The best things come in threes: how a tripartite governing body sets the ILO apart from other United Nations agencies

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By Winona Shaw

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is a unique United Nations (UN) organisation because of the involvement of trade unions and employers organisations in its decision making process. This tripartite structure aims to give equal voice to workers, employers and governments throughout the process of creating employment policy and programme development.

The Governing Body is the executive body of the ILO and meets three times a year: March, June and November. The governing body consists of 56 titular members (28 Governments, 14 Employers and 14 Workers) and 66 deputy members (28 Governments, 19 Employers and 19 Workers). These members come together to freely and openly debate issues relating to labour standards. This involvement of workers and employers together with governments sets the ILO apart from other UN agencies.

Members of the workers’ group are representatives from national and regional trade unions. The role of trade unions has been integral to the ILO since its creation in 1919. Trade unions are regarded as essential in promoting the protection of workers around the world, and in helping individuals secure decent, safe and fair employment opportunities. Whilst the workers’ group members are selected by their national trade union associations, members are expected to represent the rights of workers worldwide, not just workers from their own country. The majority of workers’ group representatives are affiliated to the ITUC. The workers’ group is represented during Governing Body meetings by an elected spokesperson. The workers’ group holds pre-meetings before each Governing Body session to discuss its approach to the upcoming debates and advise its spokesperson.

However, it is not only workers’ rights that are represented at the ILO. The voice and opinion of employers is also considered critical to the ILO’s social dialogue process. Members of the employers’ group are representatives from employers’ organisations – groups which represent the collective interests of employers. The involvement of these representatives is intended to ensure that decisions made by the ILO will contribute toward competitive and sustainable enterprises and will be widely appreciated amongst the business community. Similarly to the workers’ group, the employers’ group has an elected spokesperson for each Governing Body session and the group holds pre-meetings as well. Interestingly, the spokespersons of the workers’ and employers’ groups act as vice-chairs during the Governing Body meetings, meaning they are directly involved in the direction and outcomes of sessions.

This tripartite structure has existed since the ILO’s creation in 1919. Shortly after World War One, key political figures began to appreciate the increasing interdependence of the world’s economies, and a greater need for cooperation. This appreciation developed alongside a desire to ensure peace through the promotion of social justice and a reduction in the exploitation of workers in industrialising nations. Thus an international organisation which represented the rights and wishes of employers and workers, as well as governments, emerged. In 1946 the ILO became a specialised agency of the United Nations, but kept its tripartite structure.

However, the tripartite system of the ILO extends beyond the Governing Body; the ILO also encourages its member countries to employ this tripartite system of social dialogue when formulating and implementing national policy. Tripartite committees support the work of the Governing Body and the International Labour Office in Geneva as well.

Although trade unions are integral to the running of the ILO, trade union participation rates across the world are variable and in some countries very low. Moreover, some countries do not allow workers to organise in unions. This raises questions as to the representativeness of the workers’ group. With regard to the employers’ group, as representatives are from employers’ associations rather than specific companies or businesses there may be a lack of ‘on the ground’ knowledge of corporate needs or of the complexities of supply-chains and international business. Thus decisions made by the employers’ group may not always directly reflect the needs of employers or businesses.

However, despite these challenges, the tripartite structure of the ILO is a unique example of effective and fair social dialogue at a multilateral level: social partners are given voice in the decision-making process, which means that the labour standards and polices which emerge from the ILO serve the needs of workers and employers around the world.

Winona Shaw is a Postgraduate student within the Sociological Studies department at the University of Sheffield. She has a keen interest in social protection, social policy and workers’ caring responsibilities.



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