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The ILO @ 100: in Search of Renewed Relevance

Gilles Carbonnier and Christophe Gironde
p. 3-19
This article is a translation of:
L’OIT centenaire : pertinence et défis dans un monde du travail en mutation [fr]


As the International Labour Organization (ILO) celebrates its centenary, its founding precept remains as relevant as ever: the main breeding grounds for threats to peace are the injustices and unequal opportunities that result from ongoing economic transformation. The moral idea that forged the ILO still lies at the heart of the international efforts for peace and development driving the Agenda for Humanity, the Agenda for Sustainable Development and the consensus on the need for inclusive growth that will “leave no one behind”.

This introductory chapter explains the rationale behind the 11th special issue of International Development Policy, which addresses questions around the ILO’s capacity for action and its effectiveness, the relevance of its programmes and ability to adapt to a world of work undergoing profound change. The volume of thirteen chapters highlights the tensions that constitute the ILO and its action, the changing and different environments in which the Organization operates, and the initiatives taken by the ILO to respond to these challenges. The need for adaptation is especially pronounced today in view of the acceleration of technological developments and radical changes in the organisation of employment and work, and the consequent impact on social protection systems.

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The authors would like to thank anonymous reviewers and others who provided valued comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this chapter.

We shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

John Maynard Keynes, 1963 [1931]

1. The Context of the Centenary

1When it turned fifty, the International Labour Organization (ILO) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At the award ceremony on 10 December 1969, the chair of the Nobel Committee justified the decision in these words: “There are few organizations that have succeeded to the extent that the ILO has, in translating into action the fundamental moral idea on which it is based” (Lionaes, 1969). This fundamental moral idea can be found in a document that lies beneath the foundation stone of the ILO building in Geneva: “If you desire peace, cultivate justice”.

2As the Organization celebrates its centenary, this precept remains as relevant as ever: the main breeding grounds for threats to peace are the injustices and unequal opportunities that result from ongoing economic transformation. The moral idea that forged the ILO still lies at the heart of the international efforts for peace and development driving the Agenda for Humanity, the Agenda for Sustainable Development and the consensus on the need for inclusive growth that will “leave no one behind”.

  • 1 This study published by the ILO, is subtitled ‘Is it possible to regulate without enforcing?’.

3However, the ILO faces severe criticism, first and foremost over whether it actually does have the capacity for action that was lauded half a century ago by the Nobel Committee. What are the powers of the ILO, which—unlike the World Trade Organization—has neither the mechanisms to impose sanctions, nor the financial leverage of organisations such as the World Bank, but operates through persuasion? With a biennial budget of less than USD 800 million, the ILO has limited resources to address even the broad structural issues that stop states fulfilling commitments under the ILO Core Conventions let alone ensure decent employment conditions in new sectors, equal pay for men and women and fight against forced and child labour, etc. Do the lack of sanctions and financial resources mean that it is powerless or paralysed? To what extent can the ILO expect to regulate and significantly affect working conditions and social protection at the global level if it lacks strong enforcement mechanisms? (see Maupin, 2012)1. The question of the ILO’s capacity for action is indeed inseparable from that of the capacity and will of states to implement the ILO’s instruments, as illustrated by the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (La Hovary, 2009), which aimed to encourage ratifications with a follow-up mechanism, a strategy that actually worked when considering the number of ratifications (La Hovary, 2009).

4The power of the ILO is also being challenged on the ideological front by organisations such as the OECD, which contributed to a paradigm shift in social protection in the 1970s and 1980s (Leimgruber, 2013). For some analysts, the ILO also faces challenges from neo-liberal reforms and the growing influence of multinational companies in the UN system, for example with the Global Compact launched in 1999. If such initiatives reduce the regulatory capacity of states, this would undermine one of the ILO’s key tools—the ILO Standards (Ahooja-Patel, 2005). From this perspective, the ILO has not been able to avoid the increasing commodification of labour, which has become an adjustment variable in financial and economic cycles and entails high levels of insecure working conditions and low levels of pay for the most vulnerable people.

