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BTS explainer: what is the International Labour Conference?

This will be the 105th session of the International Labour Conference, but how many people know what it is and why it’s important?

A garment factory in the Philippines. ILO/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

The International Labour Conference (ILC) is the annual assembly of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO is the ‘labour arm’ of the United Nations and its job is to set the rules governing the world’s working conditions. Almost every country is a member, and each national delegation is split into four different representatives – two from government, one from labour and one from capital. Each representative has the right to vote independently on whichever measures are adopted, and all votes carry equal weight.

The ILC can therefore be understood as like ‘a world parliament of labour’. It adopts instruments ranging from ‘conventions’ to ‘recommendations’. These are part of the rulebook governing the world economy (along with things like trade treaties and the rules for membership of the World Trade Organisation). Recommendations are guidelines for the application of conventions or for national government action, while conventions are binding international laws that are incorporated into national legal frameworks whenever a country signs up and ratifies them. They relate to things as fundamental to everyday life as the freedom of association, abolition of forced labour, labour inspection, and social protection. So the basic labour rights you do or don't enjoy will always be traced back to the discussions that take place at the ILC.

And these discussions are very political! Often workers will want one thing and employers the opposite. Sometimes both unite against the governments. The balance of forces between these three constituents, and the success of business and social justice activists mobilising outside, will determine a great deal. The ILO Secretariat – which works like a national civil service – prepares an initial report on a key social or political issue, which workers, employers, and governments spend months positioning themselves around. Next, the ILO will produce a draft text that takes into account these expressed positions. And then all parties will meet in Geneva to fight paragraph by paragraph over the final text.

At times, the text on the agenda is the draft text of a convention or a recommendation. But at others – like this year – the text is a background document that will prepare the ground for the potential drafting of a future convention. In that case, the struggle at the ILC is over whether or not the issue being discussed will eventually require legal action.

Why is ILC 2016 so important? Because for the first time since much of the world economy was re-organised into global supply chains, the ILO will feature a discussion about how that economy should or shouldn’t be regulated in the interests of decent work and social justice. What is discussed and decided at this year’s ILC will thus set the stage for the next year (or two) of struggle within the international labour movement and between the labour movement and representatives of the status quo. Unions and social justice activists want major corporations to face legal accountability for labour standards in the supply chains that their economic power means they shape. They, of course, do not. The lines are drawn.

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