The Employment Problem and the International Economy

Article excerpt

The ILO has always been seen by the trade unions as "their" organization and the issue of employment and unemployment has been in the forefront of the Organization's programme of work. The occasion of its 75th anniversary therefore provides an interesting and instructive opportunity to look at employment not only in terms of space (the international context), but also in terms of time (the 75 years of the ILO's existence). I have long been amazed by how little we use the lessons of history and, indeed, how little we know of historical events, even those occurring in our own twentieth century. As a result each generation confronts old problems as if they were new and discusses remedies as if they had never been discussed before. This article attempts to draw attention to the way the ILO has addressed the employment problem ever since its inception.


The ILO was formed as a direct consequence of the First World War. The new Organization, together with the equally new League of Nations, with which it was affiliated, had to confront immediately the mounting unemployment resulting from the crisis of the early 1920s, which was followed by the even more serious crisis of the 1930s. Already in 1924 the ILO was central to a conference held in London on unemployment at which various aspects of the problem were discussed by "speakers of special competence " in the matter.(1) Those discussions 70 years ago centred on much the same issues as today. Let me give a few examples.

On unemployment benefits Professor E. Cannan, who in 1924 was Professor of Political Economy at the University of London, reasoned that the easier it was for people to demand better terms the more likely it was that unemployment would increase: "After all, unemployment is a profession like others...People choose various occupations according to the agreeableness and profit to be got thereby, and there is no doubt that things have been made easier for the unemployed than they were before the war" (p. 51). (This is, of course, the First World War.) Apart from the language, which is more elegant, this is the same line of argument as heard today concerning the relationship between the level of unemployment benefits and the number of unemployed.

Lady Astor thought that youth unemployment was a huge and explosive problem: " The problem of juvenile unemployment is not a new one. It has been a serious one ever since the breakdown of the apprenticeship system. But, like all other social problems, it has been greatly aggravated by the War" (p. 79). In her view, "the question of juvenile unemployment is one to which we should immediately turn our whole attention, or we shall be sowing the seeds of the most terrible harvest for the next generation" (p. 78). Not only did she see the social and psychological damage caused by frustrating rounds of jobseeking in vain, but she also linked youth unemployment quite correctly to the question of education and training relevant to the needs prevailing on the labour market.

There was quite a discussion on the international context of the employment problem. It was argued that although nobody would deny that the greater the export trade the less unemployment there was, there might be a question mark over the assertion that this was equally true for increased imports. However, there was general agreement on the "commonplace" that as imports and exports went up, unemployment went down and vice versa. "The clear connection between unemployment and reduced imports affords little comfort to those who allege somewhat jauntily that our unemployment problem could easily be solved by a stoppage of imports" (p. 12).

There is a wonderful illustration of the interdependence of countries. According to a businessman, Mr. W. Zimmern, who described himself as "neither an economist nor a teacher, I am like M. Jourdain's father [in Moliere's Le bourgeois gentilhomme] who 'se connaissait fort bien en etoffes'":

If Central Europe cannot buy their produce, the cochineal cultivators of the Canary Islands and Guatemala, the camphor sellers of Formosa, the vanilla planters of the Seychelles, the nutmeg growers of Grenada, the ivory-nut collectors of Ecuador are unable to buy our wares. …