Where is the ILO going with the Centenary Declaration?

By Velibor Jakovleski
Head of Research, Global Governance Centre
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Synopsis: The ILO’s Centenary Declaration seeks a reinvigorated role for the organization in the global governance of work. But it could end up as just another example of compromised adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances.

Keywords: International Labour Organization (ILO); Centenary Declaration; soft instruments; trade; coherence

“What we have adopted today is a roadmap, a compass to take us forward in the future of this Organization, because the future of work is the future of our Organization.” With these words, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder marked the adoption of the ILO’s Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work on 21 June 2019.

The timing of the Declaration is important. The ILO is grappling with difficult questions about the future of work in the face of rapid technological, demographic and environmental changes. Equally important, the ILO is confronting questions about its identity and purpose as it enters its second centenary.

What is an ILO declaration?

The ILO has adopted 7 declarations so far, compared to 196 legally binding international conventions. Declarations are “soft” instruments characterized by relatively lower degrees of obligation, precision, and delegation. Declarations are authoritative statements on certain ILO principles. They are political undertakings intended to have a wide application.

Historically, declarations have been used to provide guidance to the organization during times of crisis. The 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia was arguably the ILO’s most important, having redefined the ILO’s mandate after WWII. It was proactive and positioned the organization to address some of the underlying causes of labour violations. It placed human rights center stage and gave the organization broader range of action and international significance.

What does the Centenary Declaration say?

After hard fought negotiations over the final text, the Centenary Declaration was presented as a “reaffirmation of the relevance and importance of the ILO’s mandate.” Part I-D of the Declaration therefore reiterates the ILO’s quest for social justice, this time by “further developing its human-centred approach to the future of work, which puts workers’ rights and the needs, aspirations and the rights of all people at the heart of economic, social and environmental policies.” According to part III of the Declaration, the ILO and its constituents strive to do so by strengthening people’s capacities in a rapidly transforming labour market, strengthening the institutions of work, and promoting sustainable and inclusive economic growth and decent work.

“By issuing watered down or ambiguous declarations, broad appeal might come at the expense of effectiveness.”

Importantly, the text points to what areas of work the ILO will not give up moving forward. It reiterates the importance of ILO standard-setting and implementation work. In fact, the International Labour Conference adopted a new international labour standard, a Convention to combat violence and harassment at work. As noted elsewhere, the ILO’s standard-setting activities and subsequent ratification rates have been on a steady decline. For example, the ILO’s previous “hard law” instrument, the 2011 Domestic Workers Convention, has only 29 ratifications. The Declaration also suggests a continuing role for the ILO as a knowledge agency and a technical assistance provider. And despite longstanding critiques of the ILO’s overambitious mandate, the Centenary Declaration continues this trend.

The Declaration also calls for “policy coherence” to achieve its human-centred objectives. Both within the multilateral system, and between the public and the private spheres. Coherence is not just the absence of contradictions, it also means “a variable degree of synergy as a result of policies/institutions/instruments working together in order to achieve a common objective”. For EU scholars, policy coherence (called horizontal coherence) is one of three categories, along with coherence across levels of governance (vertical) and institutions (institutional). Through that lens, the Centenary Declaration is mostly concerned with horizontal/policy coherence in the global governance of work. It is an admission that the ILO does not operate alone in the governance of work. It is not an introspective statement about the ILO’s own coherence.

For instance, the Declaration reaffirms the ILO’s tripartite structure, which has remained essentially unchanged since 1919 despite increasing voices calling for its reform. Its lack of representativeness will be compounded as digital transformations contribute to the rise in the share of workers in the informal economy not represented formally within the ILO’s structures. The Centenary Declaration does not entertain ideas about novel forms of representation for this sector within the ILO’s structures. Rather it reiterates the ILO’s goal of “promoting the transition from the informal to the formal economy” (II-A, xiv) and calls for skill development and training for workers to be better placed to benefit from technological progress.

What does it mean for the ILO and the governance of work?

 Optimists would view the Centenary Declaration (and the Violence and Harassment Convention) as another success of tripartism. The fact that governments, workers and employers can still come to an agreement to adopt new instruments, whatever their form, during trying times for multilateralism should be lauded.

After the adoption of the Centenary Declaration, the G20 committed its members to human-centred work policies. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution and called on other UN bodies to consider integrating the Centenary Declaration’s policy proposals into their work. The Council of the EU also called on its Member States to develop human-centred approaches and for continued efforts to ratify and apply ILO conventions.

There are other avenues beyond the ILO’s formal structures where the Declaration can play an important role. One is the relationship between trade and labour. Since 2010, on average more than half of bilateral and regional trade agreements include labour provisions (see the figure below). Not all of them make reference to ILO instruments, but among the ones that do, nearly 70% make reference to the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Rights at Work. Similarly, the Centenary Declaration could be included in future agreements.

ILO BLOG fig 1

Preferential trade agreements offer formal dispute settlement and sanctions in cases of non-compliance. This is something the ILO lacks. Though such punitive measures have been rarely used, they offer a state-based avenue, beyond the ILO’s formal structures, where labour violations cases can be more easily initiated and perhaps won.

Thus, the ILO can use soft-instruments to have a multiplier effect and possibly expand its regulatory reach. This appears to be good for policy coherence globally. It also suggests that evaluations of the effectives of international organizations should not be limited only to their formal constituents.

Pessimists would see the ILO’s latest efforts as yet another example of compromised adaptation. By issuing watered down or ambiguous declarations, broad appeal might come at the expense of effectiveness and indeed coherence. For instance, while the ILO is engaging with the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to promote principles like social dialogue, it is widely accepted that IMF and WB programmes are at odds with core ILO norms and threaten the protection of labour rights.

The Declaration is only a roadmap for action. It might point in a certain direction, but it doesn’t say much about what road to take, or the speed to go. Ultimately, it will be up to Member States and the private sector to put up traffic signs and implement them. This can result in context-dependent and uneven application of labour standards. That is, if they are implemented at all. If Member State policies contradict those mutually agreed at the ILO level, it might look a lot like vertical incoherence to EU scholars.

The Centenary Declaration is a reflection of the ILO’s institutional structures and the broader social context in which they operate. Time will tell if we make it the next  Philadelphia Declaration. In the meantime, we should be asking what degree of incoherence we are willing to accommodate in the governance of work.

This piece draws on a keynote speech delivered at the Future of Work Summit on 27 November 2019 at the Graduate Institute. It is informed by a broader project examining United Nations reform and effectiveness.

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