Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Surfing History's Waves: On the Resilience of the International Labour Organisation as an International Institution

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Surfing History's Waves: On the Resilience of the International Labour Organisation as an International Institution

Article excerpt


This paper explores six factors which, when taken together, explain not only the survival of the ILO since its creation in 1919, but also its capacity to maintain relevance and legitimacy, despite often adverse circumstances in which it has operated. Whilst focusing primarily on the post-1980 period, it identifies strands of organisation and strategic positioning, which have been central to ILO thinking since 1919.


Cyclonic weather patterns often produce great swells, which, when they arrive on suitably configured shorelines, give rise to highly challenging, but for the expert surfer, exhilarating opportunities to test themselves against the sea's elemental power. The surfer battles the swell, chooses the wave to ride, and, applying knowledge and experience, hurtles across the wave's face, constantly adjusting angle and positioning to maximise the run (and also preserve life and limb). All being well, safety is gained and the surfer returns to confront the inexorable swell in preparation for the next ride.

The metaphor of the surfer in cyclonic conditions captures well the history of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since 1919. The ILO was borne out immediately of a geo-political cyclone (the First World War) and, over a longer term, a similar sea-change created by the growth of militant working class opposition to the capitalist system. The subsequent history of the ILO has been marked by cyclonic shifts - the collapse of the League of Nations, the Second World War, the post-war accommodation, the Cold War, the neo-liberal revolution, and the rise of globalisation, to name but the most obvious. In each case, the ILO has battled through the cyclone, found a wave, and ridden the storm. Today, perhaps against the odds and to the surprise of some, the ILO, commanding resources, knowledge and skill, has not merely survived multiple cyclones, but prospered to the extent that, in 201 1, its status and position in the global order is as strong, if not stronger, than has ever been the case.

Based on our previous research (Hughes and Haworth 201 la and 201 lb), this paper outlines six dimensions of that historical success, which, when combined, underpin the current status of the ILO. In brief, the dimensions are:

* The founding strategy of autonomy, relevance and presence

* The importance of leadership

* Understanding the political-economy of the context

* Strategic principles

* Organisational adaptation

* External engagement

The paper assesses each dimension in turn, focusing particularly on the contemporary period (that is, since the 1980s).

The ILO in brief

The ILO was created in 1919 as an outcome of Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles. Launched as an institution within the League of Nations system, its origins lay in international debates begun in nineteenth century about labour standards. Those debates had three important dimensions. The first was a humanitarian concern about working conditions. The second was a primarily economic concern about the implications of "unfair" labour standards for trade (an early version of the "race to the bottom" argument). The third addressed the rise of working class militancy, particularly under socialist and communist direction, and the threat to Capital created by that militancy. The ILO and its unique tripartite model was the outcome of those discussions. It was to be an organisation charged with the development and implementation of international labour standards, which would address humanitarian, economic and political challenges posed by workers and their working conditions.

Traditionally, the ILO' s core activities have been to develop, implement and monitor conventions and recommendations relating to all manner of working conditions. There is also a strong commitment to technical capacity building in labour standards, employment relations and many other dimensions of labour market performance. …

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