5Has the ILO perhaps lost the battle that aimed to bring Karl Polanyi’s ‘Great Transformation’ to an end? A century after its creation, the ILO operates in a context where labour laws struggle to keep pace with the increasing complexity of labour markets (Trebilcock, 2004). The need for the ILO to adapt to different historical, geographical and institutional settings is not new (Rodgers et al., 2009). Yet, the acceleration of technological change and the integration of markets is dramatically reshaping the relationship between labour and capital and reinforcing tensions between social justice and worker productivity. The automation and ‘uberisation’ of work are profoundly affecting labour relations and the social protection systems that are bound to employment. The ILO is well aware that it will need to promote innovative policies (ILO, 2018a), many of which are at the experimental stage, to avoid decoupling social protection and employment. Otherwise, there is the risk that the implementation of contributory social protection models, together with more flexibility in labour markets and overall reduction of regulations protecting workers (ILO, 2018a), would further increase social inequalities and economic insecurity (Alvaredo et al., 2018; ILO, 2018b).

6Another criticism of the ILO centres on tripartism. Structurally, tripartism has been the subject of tensions between the Organization and member states which aim to restrict the freedoms of worker and employer organisations (Rodgers et al., 2009), and because of substantive disagreement between employer and worker groups, for instance on the right to strike (La Hovary, 2015). The narrowing representativeness of the ILO constituents due to the changes in the world of work and labour markets is another major issue regarding this unique feature of the Organization (La Hovary, 2015).

7As Guy Standing argues (2008, 355), is the ILO now simply fighting to preserve its relevance? The Organization and the Secretary General himself are sparing no effort to disseminate the results of studies and programmes and launch slogans and new initiatives. This is certainly a reflection of the present-day imperative to constantly communicate in order to be significant; it also illustrates the battle for ideas and the competition among international organisations, who are all striving to make themselves heard and remain relevant.

8Put together for the centenary of the ILO, this special issue of International Development Policy addresses questions around the Organization’s capacity for action and its effectiveness, the relevance of its programmes and ability to adapt. The volume adopts a diachronic approach, providing a retrospective review of the ILO’s contributions, highlighting the progress and shortcomings to date, and looking forward at the context and constraints under which the ILO and its stakeholders would have to evolve and innovate to meet the new challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.

9The editors invited authors to address the following questions:

10• How and to what extent has the ILO adapted to the changing global economic and political context? What were the tensions and balances between its mission of social justice and protection, and the growing imperative of productivity tied to economic globalisation? What tensions were at play between agents of change and supporters of the status quo? How have tripartite decision-making mechanisms worked, both at Geneva headquarters and in the field? How are global governance and the balance of power between the ILO and other actors changing, and what initiatives were aimed at reforming and maintaining the Organization’s influence?

11• How has the ILO evolved in its vision, position and action to protect the most vulnerable, in the context of fiscal austerity and a reduction in protection systems and public expenditures in many countries? What steps has the ILO taken to address the needs of the 150 million children under the age of 15 who are working; on women in the agricultural sector; on migrant workers; and to strengthen social protection in developing countries?

12• How can the ILO confront the challenges of digitisation, automation and the ‘uberisation’ of work that, coupled with artificial intelligence, may lead to a reduction in the number of jobs? How can the organisation put into practice its stated ambition to “take hold of the fourth industrial revolution” (Le Temps, 2016)? And what measures should accompany ecological transition and the emergence of the green economy that, according to the ILO (ILO, 2018c), could generate 24 million jobs worldwide by 2030 provided that good policies are put in place? And what lessons can be drawn from the changes happening to working conditions in Europe?

