Conclusions on Labour Protection in the 111th International Labour Conference: A Critical Evaluation

The 111th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC), an annual forum of tripartite discussion and formulation of conclusions on several issues concerning labour rights in the globe, was held in Geneva from 5th to 16th June 2023. The conference was organised by the of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Representatives of workers, employers and governments from 187 member states participated in the conference.


The conference broadly deliberated on General Affairs of the ILO, Application of Standards, Apprenticeship, Labour Protection and Just Transition to Environmentally Sensitive Economy. Committees consisting of workers, employers and government representatives were formed to discuss the above-mentioned topics. In this conference, Comrade Sucheta De, the representative of AICCTU, part of the Indian delegation, joined the committee on Recurrent Discussion on Labour Protection. It is more appropriate to look at the history and politics of ILO before proceeding further on evaluating the conclusion of the discussion on Labour Protection.


A Brief Look at the History and Politics of ILO


ILO was constituted after the First World War as a part of peace treaties that ended the war. It was reborn in 1944. Formed in the post-war era, the ILO, in its initial days formulated that social justice is fundamental for long lasting peace in the world. In a world ravaged by imperialist war, the ILO in the 1940s recognised that capitalist industrialisation has generated mass poverty and must be contained to ensure lasting peace. In order to achieve this objective, the ILO formulated that social reforms within the existing economic and political system should be ensured. In the post-war scenario, where the globe was torn by the imperialist competition between colonial powers, achieving social reform within the existing economic and political system indeed pointed to its aim of reforms within the framework of neo-liberal order today. Also, this approach explains the ILO’s attempt of commissioning an enquiry in the newly formed USSR during the 1920s for the stated purpose of disillusioning the workers from taking up arms for revolution. [1]


However, the approach of ensuring social justice through some stated principles of labour rights got hugely diluted through repeated interventions by the United States. The conclusion of the first ILC to ensure eight-hour workday was not ratified by several governments. The ILO, since 1940s, is driven by the principle of organising labour for ensuring productivity. The approach of ensuring sustainable enterprise by ensuring labour rights is a sufficient indicator in that direction.


Today, the world is dominated by the logic of neo-liberal economy where hire and fire is the norm. The logic of ever-increasing productivity has established an economic system where the capital refuses to recognise the workers’ right to permanent jobs. The dichotomy between social protection of workers and economic globalisation in a neo-liberal world order is more of a fundamental nature in our times. While terms are dictated by the finance capital led globalisation and its accompanied international financial institutions, ILO, in its labour conferences, generally, sticks to discussions on principles of labour protection. Ratification of ILO conventions is neither mandatory nor followed by any government. The 111th ILC was happening at a time when the world was gradually recovering from the disasters of Covid-19 lockdowns. According to ILO’s own estimates,114 million people lost their jobs during 2020. We, in India, have witnessed a massive disaster faced by the Indian working class during lockdown. The realities of labour protection in a productivity-centric and profit-centric economic system revealed itself nakedly in this period. While the reports and conclusions of 111th ILC mentions hardships faced by workers during lockdown, a comprehensive critique of the economic system that caused the disaster for workers finds no place in the discussions.


Other than the ILC, the Governing Body is another structure of ILO playing a vital role in decision making. Ten states are members of the Governing Body based on their industrial power, namely Brazil, China, India, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK and US. Worker members are nominated through the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) and Employer members are nominated through IOE (International Organisation of Employers).


The ITUC is an umbrella body of trade unions that are known to be traditionally aligning with ruling parties of various countries. Even during discussions in the ILC, perspectives of the ITUC dominated the discussion. The perspective of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the platform of left trade unions, that recognises capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies to be the basis of cruel exploitation of the working class today is structurally marginalised in the discussions of the ILC.


Discussions on Labour Protection:

The Perspective of the Indian Working Class


Discussions on different aspects of labour protection in the ILC was preceded by a report published by the office of the Director General of ILO. The Report tells us that formal employment in formal sector has grown faster than in informal sector between 2005 and 2019. Temporary work, on the other hand, has increased significantly.


Our experience from India further tells us that increasingly more number of workers are engaged in informal work. Presently, 93 percent of the workforce in India are informal. The Government of India is trying to reduce the number just by registering them in e-Shram portal without any guarantee of any social security. The Indian realities, despite being the most populous country with largest chunk of workforce, are not reflected in the ILO declaration to reduce informal work.


The report says that the scope for greater inclusion of workforce under minimum wages is increasing worldwide. The report also claims that scope of coverage of minimum wages has increased in India as well. But, the fact remains that the new labour codes in India attempt to bring down the level of wages by introducing a new category of Floor Wages in place of relatively higher Minimum Wages by making it non-mandatory.


