Labour and Workers: Quest for Social Justice

With the approach of Labour Day on l May 2009, a new publication is a timely contribution to the debate concerning the world of Labour and Workers.
Following is the introduction to an Executive Summary issued at a recent event held at the International Labour Office in Geneva to launch the book in the presence of its authors. It included an informal discussion on the origins and progress of the ILO in the development and expansion of its standard-setting, technical assistance and other programmes from 1919-2009.
Quest for Social Justice
Entitled The International labour Organization and the quest for social justice, 1919-2009* the book tells the story of an unusual institution, the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Founded in the wake of the First World War, the ILO has been at the forefront of the struggle for social justice for the last 90 years, through good times and bad, doggedly working to embed social goals and priorities in both global and national economies.
The book is not an official history but rather the view of its four authors, three of them long-serving former ILO officials, the fourth an academic who has looked at the ILO from the outside: two economists, a lawyer and a historian. It is one of the first outcomes of the ILO’s “Century Project”, looking forward to its centenary in 2019, which aims to strengthen the ILO’s knowledge of its own past in a variety of ways.
History not only helps to explain how and why past and present policies originated and evolved; knowledge of the rich heritage of the ILO also equips the Organization better to meet its present responsibilities and future challenges.
The ILO was founded in the belief that social justice is an essential foundation of universal peace. In 1969, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, the ILO’s contribution to both peace and justice was acknowledged when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Organization has played a role at many key historical junctures – contributing to efforts to rebuild the world economy after the First and Second World Wars, fighting unemployment during the Great Depression, supporting decolonization and helping to advance development goals in newly independent nations, participating in the victory over apartheid, and responding to the widespread demand for a fair globalization, reflected so clearly in today’s deep global economic and ethical crisis.
The key features of the Organization, which distinguish it from the other bodies of today’s UN system, and permeate its history, are its emphasis on dialogue among the key economic actors as a means of promoting social progress – so that representatives of workers and employers play an equal role with governments in its debates and decisions in what is known as tripartism; and its system of international labour standards covering all the main aspects of work and employment, each subject to voluntary ratification by states, and supervised by the ILO itself. By the beginning of 2009 there had been some 7,500 ratifications of 188 Conventions.
At the heart of the ILO’s mandate lie the principles of social justice, dignity in work, freedom of association and expression, equality and the need to overcome poverty. This book reviews the development of these and other key ideas that have been the driving force behind ILO action in the last ninety years. It discusses how the essential political, social and economic developments of the last century have impinged on the ILO’s priorities and how the ILO has supported or led social change. The ILO has sometimes thrived, sometimes suffered setbacks, but always survived and persisted to pursue its goals.
Some of the central areas of the ILO’s work in the last 90 years are considered in separate chapters, reviewing the role and the strategies adopted by the Office (the Secretariat) and the employer, worker and government constituents, and the influence of the Organization in different parts of the world. The pattern is different for each of the themes, with both progress and difficulties.
The Executive Summary goes on to discuss Human rights and rights at work, The quality of work, Income security and social protection, Employment and poverty reduction, Decent work and a fair globalization.
Ita Marguet
Note: *ISBN 978-92-2-121955-2. Text is reproduced with permission of the International Labour Office, Department of Communication and Public Information. (website