13We inevitably had to make certain choices about what to include in the volume leading to some gaps in terms of themes and geographic coverage. For instance, there is no chapter dedicated specifically to the role of worker and employer organisations, to gender relations and inequalities between men and women, nor the informal sector. These topics are nonetheless addressed in several chapters in this volume, including tripartite relations with regard to trade unions (Chapter 4) and women farmers (Chapter 8). In addition, the second part of the volume deals extensively with working conditions and initiatives and measures implemented on behalf of categories of workers that have long remained outside the scope of the ILO.

2. What Lessons Can We Draw from the Past?

  • 2 The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), for example, in the development of th (...)

14The first part of this volume draws heavily on history to analyse the contemporary challenges facing the ILO in fulfilling its mandate and function. These challenges initially arise internally, which has been the case ever since the creation of the ILO, as Sandrine Kott reminds us (Chapter 2). On the one hand, there have been changes in the respective influence of the three streams of inspiration of the Organization (social democratic, social Christian and reformist-liberal) and the movements and organisations that have embodied them and supported the work of the ILO.2 On the other hand, the normative approach has been questioned by the developmentalist approach of economists who came to prominence in the 1930s and made productivity a priority from the 1950s onwards. From a socio-historical perspective, Marieke Louis (Chapter 3) highlights the importance of the ‘long term representation’ of elected members of the Governing Body on the dynamics of influence within the Organization. May Hermanus, Sizwe Phakathi, Nancy Coulson and Paul Stewart (Chapter 4) also draw on history in the South African context, recalling the role played by the ILO in providing financial and technical assistance at the end of the apartheid regime, which the Organization had strongly opposed. Velibor Jakovleski, Scott Jerbi and Thomas Biersteker (Chapter 5) also take a historical approach in their account of the ILO’s attempts over the last 20 years to reform and maintain its influence, notably by promoting non-binding standards and relying on a range of incentives to encourage states to adopt these standards.

15Tripartism holds a prominent place in critical reflection on the functioning and activity of the ILO, and consequently on the future of the Organization and of international labour law (La Hovary, 2015). The case of the mining sector in post-apartheid South Africa illustrates the challenges of statutory tripartism (Chapter 4, this volume). In the context of the withdrawal of economic sanctions and the internationalisation of mining companies, the effort to institutionalise tripartism has struggled with the strategies of the mining companies, which increasingly turned to opportunities abroad. The erosion of the capacity of trade unions to represent their workers, due to the promotion of union leaders to supervisory and managerial positions, presents another challenge. And the multiplicity of unions, reflecting a strong stratification and division among mining workers, is a further complicating issue.

16An examination of tripartism, however, is not sufficient to understand “what the ILO does or cannot do”, says Marieke Louis (Chapter 3, this volume). Her analysis not only raises the question of the representativeness of the International Labour Conference, and the Governing Body in particular, it also highlights the presence of actors and powers without “constitutional or regulatory existence”, best illustrated by the group of Industrialized Market Economy Countries (IMEC).

17The analysis of change within the ILO can be linked to changes in international politics and economic development, showing how the Organization has been able to play on the balance of power, as it did with the ‘communist threat’ during the Cold War. It also shows how the Organization was subjected to competition from other international organisations, such as the health section of the League of Nations in the interwar period, and the OECD since the 1970s. The intrusive representation of non-governmental organisations as well as private companies also sheds light on the way the ILO operates. With the development of fora and mechanisms of governance outside ILO structures, the Organization has had to engage in multi-stakeholder platforms with other international organisations as well as in public–private partnerships. This is often perceived as a constraint or compromise, sometimes even compromising the basic principles of the Organization. But it can also present an opportunity for more effective action, as in the case of occupational health in the mining sector in South Africa, or a way forward, as Sandrine Kott argues, for activists involved in the protection of domestic workers.

3. Protecting People

18To date, four billion people, 55 per cent of the world’s population, have no social protection system, and a further 1.2 billion people are only partially and inadequately protected, as the ILO states in its World Social Protection Report 2017-19 (ILO, 2017). This lack of protection, says the Organization, is particularly pronounced for children (1.3 billion of them have no social security) and pregnant women. Moreover, only a small percentage of workers have unemployment, accident or sickness protection, while those in the informal sector do not benefit from any formal protection system. However, notable progress has been made in some countries in the provision of benefits for children and the implementation of universal coverage for health and retirement, but the levels of benefit are often insufficient to lift the beneficiaries out of poverty.

