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Conference “Globalization and Social Justice: A Century of ILO action, 1919-2019”

The International Labour Organization is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. For historians, sociologists, political scientists, lawyers, economists, and anthropologists working on the ILO, thist is a unique occasion to re-examine its origins, assess its experience over the century, and think about its future and its (challenged) influence today. The ILO was created by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and survived the League of Nations. After World War II, the ILO was integrated to the broader United Nations’ configuration and brought its unique experience and know-how derived from the tradition of the first internationalism.

Moreover, the ILO is the only  organization which guarantees the representation of the world of work.. Together with representatives of the governments representatives of the employers and the workers cooperate in order to establish international labour standards. Since 1919, the ILO’s mission is to regulate economy and society at the international level, and to set up norms in the realm of working conditions, social protection and social dialogue. The ILO also seeks to produce expertise on these questions and organize technical cooperation. This mission was reaffirmed by the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944.

This scientific and pluridisciplinary symposium proposes to study the ILO by considering it as one organization within a broader institutional system whose primary goal is to create the conditions for universal peace and social justice. Therefore, the ILO has formulated and followed ideals of social reform while remaining pragmatic on specific questions. In many areas, the ILO can be considered as a pioneer institution.


This symposium aims at assessing the academic knowledge currently available on the ILO. It will also include testimonies from different actors involved in the work of the ILO (directly or indirectly), in order to debate on the future of the organization. The scientific committee will welcome communications dealing with other organizations whose activities are related to the missions of the ILO. The covered historical period goes from 1919 to the present.  

Four axes are suggested:

-         Labour and social justice

-         Universalism and globalization

-         Representation and social dialogue

-         Norms and regulation


Axis 1 Labour and social justice

Social justice has been presented as the cornerstone of the International Labour Organization since its foundation, and as the main provider for peace. Yet, this flexible  notion has evolved throughout the organization history. By specifying new social categories and labour standards, the ILO has proved to be an important actor of the regulation of globalization, in the name of this ideal of social justice. Analyzing how labour and social justice connect together will allow us to better grasp the organization’s mode of action, as well as its successive adaptations to globalization.


Axis 2 Universalism and globalization

Since its foundation, the ILO has been torn between the ideal of universalizing workers’ rights and the effectiveness of globalization, which highlights the specificities of workers’ situations. To what extent did the opening-up of the ILO towards the Global South, although it was originally essentially a European organization, impact the process of universalization of its recommendations in matter of labour conditions? Are the economic globalization and global phenomena such as migration crises, climate change and new technologies a hindrance to the universalization of social justice? What are the coming challenges the ILO must face, so that its universal principles coexist with an unstoppable globalization?

Axis 3: Representation and social dialogue

Social dialogue is a core aspect of the normative and regulative process of the ILO, enhancing the cooperation but also the confrontation of the delegates of employers, workers and governments who are meant to be the most representative of their home country. The majority of non-state delegates are now gathered within the International Confederation of Trade Unions and the International Organization of Employers. In a globalized era, where “new” actors of the world of work, NGOs, multinational enterprises participate to civil dialogue and multistakeholders initiatives, the efficiency and legitimacy of the ILO system has been put into question. Does tripartite social dialogue allow an adequate representation of the world of work and workers? Is it still unique, compared to other regional and international institutions, which include “civil society” to the decision-making process? 

Axis 4: Norms and Regulation

The International Labour Organization has not become the workers’ global parliament, that few socialist reformers and trade-unionists had envisioned in 1919. Nevertheless, during its century of existence, the organization has produced an impressive normative body, that forms the basis of an international international labour legislation. This normative activity has undoubtedly been one of the organization core task, but it came with tensions. Firstly, the success of international standards is highly depending on the cooperation of Nation-States, they are the involved in the drafting process; they ratify the conventions and are supposed to enforce them. The tension between national and international actors are thus at the core of the ILO normative system. Secondly, as the number of member-states increased, the possibility of establishing a unique standard for all of them seemed to become an unreachable task. Thirdly, the normative culture of the ILO has been recently challenged by new regulatory practices like corporate social responsibility. This conference will be an opportunity to reflect on the importance but also to stress the and understand the complexity connected to the normative and regulatory role of the ILO


University Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne