The ILO: from 1919 to current day

Stirling Smith celebrates the centenary of the United Nations agency with a mandate to promote co-operatives

Over the last four years many centenaries of events associated with the Great War have been marked; most recently, the anniversary of the Armistice in November last year.

There is one more to go: in June, attention will turn to the peace making process and the Treaty of Versailles, which is generally regarded as a failure, laying the foundations for war again two decades later.

But a substantial part of the Treaty of Versailles still operates today. Part XIII, articles 387-427 dealt with “labour”. And I can’t do better than quote from the Treaty itself:

Whereas the League of Nations has for its object the establishment of universal peace, and such a peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice; 

And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship, and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required: as, for example, by the regulation of the hours of work, including the establishment of a maximum working day and week, the regulation of the labour supply, the prevention of unemployment, the provision of an adequate living wage, the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment, the protection of children, young persons and women, provision for old age and injury, protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own recognition of the principle of freedom of association, the organisation of vocational and technical education and other measures

Back in 1919, action on these issues was regarded as essential for preventing war. And to apply these principles in practice, the Treaty went on to set up an organisation: the International Labour Office. It was set up as part of the League of Nations.

When the League of Nations was dissolved, the ILO carried on, and became the first specialised agency of the United Nations.

International law

Every year, the International Labour Conference meets in June, in Geneva. Most years, it will adopt a Convention, which members states can ratify, and incorporate into national labour law, or a Recommendation which is best seen as “soft law” like the one on Promoting Co-operatives.

The bottom line here is that there is an international law on co-operatives; and it explicitly references the statement of co-operative identity adopted by the global movement in 1995.

The first ILO Director-General, Albert Thomas, was from the cooperative movement himself. A former Socialist minister in the French government, his view was that the ILO should be concerned not solely with the conditions of work, but the conditions of workers.

It is a distinction that can take a while to grasp.

The earliest activities of the ILO revolved around standard-setting, through Conventions; for example, setting maximum hours of work (48 in the very first ILO Convention) or health and safety standards – conditions at the workplace – the conditions of work.

Albert Thomas also believed that cooperatives could help workers outside their work through the provision of say, housing or consumer stores, which would improve their lives – the conditions of workers.

Thus, a co-operatives bureau was set up within the ILO in Geneva in the first few years. It still exists, and does important work in directly promoting co-operatives through projects all over the world. It has also worked hard to get co-operative membership properly counted; this does not sound very exciting, but when a global statistical body agrees how to count co-operatives, that is an important step in showing the size of our movement.

The origins of the ILO

The ILO owes a lot to Robert Owen. In 1817 he travelled to France, Switzerland and Germany. At that time, the “powers” – the leading countries of Europe – were meeting at a congress in Aix-la-Chapelle. Owen presented Two Memorials on Behalf of the Working Classes. In these he advocated international action to fix wages and improve workers conditions.

This was the first time that anybody called for international action to set workers conditions and therefore Owen is regarded as an inspiration of the ILO.

Father of the co-operative movement, the trade union movement, nursery education, the Factories Acts – and inspiration of a United Nations agency.

There really is no end to the achievements of Robert Owen.

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