19The commitment of national governments and international organisations to making progress on social protection is one of the notable changes present in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) compared to the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). What actually can be expected from this commitment? It can be interpreted optimistically as going beyond the poverty-reduction programmes, which proved to have no significant effect on the most vulnerable people. The SDGs could thus be seen as a return of ‘social development’, as promoted in the late 1960s (UN, 1969). Nowadays, the minimal level of social protection, for which the ILO advocated as early as 2004 (ILO, 2004), is back on the agenda, under a new name: ‘Social protection floors’. Including not only a minimum level of income, but also goods and services guaranteeing access to essential healthcare, food and education, and basic income security for workers and the elderly, social protection floors reflect the idea that social development serves economic development. How does this work out in practice? The chapters on the ILO’s mandate to ‘protect people’ reveal different changes in approaches and positions, and uneven results.

20Juliette Alenda-Demoutiez, Abena Asomaning Antwi, Elvire Mendo and Zrampieu Sarah Ba (Chapter 6) show that by providing support for community-based mutual health organisations in West Africa, the ILO is reinventing itself. The Organization is becoming more pragmatic, renouncing the initial vision of a protection system managed by state institutions, and relying less on the ratification of conventions than on the adoption of ad hoc modalities of support for health stakeholders. This evolution in the field of health contrasts with the change of approach to child labour examined by Edward van Daalen and Karl Hanson (Chapter 7). In the early 1990s, the Organization abandoned the progressive and pragmatic approach, which had combined the long-term goal of abolishing child labour with the transitional goal of protecting and regulating such labour, and returned to a position where it seeks solely to eradicate all forms of child labour.

21The attention paid to rural women presents another type of evolution, in this case an innovative and progressive vision without further action. Christine Verschuur (Chapter 8) explains that the ILO, through its Rural Women programme, carried out innovative research to promote the visibility of not only the paid work but also the unpaid work of women in agriculture. However, the progress promised by the recognition of women’s contribution to both food production and social reproduction did not materialise: research and knowledge were not integrated into the different departments of the Organization and the Rural Women programme remained isolated and poorly funded, and eventually disappeared.

22Finally, analysis by Antonio Donini (Chapter 9) of the migration, recruitment, and working and living conditions of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar highlights the ILO’s lack of resources to put its protection mandate into practice, even if it were to involve nothing more than legal instruments regulating the organisation of migration, or tools for monitoring and warning about working conditions. After the Governing Body of the ILO decided in 2017 to drop its complaint about non-compliance with the Forced Labour Convention and the Labour Inspection Convention, it seems the Organization can do no more than rely on the Qatari Government’s declarations of intent to cooperate. On September 4th 2018, the Qatari Government adopted new legislation that removes the permit system for migrant workers to leave the country and change employer; it is certainly a positive sign, on paper, but it would be naive to consider it right now as a significant step towards decent working and living conditions for migrant workers.

23Between pragmatism and dogmatism, openness and withdrawal, how do these developments in the ILO’s policies and practices actually work out when it comes to protecting the people most in need? In the field of health in West Africa, the ILO is broadening the scope of its work beyond the contractual forms of wage labour, to workers in the informal economy and casual work. In so doing, the Organization may be more in tune with the informal sector where interpersonal and kinship social relationships and protection are embedded in norms and practices of solidarity and responsibility. With regard to child labour, van Daalen and Hanson question the relevance of abandoning the progressive approach, which after all was validated by numerous actions and ‘creative projects’ and which remains relevant, according to the authors, given the fact that some 150 million children under the age of 15 are still engaged in exploitative or harmful labour today. Regarding the work of women in rural areas, Verschuur notes that the ILO has opted for programmes that focus mainly on female wage earners, a vision that falls short of the increasing burden of women’s unpaid ‘reproductive’ work that, paradoxically, the Organization had highlighted previously. As for the Nepalese working in Qatar, Donini insists on the enormous gap between what can be reasonably expected in terms of ILO action and the (in)human condition of these workers. The author notes that in addition to the exploitation of the Nepalese emigrant physical labour force, ‘under-regulation’ and the absence of any social protection have also exposed these workers to mental suffering because of living conditions that undermine their freedom of movement as well as their sexuality and marriageability.