The report mentions stray examples of some Nordic countries and claims that a trend of reduction in working hours is being witnessed in the world. On the contrary, what we witness in India today is the legislative measures by several state governments to increase working hours from 8 to 12. The definition of workday which was hitherto 8 hours is being redefined to reduce the wages for overtime work beyond 8 hours in a day.


The report indicates recognition of paternity leave in some countries such as the OECD countries. In India, on the other hand, the new labour codes aim to free employer from the responsibility of providing even the crèche facility. In several cases, women workers exercising their right to maternity leave are being terminated from services for the fault of pregnancy.


Regarding occupational safety and health, the report identifies existing issues of work-related accidents and hazards but without any solution. Sexual violence and harassment at workplace remain a persisting problem before the working class. While legal provisions of protection from sexual harassment and discrimination exist in several countries including India, the fact remains that protection from sexual harassment is intrinsically related with protection of labour rights and guarantee of continuation of jobs. In a world where arbitrary retrenchment is the norm, protection from sexual harassment and discrimination appear to be a distant dream. In India, for example, millions of scheme workers who are made to work without recognition of any rights, regularly face sexual harassment at workplace, but without any redressal of the same. 


On protection of workers from unfair dismissal, the ILO report says that in several countries like Canada, Georgia and Zambia, the list of prohibited grounds for dismissal have been expanded. On the contrary, in India, companies are being given freehand for arbitrary closures and retrenchment, without even any notice, if the number of workforce employed in the unit is less than 300.


Undeservingly, the ILO report praises the new Industrial Relations Code passed by Indian Government stating that it prohibits discrimination between permanent and temporary workers. In Fact, the Industrial Relations Code abolishes earlier provisions of regularisation of jobs for contractual workers by de-reserving several core activities like sanitation and security as non-core ones and thereby removing all existing protections.


Sanitation work is caste ordained and forms the basis of discrimination. By ensuring perpetual contractualisation of the workforce belonging to the most oppressed caste in India, the IR Code has actually ensured structural discrimination. While scope for regularisation for contractual workers are effectively eliminated, the IR Code has institutionalised informalisation of workforce by introducing the category of “fixed term employment”, a structural mechanism to deny regularisation of services. The ILO document, in order to ensure long term employment, mentions the need to restrict the temporary nature of employment and to restrict excessive renewal of fixed term contracts. But, the IR Code Act has codified informalisation and intensive exploitation of contractual and temporary workforce. It has granted a legal sanction to the existing illegalities.


While the ILO report recognises importance of labour inspection, it also identifies flexible models of labour inspection in the name of changing world of work. One new method adopted by the United States has been mentioned where exemptions from planned inspection has been given to enterprises that has a track record of ensuring labour rights. On the contrary, the Indian Government allows self-certification by enterprises themselves and has got rid of inspection system itself. Inspectors are renamed as facilitators (for the enterprises). The existing penal provisions for violations are removed by new Codes and inspections are restricted and inspectors are not allowed to go for planned inspections but for a centralised system of random decisions by the computers.


The conclusion on Labour Protection that was adopted after a lot of discussions in the ILC broadly reflect the above narrative. Among relatively new issues that the ILC discussed were the definition of employment relations in case of informal platform workers. Protection of tele workers’ right to disconnect is one among the concerns raised by ILC.



Violation of Conventions


Ensuring labour rights to maintain ‘sustainable enterprises’ is a motive that has been time and again reiterated in the present ILC document on labour protection. Sustainable enterprises are those that function without much of labour unrest. The documents time and again refer to the ‘changing world of work’. All put together, it is amply clear that the ILO is willing to accommodate the rights and interests of workers only within a broad framework of protection of interests of the capital.


The enactment of the labour codes in India follows the stated objective of the present government of ensuring ‘ease of doing business’. In order to protect the interests of the businesses, the rights of workers in a post-colonial society like India are being snatched away. Surprisingly (or not), the 111th ILC documents find no problem with the labour codes in India that violate several ILO conventions.


Encouraging informalisation of workforce and formulating strategies and principles within that framework is a model dictated by the capital in the neo liberal era. The issues of third world workers, including snatching away of their rights and benefits, are being looked at through the prism of neo-liberal models and labour relations in Global North. It is quite natural that snatching away of labour rights are considered normal when neo-liberal economy is considered to be a panacea and when the Global North is thriving on exploitation of labour force in third world.


Turning a blind eye to the reality of unequal power relations between nations and between the employers and the workforce only aggravates the sufferings of the working class all over the world.


While ILO conventions and principles continue to work as a standard for labour rights that is supposed to be adapted and adhered to by the nation-states, the ILO’s scale of intervention to guarantee the implementation of the same appear to be severely impaired.



[1] Christofe Gironde and Gilles Carbonnier, ‘The ILO@100: Addressing the Past and Future of Work and Social Protection’, The Graduate Institute Geneva, p.46