The International Labour Organisation: A View from Within

By Dowding, Edward | New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online), September 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The International Labour Organisation: A View from Within


Dowding, Edward, New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)


Chance often plays an important part in one's life and it certainly did in mine. While I was working on a New Zealand Government sponsored project for the training of technical teachers at the Teacher Training College in Sri Lanka, I met a field expert working for the ILO in the field of labour relations. The information he gave me about the ILO was instrumental in my applying for a posting, and I was offered one in a project with the Ministry of Industry in Egypt. After two years and on my return to New Zealand, I worked for one month with a management specialist from Headquarters on a survey of industrial training needs in Cambodia. Some months later and much to my surprise I received an offer of a one year contract to work at ILO headquarters in the Vocational Training Branch. Such an opportunity could not be turned down. The Branch undertook research, documentation and publication of training material and was responsible for all technical co-operation industrial training projects. This was the start of a long international career. During the introduction to the office on the edge of Lake Geneva, now the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation, and entering the conference rooms for the first time, one could almost feel the history of the ILO. Professor Margaret Wilson, in her paper, has very ably described the reasons which brought into focus the need for an international body to improve the working conditions in industry and thus the establishment of the ILO.

Created by the Treaty of Versailles along with the League of Nations in 1919, the ILO, probably due to its tripartite structure, survived the collapse of the League and continued as an independent body and remained based in Geneva. This city has always been the home of the ILO except for a period during the second Word War when it moved to Canada. Strange as it may seem, Switzerland, although it has always hosted the ILO, only became an actual member after it joined the United Nations Organisation in 2002. When the United Nations Organisation was established, the ILO became a Specialised Agency. This arrangement provided additional funding without limiting the ILO's freedom to continue its principal work of encouraging social justice throughout the world. The term ILO, in English language, is a generic form and represents both the Organisation and the Office. The French language does it rather better. BIT (Le Bureau Internationale du Travail) represents the Bureau (Office) and OIT (L'Organisation Internationale du Travail) signifies the Organisation. From the outside, the two may seem synonymous but from within there is a vast difference. The Office is responsible for implementing the decision of the Organisation and, in the early days, was a highly centralised body and responsible for all research, documentation and publication concerning the drawing up of Recommendations and Conventions dealing with labour standards. If countries were to be in a position to not only ratify ILO Conventions as agreed by the Organisation but also to implement them, it was essential that there was an active industry development programme and the employment opportunities that would result. This resulted in the start of technical assistance programmes for developing countries, later called technical co-operation.

Once the ILO became involved in technical co-operation, there was a considerable change in the number of its staff and in their qualifications. As much of the technical assistance was geared towards industrial activities, many of the new staff had managerial and industrial training experience. It also tended to spread the nationalities of staff over a larger geographic area People who had languages in addition to one or more of the three official languages of the ILO - English, French and Spanish - could be of great value when working in developing countries. This was particularly so with the large number of projects being established in Arab countries. The establishment of the United Nations Special Fund and the greater amount of finance made available permitted the growth of much larger projects with ten and more staff. …

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