The Forced Labor Issue between Human and Social Rights, 1947-1957

By Kott, Sandrine | Humanity, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Forced Labor Issue between Human and Social Rights, 1947-1957


Kott, Sandrine, Humanity


This essay reflects on the nature of the linkage between human rights and social rights in the context of labor during the early Cold War, and on the political and intellectual context that underwrote this relationship. A precise analysis of the discussion surrounding the convention on the abolition of forced labor within the International Labour Organization (ILO) between 1947 and 1957 will form a basis for my observations. A look at this discussion, in fact, has the advantage of offering a voice to a broad range of groups and actors mobilizing arguments inscribed in a range of intellectual and political traditions and reflecting the complex stakes at play in the field marked out by labor, human rights, and social rights. The documentation (printed and otherwise) attesting to the discussion has been preserved in complete form in the libraries and archives of the ILO.

That organization was founded in 1919, that is, in the aftermath of World War I.1 Initially, its goal was to satisfy workers' claims and avoid revolutionary contagion by establishing an international social code, at the time largely European in scope. This European coordination of social policy was broadly supported by management, which saw it as a means to guarantee conditions for fair competition between the industrial nations. Since 1919, the ILO has organized annual international conferences with participants from each member country: two governmental representatives, together with one representative from labor, and one from employers. The ILO's governing body has been organized along the same tripartite lines. At the same time, since its inception the organization has had ties to a large range of international and national associations serving as a source of information and contact within the various societies. The ILO's primary mission is normative: its secretariat, the International Labour Office, prepares conventions and treaties at the request of the governing body; these are discussed and, if approved, formally adopted at the annual international conference.2 Finally, the conventions are submitted to the parliaments of the member states for ratification.

Convention 105 of 1957 on the abolition of forced labor was part of the ILO's normative mission. More generally, it offers a good example of the way an international cause is constructed and deployed. The vote on Convention 105 was preceded by a long discussion within key international bodies: the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), international labor union bodies, and various non-governmental associations. This discussion revealed the changing power balance tied to the question of free labor and contributed to global reflection on that theme, as informed by the tension between human and social rights.

In 1957, the ILO already had considerable experience with respect to forced labor, since a first Forced Labor Convention (no. 29) had been discussed and passed in 1930, offering this initial definition of the proscribed phenomenon: "For the purposes of this Convention the term forced or compuhory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily."3 The definition was general enough to cover the various forms of forced labor that had manifested themselves successively or simultaneously in the course of history: servitude, slavery, colonial forced labor, debt bondage, labor in concentration camps, and more recently, the sexual exploitation of women and children.4 The definition continues to serve as an international standard.

In that light, the convention of 1957 may seem surprising in that it stipulates the abolition of certain "forms of forced or compulsory labor" of a political character - forms "constituting a violation of the rights of man referred to in the Charter of the United Nations and enunciated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. …

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