T2-14: Supranational governance: The role of the ILO

6 September 2019, 11:00–12:30

Chair: Birgit Kraemer


The ILO’s 100th anniversary: What strategy for the next century?

Aneta Tyc, University of Lodz

As the International Labour Organization (ILO) celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019, it is unavoidable to reflect on the great heritage of ten decades of its existence. The author highlights important achievements of the organization, particularly a system of international labour standards “aimed at promoting opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity” (www.ilo.org). However, this anniversary is also an opportunity to take stock of the effectiveness of the ILO's enforcement mechanisms. Although the ILO has proved its capacity to define, evaluate, and monitor international labour standards, it lacks tools to enforce compliance with ILO agreements. Procedural compliance, concerned with formal obligations such as reporting, seems to be on the decline. Substantive compliance, i.e. whether states have fulfilled obligations set out in an international instrument, is also unsatisfactory, especially in terms that ILO appears to be unable to respond to cases of non-compliance. As ILO has no effective mechanism to impose sanctions against countries that fail to comply with its agreements, many authors draw attention to the potential of the WTO in this regard. This paper details whether labour standards should be left to the ILO (eg. Hepple, 2008), encompassed by the WTO agenda (eg. Cohan Baclawski, 2016; Wolffgang and Feuerhake, 2002) or both forces should be combined (the institutional approach), eg. the Agency for Trade and Labour Standards “ATLAS” jointly governed by the WTO and the ILO (Barry and Reddy, 2008); joint ILO-GATT/WTO Enforcement Regime (Ehrenberg, 1996); the concept of a global labour and trade framework agreement “GLTFA” (Addo, 2015). The paper also focuses on the integrated legislative approach which consists in the integration of core labour standards (CLS) into the WTO through changes to law, eg. the view according to which the WTO should build on Article XX(e) of GATT by adding a provision that allows countries to sanction the specific sector of a country that has violated CLS, if the ILO has determined that there is a violation (eg. Elliott, Freeman, 2003; Plasa, 2015). The paper concludes by suggesting an option that would be the most feasible and could be realized during the forthcoming wave of reforms aiming at strengthening the WTO.

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.


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