Back into the cold? The International Labour Organization and workplace geopolitics

In September 2021 at the UN, Joe Biden argued that “we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs”. However, the UN, and its predecessor the League of Nations, has always been a battleground between rival ideological alliances. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a case in point, not only because of its unique tripartite structure of capital, labour and the state, but also because it owes its origins to great-power competition. The geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War proved to be a golden age for the ILO, and thus for labour standards in many workplaces in the developed world. However, a new Cold War between China and the West is unlikely to have the same effect.


Origins and evolutions

Established by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the ILO was part of an international liberal order built in the wake of the first world war and the face of totalitarianism. Binding the founding 44 national governments to basic labour rights and protections not only safeguarded workers, but stabilised liberalism. It channelled increasingly bold assertions of worker power into institutional reform via corporatism, rather than revolutionary uprising via communism. It was a common refrain that while peace was on the lips of the ILO’s founders, Bolshevism was on their minds.


Les trente glorieuses

Following the end of the Second World War, as argued in the editorial for Issue #20 of Futures of Work, a corporatist pact in many countries between capital, labour and the state produced what some see as a ‘golden age’ of capitalism.

The post-war Keynesian period of embedded liberalism was also a ‘golden age’ for the ILO and the standards it promoted. The burgeoning discourse on human rights and the growth of the welfare state ensured support for international labour standards, particularly freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

This period saw the largest number of Conventions ratified per member state as the ILO expanded its technical capacity to persuade recently de-colonised nations to implement their standards. Five of the eight of the ILO’s core labour standards were adopted in the first 15 years after the Second World War and the ILO established standards on virtually all their constitutional objectives thereafter.

On its fiftieth birthday, in 1969, the ILO received the Nobel Peace Prize in the field of human rights. The ‘wild dream’ of the tripartite model of deliberative democracy rooted in consensus between capital, labour and the state seemed to have been tried, tested and, perhaps, triumphant.


The cold war consensus

The success of the ILO during this period was owed to the détente between capital and labour and the fierce ideological competition waged between its member states. This ‘Cold War consensus’ was rooted in the West having a strong stake in maintaining ILO procedures to demonstrate their own commitment to the ILO’s constitutional objective of social justice and to highlight the deficiencies in the approach championed by the communist countries. As Francis Maupain (former special advisor to the Director-General of the ILO) has argued, “ideological competition over the meaning of social justice had real benefits for workers”.

Coupled with this was the growth of the ILO’s membership as independence soared. Growth led to a significant change in the role of the ILO as the Organization developed its technical and developmental capacity to assist newly independent states. David Morse, the ILO’s longest serving Director General (1948-70), was an internationalist and a New Dealer turned Cold War liberal, and saw the Organization’s focus on development initiatives in Asia as a way for the ILO to ally itself with the West in the fight against Communism in the East.

The Cold War led to the emergence of three alliances at the ILO: the OECD industrialised economies, the Soviet bloc and the developing country ‘Group of 77’. The three blocs each claimed to be promoting some form of ‘social justice’ but were divided over both the content and the processes through which to achieve it.

Political rivalry in the ILO between these blocs took precedence over issues of economic competition, which created an opportunity for the ILO and its leadership to broker agreements between what might otherwise have been divergent interests.

For example, policies promoted by the ILO that stressed universality were supported by the Soviet bloc and most Western governments, with the notable exception of the United States. For those opposed to Soviet ideology (e.g. the OECD and the employers), the promotion of freedom of trade unions and abolition of forced labour had significant appeal. The Group of 77 (and most employers) supported the expansion of technical assistance.

Within the ILO’s tripartite structure, the employers in particular were fearful of communism and the Soviet bipartite model. They desired the victory of both democracy and the market economy and supported many initiatives which may have increased the bottom line of their members. Indeed, when the Soviet Union (re)joined the ILO in 1954, agonism between workers and employers was replaced by antagonism between employers and the Soviet bloc.

These ideological alliances and the ILO’s tripartite structure and voting practices led to automatic majorities on many sensitive issues. In fact, along with the appointment of a Soviet Union Assistant Director-General, this was one of the primary reasons for the US leaving the ILO in 1977.

In Henry Kissinger’s letter (written by John Dunlop) to notify withdrawal he stated that the ILO, “appears to be turning away from its basic aims and objectives and increasingly to be used for purposes which serve the interests of neither the workers for which the organization was established nor nations which are committed to free trade unions and an open political process”.

However, with the ILO’s support of Solidarnosc and its role in confronting the Polish Government, the US re-joined the ILO in 1980, considering the Organization as a key arena in which to continue the fight against communism.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the ideological counterweight to the ILO shifted (if not disappeared), it was not certain what role the ILO might have in the future. In fact, during a farewell dinner in 1989 for Charles Smith (the employer representative of the United States), the ILO Director-General wondered whether, “‘most people, like Charles Smith, saw the ILO as a machine to combat communism within the context of the Cold War – and, if that was the case, what would become of the organisation once that period of history ended’?”


From consensus to conflict and concession

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the fall of the Cold War consensus at the ILO, characterised by uneasy cooperation between capital and labour and a golden age for the promotion and extension of standards. Since 1989, it has proven difficult even to maintain common objectives among the ILO tripartite constituents that go beyond their own interests.

Long before the Second World War, the ILO was described by the Organization’s first Director-General, Albert Thomas, as a car in which workers acted as the engine, governments as the wheel, and employers as the brakes. In the neoliberal period, the lack of an ideological counterweight in the ILO has seen the employers continue to play their historical role as the brakes of evolution. Recent discussions in the ILO on global supply chains and the right to strike have illustrated that employers are continuing to frustrate progress on new labour standards and the effective enforcement of existing international conventions.


