics in which it has had a lot more successes. When trade union members were arrested in 1986 because they were planning a protest, the ILO was able to use good offices to have them released (Panford, 1994, p. 134). All three sides were ready to peacefully resolve the issue and it was over and done within a two week period.

In the case of Hong Kong it is difficult to measure the ILO’s contribution to today’s respect of worker’s right because of the shift of ownership from British to Chinese which makes it difficult to determine whether or not the ILO’s presence was actually useful in Hong Kong. China has a horrific history when it comes to the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms and the area of Hong Kong is not free of it. It was reported in August of 2008 by the Labour Net, that the International Olympic Community, has failed in preventing the “widespread exploitation of workers” in producing products with the Olympic logo. Campaigners have been in the streets of Hong Kong trying to raise the issue and pressure the IOC to put an end to it, which it refuses to do (2008). This is when we realize why the ILO’s tripartite system is so important. Using this recent as an example, there needs to be the consent and the willingness of the government to not allow its people to be exploited by either international corporations or domestic and the same goes for the employees. In this instance, there is China who is trying its best to impress the rest of the world with the vitality of its industrialization and there is the IOC that is most likely thinking profit more than it is thinking human rights and fundamental freedoms. In my view if it was thinking either it would not have allowed China to host the Olympics in the first place. Nonetheless, this is not an isolated case. China, along with Hong Kong, it has been renowned for its desire to grow regardless of the loses that may come along the way including human dignity.

In the case of Namibia, the ILO has been rather good at bringing about changes for workers. Unlike China, Namibia went from a horrible government to a better government. This could be debated with Hong Kong, however racial discrimination was never to the same extent as the Apartheid in Southwest Africa. The ILO has especially made a difference by providing technical assistance to different organizations that are trying to improve the condition of work and give more equality on a gender, and racial level. Today one of the main problems deriving from Namibia and other areas of Africa are conflict diamonds which is out of the reach of the ILO policies. However it has been providing reliable reports on the condition of workers’ rights which seems to have been progressively improving over the years.

Namibia was a greater success to the International Labor Organisation than China because the implementations were able to sustain whereas in Hong Kong they were not. In my opinion this is due to the British rule that allowed Hong Kong to preserve traditional industries along with their traditional ways while in Southwest Africa the illegal German control from South Africa completely suppressed the locals on the basis of skin colour. When their was a government change, Hong Kong begun to belong to an authoritarian state that controls social and private life but Namibia, although not perfect, has finally gotten leaders who reflect the black population and who are interested in protecting their rights.

When looking at the three other cases, there is one particular factor that seems to be the determining factor in whether or not the ILO will success or not. That would be its tripartism, that allows it to negotiate more efficiently. However the three other cases have also been able to show to what extent, it is difficult for any international organisation to render a decision. For example, the Ghana case illustrated their convictions to their Conventions and how a state can by pass some of the rules that it should be respecting.
By looking at some of the challenges that the International Labor Organisation will have to face in this century, I strongly believe that the same issues will come out over and over again. To name a few, there was the problem with respecting traditional values and ways while at the same time taking a modern liberal approach to the way workers should be treated in Hong Kong; there is a the problem with dealing with colonial rule which have brought deep racial issues in Namibia and other parts of the world; there is the difficulty of the ILO of being able to render decisions accordingly and legally in Ghana; there is the problem with state’s that still suppress their people because of their affiliation in trade unions in Kenya and in Nigeria.
The International will have a lot more to face as history take its course and factors change from century to century. However I do believe that it has done an impressive job over the years and that the simple fact that it has lasted for so long shows that it is able to adjust itself to different situations in different parts of the world regardless of time.


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