Governing supply chains and the role of the International Labour Organization (ILO)

Huw Thomas, University of Bristol
Mark Anner, School of Labor and Employment Relations, Pennsylvania State University

The growth of global supply chains, which now account for 80 per cent of world trade (UNCTAD, 2013), presents the ILO with a challenge that goes to the heart of the Organization’s founding philosophy and structure, one built on the prominence of nation states and national actors. Whilst the ILO was set up ‘to equalize conditions of competition among the nations so that trade might be liberated without danger to standards of living’ (Polanyi, 1944: 27-8), in the present days of the ‘global transformation’ (Standing, 2008), transnational corporations ‘have gone global and function in near real time, leaving behind the slower moving, state-mediated inter-national world of arm’s-length economic transactions and traditional international legal mechanisms’ (Ruggie, 2004: 503, original emphasis). As part of the ‘state-mediated inter-national world’, the ILO has also been ‘left behind’ and its conception of decent work and the instruments for attaining it needs to be reconsidered. Common principles and practices to be pursued in individual member States are still necessary but no longer sufficient. We find that global supply chains are increasingly shaping the dynamics of employment relations and often contribute to decent work deficits, and hence national and international actors are in need of greater ILO guidance and supervision.

This paper begins by tracing the ILO’s philosophy based on national state actors and the historic and economic context in which this philosophy was developed. The paper then examines the growth of global supply chains, their impacts on working conditions and labour standards, and attempts by the ILO to address these challenges. We argue that the conclusions and approved follow-up of the International Labour Conference ‘Decent Work in Global Supply Chain’ discussion in 2016 signal a re-conceptualisation of the ILO’s relevancy and its normative role into its second century. The ILO already has the ‘blueprint’ for a standard on global supply chains and the necessary constitutional tools in place. However, at present the ILO is embroiled in, and hamstrung by, fractures and political tensions both within the tripartite constituency and the Office. The final section of this paper suggests ways in which some of these tensions might be addressed so that the discussion can move forward.

This paper draws on the authors’ research on agricultural and apparel supply chains and is informed by their long-standing collaborations with the International Labour Office as well as the Workers’ Group.


  • Polanyi, K. 1944. The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Ruggie, J.G. 2004. Reconstituting the global public domain — issues, actors, and practices. European Journal of International Relations 10(4), pp. 499–531.
  • Standing, G. 2008. The ILO: an agency for globalization? Development and Change 39(3), pp. 355–384.
  • UNCTAD 2013. World investment report 2013: global value-chains, investment and trade for development. Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.