China and the ILO

Having celebrated its 100th birthday in 2019, contemporary events have put the purpose and relevance of the ILO into renewed focus. The Cold War tested the tripartite structure of the ILO, and the demise of the Soviet Union’s revolutionary model of ‘social justice’ might suggest that corporatism ultimately triumphed over communism.

The emergence of a potential ‘new Cold War’ between the West and China has revived the question of how social justice can be promoted in the ILO, and whether tripartism or universalism represents the best route for the Organisation to achieve it.

China has always had an uneasy relationship with the ILO not least because of the domestic monopoly of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The United States, in contrast, has a had strong hand in the internal decision-making of the ILO since its return in 1980, and its representatives operate amongst the highest echelons of the Organization.

The US and China’s individual relationships with the ILO are not polar opposites, however. Both countries have failed to ratify key ILO Conventions on forced labour, freedom of association and collective bargaining. The commitment of both governments to the recognition of ILO standards has been said to have “routinely taken second place to domestic political or economic concerns or to broader foreign policy goals.” For example, during the Cold War, the US overlooked labour violations by authoritarian anti-communist regimes, while China ignored violations by socialist countries.

However, as Robert Kaplan argues “The philosophical divide between the American and Chinese systems is becoming as great as the gap between American democracy and Soviet communism”. China has criticised the “human rights record” of the US, which, it claims “has left it in no state – whether on a moral, political or legal basis – to act as the world’s ‘human rights justice’”. The US, meanwhile, joins other countries in recognising China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as “genocide”. The ILO now finds itself once again in the middle of competing super-powers and ideologies.


Kicking the ILO into gear

The ILO’s laggard response to the brutal human rights violations in Xinjiang is a case in point of the scale of the challenge ahead. The ILO is the competent organisation to investigate allegations of forced labour in its member states, with the former director general of the WTO, stating that, “it is up to the International Labour Organization and to the WTO, who both ban forced labor” to lead the way on this front.

The ILO has extensive supervisory mechanisms and has established several labour standards to deal with forced labour, in particular C.105 the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention of 1957, which was adopted as a response to the Soviet Gulags.

The ILO has at its disposal not just tools like naming and shaming, but also Commissions of Inquiry, whereby a full investigation of a complaint made by a member state on a violation of a ratified Convention takes place, producing recommendations. Ultimately, this may lead to the invocation of Article 33 of the ILO Constitution, which states that: “In the event of any Member failing to carry out within the time specified the recommendations, […] the Governing Body may recommend to the Conference such action as it may deem wise and expedient to secure compliance therewith.”

The invocation of Article 33 has only happened once in the ILO’s 100-year history. In 1998 a Commission of Inquiry found “widespread and systematic” forced labour in Myanmar. The EU, US and other countries adopted economic sanctions in response to the egregious forced labour situation.

However, China, unlike Myanmar, is immune from many of the ILO procedures that give the Organization its teeth, because it has failed to ratify the forced labour convention. This is despite the fact that, as the current Director-General has unconvincingly stated, “by virtue of its membership of the ILO, the Government of China has assumed a commitment to respect, promote and realize fundamental principles and rights at work, including the elimination of forced labour”.

This has forced the International Trade Union Confederation to launch allegations based on two Conventions that China has ratified: C.122 on Employment Policy and C.111 on Discrimination. The ILO’s Committee of Experts has recently noted in reference to C.111 their “deep concern in the respect of the policy directions” in China and on C.122, “urges the government to provide detailed updated information on the measures taken or envisaged to ensure that its national employment policy […] effectively prevents all form of forced or compulsory labour”.

In response to what is happening in Xinjiang, China has agreed to make “continued and sustained efforts” to ratify the relevant ILO conventions. On their own ratification would make little difference to what is happening. However, they may open a door to an ILO investigation – if, and only if, another member raises a complaint.


A new Cold War consensus?

A new Cold War is unlikely to result in the sort of consensus we saw in the post-war period, nor another golden age for the ILO and the workers it seeks to protect.

Consensus is unlikely going forward because of the geopolitical and economic differences between the Soviet Union and China. Capital in the West depends on the degradation of labour in China to a much greater extent than it did on labour in the Soviet Union. As Jeffrey Henderson notes elsewhere in this issue, China is central to global production in ways that Russia is not and never was.

More importantly, the current dissensus in the ILO cannot be broken or brokered because what is happening in China, both ideologically and socially, is unlikely to force the employers to move from their entrenched positions. ILO insiders have argued that the ILO is an “unlikely ally” for the business community because individual firms can seek cover from China’s indignation through their membership of the International Organization of Employers (IOE). However, in comparison to their worker counterparts, the IOE has been distinctly absent from calling out standards abuses – although this has not stopped some its most powerful members doing so individually.


As we enter an era of increasing rivalries, the power-plays between the East and the West within the arena of the UN system may well re-emerge. On one hand, deadlock is likely the outcome. On the other, new allegiances and alliances that might benefit workers could be forged.

What is certain is that persuading member States that their self-interest lies in compliance with international labour standards will remain a Sisyphean task for the ILO. The establishment of labour standards has been damaged by the rise of global supply chains, populism and the crumbling architecture of global governance. However, the ILO may once again end up again being a key battleground for the interplay of international and industrial relations and a new age of workplace geopolitics.


Huw Thomas is Lecturer in Work, Employment Organization & Public Policy, University of Bristol and a co-editor of Futures of Work.


Image credit: Timofeeff