By B Sivaraman
India was a founding member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1919. It has been a permanent member of its governing body since 1922. At the time of ILO’s centenary, India, the world’s largest democracy, has not ratified two of its core conventions—Convention 89 on Freedom of Association and Right to Organise of 1948 and Convention 98 on Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining of 1949. This, despite Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru making a solemn promise at the Fourth Asian Regional Conference of ILO in India on 13 November 1957 that as one of its 44 founding members India would fully honour the labour standards set by the ILO.
In the name of labour reforms and consolidation of 44 labour laws into four labour codes, the Modi regime is dismantling the relatively liberal Nehruvian regime of industrial relations and is whittling down labour rights of workers. ILO, which is supposed to be the watchdog for the rights and welfare of workers across the world, however has not uttered a single word on this assault on Indian workers.
These two grim realities draw the balance-sheet of hundred years of India’s interface with ILO. What should be the attitude of Indian labour movement, especially the fighting unions, towards the ILO, especially when ILO itself is struggling to maintain its liberal framework of industrial relations in the face of global rightwing surge? Dismissing ILO as a toothless body of irrelevance and ignoring it would be a cardinal mistake. Equally wrong would be to harbour illusions of effecting a radical turn in its policies.
ILO was born as a body of class peace and not class war. It was born out of Versailles Treaty, the treaty of peace concluded at the end of the First World War. It is worth recalling that the WWI, a war between imperialist powers, also sparked off revolutions, in Russia where it was successful, and also in Germany and Austria-Hungary where it could not succeed.
Versailles Conference for a peace treaty, convened by the League of Nations, the forerunner of United Nations, on 25 January 1919, appointed a commission to launch an international labour organisation and it prepared a Draft Convention for creating a Permanent Organisation for the Promotion of the International Regulation of Labour Conditions. The Peace Conference, in its Plenary Session on 11 April 1919, adopted the Draft Convention. ILO was born.
The Preamble of the Convention declared:
“Whereas the League of Nations has for its object the establishment of universal peace, and such a peace can be established, only if it is based upon social justice;
“And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled ; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required: as, for example, by the regulation of the hours of work, including the establishment of a maximum working day and week, the regulation of the labour supply, the prevention of unemployment, the provision of an adequate living wage, the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment, the protection of children, young persons and women, provision for old age and injury, protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own, recognition of the principle of freedom of association, the organisation of vocational and technical education and other measures”.
The allied powers of liberal capitalism did it in 1919 in the same spirit in which John F. Kennedy declared much later in 1962 that, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.
The ILO since then has had a chequered history ambling through WWII, the long post-war boom, the crisis of capitalism in 1970s, the era of globalisation and now the global surge of the right. It also strove very hard to come to grips with trends like shrinkage of manufacturing and decline in the wage share in it and the expansion of the service sector, informalisation of labour, rise of information and communication technologies in the third industrial revolution, jobless growth, drastic fall in trade union membership and now the changing nature of work itself as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and so on.
Within the broad contours of the above liberal-democratic framework, the ILO tried to promote labour interests to the extent possible by working with the States. True, it is a toothless body as many UN agencies are. It largely plays a limited advisory role only. It is a power equation between independent states versus a liberal-minded reformistic labour bureaucracy of an international agency on the payroll of these very states and one can well imagine how far they could advance. Still, they work with trade unions and civil society outfits in India and work as an advocacy platform.
ILO couldn’t do much against the wave of austerity in Europe during the recent Euro zone crisis. It could not do much to cushion the impact of debt crisis in Latin America and the East Asian financial crisis on workers.
However, being a UN agency, ILO carries certain legitimacy in the eyes of the media and public opinion and Indian TUs can always use ILO for influencing the policy to the extent possible and to improve labour jurisprudence. ILO also doubles as an academic outfit and comes up with elaborate reports like on wages, decent work, gender equality and unemployment and so on. These reports can definitely help in promoting public discourse on labour issues. ILO also carries out investigations into specific complaint of labour right violations and recommends remedial measures to the concerned State governments in India. The trade unions also need to evolve more fruitful ways of concrete engagement with the ILO on specifics. Centenary celebrations offer a good opportunity for that. (IPA Service)