Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

The Future of International Labor Law

Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

The Future of International Labor Law

Article excerpt

The panel was convened at 2:45 p.m., Friday, March 30, by its moderator, Addle Blackett of McGill University, who introduced the panelists: Janelle Diller of the International Labour Organization; Laurence Heifer of Vanderbilt University Law School; Brian Langille of the University of Toronto; and Virginia Leafy of the University of Buffalo Law School.


To state that international labor law and its premier institution, the International Labor Organization (ILO), face challenges would be an understatement. During this 101st Annual Meeting, on the occasion of President Jose Alvarez's address to the membership, the ILO was included in the distributed pamphlet, entitled International Law: 50 Ways It Harms Our Lives. (1) It was identified under Reason No. 5 for its "weak enforcement of the lowest common denominator labor rights" and outdated tripartite governance structure that favors forces of declining importance in modern states--trade unions and traditional local employers' associations while "impeding consideration of myriad relevant groups and interests." (2) It was also mentioned in passing under Reason No. 46, for the ILO' s relative lack of effectiveness when compared with the World Trade Organization (WTO), a situation that enables the world trading system to promote "free trade" without being called into account for "fair trade." (3)

These critiques, while familiar, have been deeply contested. Historically, they overlook the better days of an institution born under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as the West's answer to Bolshevism, and which outlived the League of Nations to become a specialized agency of the United Nations. They forget that the ILO won a Nobel Peace prize in 1969 for its contribution to social justice and world peace, a role that continued through to its support of the solidarity movement in Poland and its anti-apartheid position and involvement in reconstructing all important social legislation in post-apartheid South Africa. They underestimate the impact of including tripartite representation (government, workers' representatives and employers' representatives), even today, in the full functioning of the institution, including the adoption of conventions that have so shaped the fundamental design and content of modern labor legislation and social welfare policy that the ILO's normative role has been taken for granted. In this sense they dismiss the persuasive dynamic at work to foster compliance over time with ILO principles. As was proclaimed during the Nobel presentation speech, "[t]here are few organizations that have succeeded to the extent that the ILO has, in translating into action the fundamental moral idea on which it is based." (4)

But nostalgia aside, in the contemporary context of rapid global integration and stark economic inequality, these familiar critiques of the ILO must still be taken as pressing challenges--it is important to think carefully about why these perceptions of the ILO and international labor law are so persistent. Their persistence is a reminder of a fundamentally asymmetrical relationship in the international economic system that warrants redress. It goes far beyond noting the incongruity between signing and even ratifying core ILO standards while progressively eroding robust work-centered social welfare protections in industrialized market economies on the basis of competitiveness rationales. (5) It also goes far beyond noting the incompatibility of a plethora of "perfectly" written codes--from a standards perspective--that are perfectly inapplicable in the informal economies of much of the developing world. Of course, neither contemporary phenomenon helps the case.

The concerns expressed about the ILO are linked intrinsically to the nature and direction of economic globalization, institutional design beyond the ILO, as well as to appropriate ways of thinking about the social in development initiatives, a situation that is inferred in Alvarez's discussion of Reason No. …

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