4. The Future of Labour and the ILO: Gazing into the Crystal Ball

24The divinatory arts are experiencing an extraordinary upsurge in the social sciences and among decision makers who are trying to predict the future of work against a backdrop of digital transformation, advances in artificial intelligence and labour automation. A simple Internet search on the future of work yields more than 3 billion hits in 0.54 seconds…

25The ‘techno-optimists’ do not see why history, which has often proved the correctness of Schumpeter’s theory of destructive creation, might not repeat itself, with a proliferation of new jobs from the knowledge economy or from the green economy. ‘Techno-pessimists’, on the other hand, argue that the extent and speed of the destruction of jobs made obsolete by new technologies and emerging modes of production will lead to unprecedented mass unemployment that will hit regions of the world where the population is growing fast particularly hard (Africa, the Indian subcontinent). In its World Development Report 2019, the World Bank confirms that labour-intensive industries, such as textiles and clothing, which currently employ large swathes of the labour force of industrialising countries, will not be able to fulfil this function in the future (World Bank, 2018). Other sectors, such as tourism, information technology and health could take over this role but the World Bank notes that there is a wide range of estimates for jobs at risk from automation and the impact of technology is far from predictable.

26Beyond accounting for job losses and job creation, new technologies and new ways of organising labour raise crucial questions, including the type of professional skills required, the need for accompanying policies, the (de-)regulation of labour and the protection of workers in new ecosystems, such as labour platforms which are poorly regulated. These issues are addressed in the third part of this volume, which examines the ILO’s stated ambition to adapt to the forces transforming the world of work (Bughin et al., 2018).

27The impact of on-going digitisation in the entertainment, security and library services sectors on employment in Africa, analysed by Stefano Bellucci and Eric Otenyo (Chapter 10), supplies techno-optimists with some preliminary arguments. In the cases portrayed, the beginning of the process of digitisation has not been accompanied by massive job losses and even seems to be creating new jobs in these sectors. The authors suggest a series of interventions that the ILO could undertake to support the efforts of African states to foster job creation, including support to training institutions that are ‘ill-equipped’ with regards to digitisation in the workplace, and a reorganisation of informal sectors to enable them to capture global market opportunities.

28Conversely, the combined effect of automated production and digitally-mediated labour has led to dwindling job opportunities in the manufacturing sector and an increase in temporary and disposable freelance work in India’s technological sector. Filipe Calvão and Kaveri Thara (Chapter 11) demonstrate that, even in the information technology industry, the impact of the on-going digital revolution is affecting many jobs in both the formal and informal sectors. As workers in the global South are ever more likely to be affected by the automation of labour, the authors ask how the ILO can valorise digital work and avoid a situation where “humans are seemingly left with being the creative complement to AI” (artificial intelligence).

29In the context of automation, digitisation, and the development of artificial intelligence, new jobs are requiring not only technological skills, but also social and emotional skills, the ability to work in multidisciplinary and flexible teams, creativity and ‘entrepreneurship’ (Bughin et al., 2018). There is a broad consensus that states’ policies (World Bank, 2018), including support to education and life-long learning programmes (Bughin et al., 2018) will be needed to enable the development of such skills. It is also the case with the ecological transition, explains Kees van der Ree (Chapter 12) on the potential of the green economy to create a significant number of jobs. Focusing more specifically on the interactions between climate change and employment, the author notes that although the ILO has gradually adopted and integrated the concept of green jobs into its work programmes, states and social partners are reluctant to include the transition to low-carbon economies in the ILO’s work programme and to provide the Organization with a significant ad hoc budget.

