The ILO at 100: Showing its wrinkles or its cracks?

By Velibor Jakovleski
Head of Research, Global Governance Centre, Graduate Institute

International Organizations (IOs) have a high survival rate. They are more likely to produce unwanted results than to cease to exist. But for IOs to remain legitimate and effective, they require routine maintenance. Arguably that should ring truer the older an IO becomes.

Established in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is among the oldest IOs in operation. Its unique tripartite structure – which gives a voice to unions, employer groups and national governments in shaping standards and policies – was revolutionary when it was established. Remarkably, this institutional apparatus has remained relatively unchanged over the ILO’s 100-year history.

Other aspects of the ILO – like its intentionally flexible mandate and universal membership – were prescient organizational design choices. They have helped the ILO navigate transformative global changes. The ILO survived the Second World War, which destroyed  the League of Nations (a rare example of organizational dismantling). Its unique institutional features have also helped place the organization at the forefront of global debates on social justice and the world of work. Fifty years after it was founded, for example, the ILO’s work was rewarded with the 1969 Nobel Peace Prize.

But fifty years further down the road and the picture appears different. As the ILO celebrates its centenary, it is presented with a new set of policy problems and faces increased pressure to adapt. Globalization and technological change have raised questions about the nature of work and social relationship more broadly. Ongoing challenges to multilateralism and the retreat from global governance process by some key stakeholders compounds those problems.

Among recent critiques of the ILO, many centre on the low ratification rates of its conventions and its declining standard-setting role (see figure below).

Graph ILO- The Global
Source: Jakovleski et al (2019)

With trade union mem­bership on the decline and large numbers of companies not affiliated with their national employer groups, the representativeness of the ILO today is also questionable. The ILO’s tripartite structure as it stands only reflects the formal economy. Yet by the its own estimates, over 60% of the world’s employed population – some 2 billion people – are in the informal economy. A majority of those are in emerging and developing countries where violations of labour rights are more frequent. Their voices and concerns have been largely left out of the ILO’s formal processes.

So on its 100th birthday, is the ILO simply showing its wrinkles or are they more fundamental cracks in the organization’s foundation?

In a piece co-authored with Thomas Biersteker and Scott Jerbi, we argue that the ILO has adapted recently in an attempt to reassert its global role. Its recent efforts entail a process of incremental change to the rules, actors, and mechanisms of governance. The chapter is part of a special issue of International Development Policy entitled “The ILO @ 100” which examines important questions about social protection and the future of work.

Why has change been gradual and of­ten at the margins, despite growing concerns that the ILO’s global standing has been in decline? Even during periods of major social change (e.g. wars, global economic crises) significant organizational change does not come about easily. Under conditions where actors are either unwilling (e.g. the tripartite actors) or formally unable (e.g. the International Labour Office) to undertake significant change, the ILO’s recent reform efforts are examples of ‘institutional layering’. Layering does not alter the formal institutional framework of an organisation. Rather, it involves new actors, rules or practices being appended to existing institutions, which continue to enjoy a degree of legitimacy.

theGlobal Jakovleski ILO (1)
Layering has helped the ILO adapt and resulted in more complex institutional arrangements. That can have important effects on the future of the organization.

Recent evidence of layering by the ILO includes a shift towards soft law instruments to promote respect for labour rights, rather than an exclusive focus on traditional interna­tional legal instruments. For example, the recently concluded 108th session of the International Labour Conference adopted of a new convention to combat violence and harassment at the workplace. Yet the more challenging questions about the future of work in the face of rapid technological, demographic and environmental changes were addressed with a softer, non-binding instrument, the so-called ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work.

Other examples of institutional layering by the ILO include developing, with respect to implementation and capacity building, partnerships with multiple and diverse actors beyond ac­tion undertaken exclusively within its tripartite structure. Additionally, the ILO is gradually opening it­self to the role of decentralized governance mechanisms and self-regulation to complement the traditional state-based steering model relied.

As a strategy of adaptation institutional layering is a viable short-term option. For instance, softer instruments like declarations and recommendations are a means by which to fill gaps in the ILO’s standard setting. They can help build consensus gradually on contested issues (e.g. what constitutes the ‘informal econo­my’ and how to address it). By collaborating with new actors and self-regulation initiatives beyond its formal structures, the ILO can help forge trust among willing partners. Such commitments can then crystallize over time into more formalized standards, norms, and implementation systems on spe­cific issues. History shows that many formal institutions have informal begin­nings, suggesting a potential to augment the ILO’s future standard-setting and governance roles.

But this model of adaptation can have further effects. Layering opens the door for other actors, rules, and processes to contest the authority of the ILO and its social partners in the im­plementation and development of global labour standards. And over time such incremental adjustments can accumulate and lead to a disjunc­ture between formal rules and actual practices. That would place greater demands on the ILO for more substantial change. How that contes­tation unfolds will inform whether the ILO will be smoothing out its wrinkles or filling in deeper cracks.

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