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September 1994, Vol. 117, No. 9
The ILO and tripartism: some reflections
William R. Simpson
Basic to the operations of the International Labor Organization (ILO) is tripartism, the process by which workers, employers, and governments contribute to the setting of workplace standards and the protection of workers' rights worldwide. This concept, unique among international organizations, is founded in evidence that voluntary interaction and dialogue among representatives of the various parties is vital for social and economic stability and progress, while being consonant with democratic ideals.
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the ILO, delegates to the 1994 International Labor Conference in Geneva took the opportunity to discuss several of the organization's traditional assumptions and methods, including tripartism and its application in practice. The timing of the discussion seemed particularly fortuitous, given the unprecedented changes on the global socioeconomic scene in recent years, and the promise of even greater changes yet to come. This article attempts to put issues surrounding tripartism, in its ILO setting, into perspective by reviewing the history of the system and its achievements, and examining its future potential as a worldwide force for workers' rights.
A brief history
Only after the First World War did trade union organizations of the western world succeed in achieving a mechanism that could effectively improve the often deplorable conditions of work that existed in industrial life. The international regulation of labor matters had been considered and discussed at various points during the 19th century-sometimes at the initiative of governments, sometimes of private associations-but these attempts were never pursued to completion, despite arguments that international standards would act as a kind of guarantee against unfair labor cost competition exercised by countries having inferior conditions of work. International conferences convened by the Swiss Government in Berne in 1905 and 1906 did succeed in adopting two international labor Conventions relating to the prohibition of night work for women in industrial employment and the prohibition of white phosphorous in the manufacture of matches. However, it was not until the Peace Conference of 1919 that these and other antecedents led to the inclusion in the Treaty of Versailles of Part XIII, which dealt with labor matters and provided for the establishment of an International Labor Organization to adopt standards in the field.
This excerpt is from an article published in the September 1994 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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ILO labor statistics convention: U.S. accepts new obligations. June 1991.
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