30It is also acknowledged that the state is called upon to play a central role in supporting job- and labour-related transitions by strengthening the social protection system. Calvão and Thara address this issue and suggest the ILO develops innovative approaches to ensure adequate protection of the digital workforce. At the point where wages have lost their prominence in defining conventional working relations, the authors argue for the need to take into account working conditions in the digital ecosystem and promote new forms of regulation for digitally mediated work. Such regulation could be inspired by principles and practices that characterise platform cooperativism or the social and solidarity economy, while also addressing the problem of technological transfers to developing economies. Kees van der Ree also raises the issue of distribution and social inclusion with regards to the increasing effects of climate change on migration flows both nationally and internationally, with major challenges in terms of social inclusion at national, regional and global levels.

31In this respect, many experts agree that the relationship between employers and employees that developed during the twentieth century in the West—with stable full-time jobs held by unionised employees expected to become the norm—has largely had its day. Moreover, full-time contracts of indefinite duration exist at best for only a quarter of the global workforce and have not become standard in a majority of developing countries, where informal, insecure and part-time work is usual. This raises the question of the future role of trade unions and, more fundamentally, of the power relations between stakeholders within the ILO tripartite model and beyond. To better understand the impact of the on-going transformations, it is interesting to look at the evolution of working conditions in Europe for relevant lessons for the future of labour relations more generally and for the future of the ILO itself. Some trends raise serious concerns for the availability and security of employment and income levels, given the flexibilisation of the labour market and ageing populations. While working conditions in Europe have sometimes served as a model for the aspirations of developing countries, the European Commission is facing significant challenges in terms of generating sustainable jobs and deteriorating working conditions that seem prejudicial both for employees and for communities as a whole.

32Patricia Vendramin and Agnès Parent-Thirion (Chapter 13) note that the issue of quality of work is making a comeback in debates in Europe, notably with the notion of sustainable work, as well as in the European Pillar of Social Rights (European Commission, no date), implemented by the European Commission. Based on surveys of working conditions in Europe conducted by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), the authors draw up an inventory of working conditions and suggest that the ILO adopt a forward-looking approach based on the notion of sustainable work. Taking an historical and comparative perspective of the meaning of work, the authors identify three kinds of expectations in our relationship with work: it should provide income and security, create social bonds, and give people the means to develop and flourish through professional activity. They note that social recognition, the meaning that work gives to life, and the feeling of ‘being useful’ are major and meaningful expectations in an ever better-educated population that has benefited from the social security policies set up in the twentieth century. The 20 principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights emphasise high-quality employment that involves not only social dialogue with worker participation, and the promotion of a supportive work environment, but also increased attention to the balance between professional and private life as well as gender relations in the context of the widespread participation of women in the labour market.

5. Adapting and Opening Up

33This volume highlights the tensions that constitute the ILO and its action, the changing and different environments in which the Organization operates, and the initiatives taken by the ILO to respond to these challenges. The need for adaptation nowadays appears particularly pronounced in view of the acceleration of technological developments and radical changes in the organisation of employment and work, and the consequent impact on social protection systems.

34The need for the ILO to adapt also stems from the increased power of new actors in the global governance system and the changing balance of power underpinned by interest groups, ideological currents and an institutional framework that are all less favourable to the ILO today than they were at the time of its creation, a century ago. This raises the question of whether the Organization is providing adequate responses that can rise to the challenge of current upheaval. The contributions in this volume outline various ways of questioning these adaptations and providing some answers.

