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International Labour Organization: tumult on the global labour market

Since 1919 the International Labour Organization (ILO) has been promoting the rights of workers worldwide. On 7 February, Leiden University hosted the symposium celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the foundation of the ILO. Leiden emeritus professor of International Labour Law Paul van der Heijden has been associated with the ILO for over 22 years, in different positions.

The ILO, an organisation of the United Nations, was founded in 1919 to improve the poor working conditions of labourers in factories and on the land. In the course of time, 187 countries joined the ILO. With a total of 195 countries (today), that can be seen as a firm success. The ILO has always been a tripartite organisation: countries become members but decisions are taken jointly by governments, employers and employees, represented as a 2:1:1  ratio. The most serious decisions taken by the ILO are conventions or treaties. The next step is that these are ratified by the member countries in national legislation and jurisprudence. The EU also relies heavily on the ILO for its labour laws. 

Paul van der Heijden
Paul van der Heijden: 'All kinds of developments relating to employment mean that many people no longer have a secure livelihood.'

No secure livelihood

Van der Heijden, besides being a professor and also former President and Rector Magnificus of Leiden University, also organised the symposium on 7 February with Minister Koolmees of Social Affairs and Employment. The Director-General of ILO, Brit Guy Ryder, was als present. The topic of the symposium was the ILO report The future of work, published two weeks previouslyVan der Heijden: ‘The ILO was founded ata  time of major social inequality and we are now under threat of that same situation. The yellow vests and populism are a warning sign.  Digitisation, the advent of robots, artificial intelligence and the increase in flexworkers and freelance workers, mean that people are losing sight of a secure livelihood. The ILO has a responsibility here, namely to offer protection and security of livelihood to all the world's workers, and not only workers with a permanent contract.' 

Human rights at work

For the past fifteen years, Van der Heijden has been chairman of the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association. ‘That committee,’ he explains, 'deals with issues relating to human rights at work, such as the freedom of organisation and demonstration and the right to strike. These obvious union rights are by no means automatic in many countries in the world.'  Here, Van der Heijden touches on one of the weaknesses of the ILO: conventions and treaties are by no means always ratified by all countries, and if they are, there's still no guarantee that the countries themselves will keep to the agreements.' 

Vijay Putra work
Working conditions are by no means optimal everywhere. (Photo Vijay Putra).


The strength of the ILO is in the reports on ratification and implementation of conventions and treaties that member states have to submit, and which can result in their being placed on a blacklist. Most countries would not want that, although it has to be said that reputation is much less of a concern than it used to be. The ILO also tries to use its powers of persuasion. Van der Heijden: ‘As chair of the committees, I sometimes visited union leaders who had been put in prison, to see how they were being treated. and I lobbied for their freedom with the ministers involved.' And those efforts sometimes paid off. One example was Indonesian Dita Sari, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for organising a union demonstration, but thanks to ILO intervention was freed after three years.  She went to Geneva to thank the ILO.

Worrying developments

So, there is work enough for the ILO, but there are also some worrying issues and developments, such as the number of conventions and treaties that are not ratified. 'Particularly when the countries concerned are large countries, like China, India and the US, it has a big effect on the level of support,' according to Van der Heijden. ‘These three countries have in excess of 3 billion inhabitants, out of a total world population of 6.5 billion. America does pay a big contribution but the questions is whether that will continue under Trump.' Another worrying development is that in the course of the years fewer conventions are being actually agreed. What that means is that the global preparedness to agree good working conditions, proper wages and other rights for workers, is declining.  

The percentage of treaties and conventions ratified is low
The ILO has already achieved a lot, although the percentage of treaties and conventions ratified is low. (Chevanon Photography)..

Convention 87

In 2012, the employers revisited the interpretation of Convention 87. This concerns the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Since the Convention was adopted, it has been interpreted in such a way that it automatically includes the right to strike. This is not an absolute right in the sense that the court can prohibit a strike when human life, health or safety are at stake - in the case of a strike in a hospital or in the energy supply, for example - but it is a fundamental right. In 2012, however, the employers' delegation suddenly took the view that the right to strike cannot be read in Convention 87. The trade union delegation was in uproar. To date, the different parties have not reached agreement. However, a kind of truce has been reached so there has not been a total disruption of the ILO. And there are no more discussions about Convention 87 in the ILO.


What also works to the detriment of the ILO is the bureaucratic, 'polder-like', way of working. This results in long, often elaborate processes and procedures. As a result, the ILO  easily gets overtaken by such phenomena as corporate social responsibility. Although this subject is very much an ILO issue, it came to the fore more rapidly through more flexible channels; the ILO missed out.

'Decent Work'

Although the ILO is going through difficult times, an agenda for the future has been formulated. Its core concept is: Decent Work. The previous Director-General of the ILO described it as follows: People must be able to do work that meets the needs of their families, be able to send their children to school, and their work must also provide them with an income after retirement. In whatever work they do, people must be treated fairly and with respect for their rights.

It could also have been included in the ILO's declaration of incorporation

Text: Corine Hendriks
Banner photo: strike action - 'huelga' - in Valencia, Spain, in 2013. Photographer unknown
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De International Labour Organization (ILO)

The ILO is a UN agency, like the FAO, UNESCO and the WHO. The ILO has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The agency has 187 members who pay contributions. Thisresults in a budget of 800 million dollars fora period of two years. The ILO employs 1200 people in Geneva. A further 800 people work in regional offices spread throughout the world.

Within the ILO agreements are made about:

  • fundamental labour rights;
  • working conditions, health, safety at work;
  • social policies;
  • social security.

Every year, all Member States send a delegation to the International Labour Conference in Geneva where decisions are taken. A delegation consists of four people: two on behalf of the government, one on behalf of employers and one on behalf of employees.

Paul van der Heijden and the ILO

Paul van der Heijden has been active in various roles in the ILO since 1995. From 1995 to 2002 he was chairman of the Dutch delegation that is sent annually to the International Labour Conference. In 1998 and 2000 he was chairman of the Conference Committee on Applications of Standards (CAS). From 2002-2018 he was independent chairman of the Governing Body Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA).

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