35The ILO cannot be satisfied with the promulgation of international standards accompanied by monitoring and enforcement mechanisms at the national level (Jakovleski et al., this volume). The case of the informal economy provides a good illustration of the criticism the Organization has received in this regard, in this case the “belief that international labour standards do not address people in the informal sector, whereas in fact many provisions do”, as shown by A. Trebilcock (2004, 587). Yet the author acknowledges that “de facto or de jure, too many people remain without legal protection and recourse to right” (Trebilcock, 2004, 586). That said, progress has been made, for example thanks to Convention 189 on Domestic Workers, adopted in 2011, which represents an opening towards the particularly vulnerable category of migrant women (Kott, this volume). The process that led to the Convention and the way in which groups of activists took up the subject and then ratified the Convention in various countries could be a source of inspiration, and could open up ways to improve the systems of protection for other particularly vulnerable categories of people (Boris and Fish, 2014; quoted in Chapter 2, this volume). These experiences could inspire the Organization with regard to child labour and women working in rural areas. The ILO will also have to innovate in emerging economies, where the growing number of workers in so-called ‘special’ economic zones might well remain deprived of any social protection in practice, even if, in law, the ILO Conventions include them. Such zones, characterised by no rights for workers and the repression or lack of trade union organisations, may expand and become the norm. Finally, in developed countries, the question arises as to how the ILO will be able to respond to new types of ‘deformalised’ labour, provided as a franchise and sold on platforms.

36In addition to the question of the types of jobs covered or not covered by the ILO and the national organisations of workers and employers, and their representativeness, a question that arises for the ILO is the stance of the unions with which it operates. In countries like China and Vietnam, these unions were not formed at the initiative of workers but were established, and are controlled, by the party-state, which relies on them to guarantee investors a docile labour force (Chang, 2002). There is also the question of what workers expect of unions, as evidenced by the rise in China of labour movements not supervised by unions. What actions and room for manoeuvre can the ILO have in such contexts? And in other contexts, what balance of power is expressed by partnerships such as Better Work in Bangladesh, which proclaims: “workers are seizing on democracy in factories”? (BetterWork, 2016). Have these partnerships become a means of, or a condition for, the ILO to remain operational? Does the emergence of civil society organisations in the field of work create a system of ‘quadripartism’ or ‘tripartism +’ (Chapters 3 and 4)? Is this a strategy that will allow the Organization to ‘promote fair globalization for the workers’ or should we rather interpret it as a step backward and see the ILO as an organisation whose role is largely supporting globalisation (Chapter 5)?

37Amid the myriad publications produced by international organisations, the studies by the ILO have often stood out: denouncing working conditions and low wages, calling into question economic policies leading to less equitable income distribution, and highlighting the social consequences and risks to security and peace. The authors who have contributed to this volume call on the ILO to draw inspiration not only from the academic community, but also from the knowledge produced by the Organization itself, and to take advantage of its rich past to adapt in a robust and flexible way to the challenges of a world of work undergoing profound change. We hope that this volume will make a positive contribution to the reflections and debates accompanying the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the ILO.

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1 This study published by the ILO, is subtitled ‘Is it possible to regulate without enforcing?’.

2 The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), for example, in the development of the new Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (Convention 182, 1999), see Chapter 7, this volume.

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Cite this article

Bibliographical reference

Gilles Carbonnier and Christophe Gironde, The ILO @ 100: in Search of Renewed RelevanceInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement, 11 | 2019, 3-19.

Electronic reference

Gilles Carbonnier and Christophe Gironde, The ILO @ 100: in Search of Renewed RelevanceInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 11 | 2019, Online since 10 June 2019, connection on 02 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Gilles Carbonnier

Gilles Carbonnier is Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Professor of Development Economics at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of International Development Policy, and currently is a member of the editorial board. His research interests include international development cooperation, as well as the governance of natural resources and illicit financial flows. His latest book is entitled Humanitarian Economics, War, Disaster and the Global Aid Market (London and New York: Hurst and Oxford University Press, 2016).

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Christophe Gironde

Christophe Gironde is a political economist, currently working as a senior lecturer at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He is also the deputy Editor-in-Chief of International Development Policy. His main research interests are human development and agrarian change, with a regional focus on Southeast Asia and extensive field experience in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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