1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/International Labour Organization

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1922 Encyclopædia Britannica
International Labour Organization
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INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANIZATION. — An important part of the scheme for a League of Nations embodied in the Peace Treaty of Versailles in 1919 involved the creation of a new International Labour Organization. The Labour part of the Treaty (Part XIII.) rested on the principle laid down in its preamble that there can be no social peace which is not based on social justice. It represented the aspiration which moved all classes to carry over into peace the community of sentiment and of action which had held them together during the dark hours of the World War.

Aiming therefore at the promotion of social peace, the International Labour Organization was founded on two main beliefs — the belief that there must be international coöperation in the industrial sphere, if suicidal competition, leading to much human misery, and perhaps to fresh wars, was to be avoided, and the belief that such coöperation must be based on the collaboration between the State, Capital and Labour. The organization was therefore to consist of all the states forming the League of Nations, who were to meet annually in conference and draw up international agreements for regulating and improving industrial conditions. By raising the standard of living and the lot of the worker everywhere, the worst evils of commercial rivalry, and the penalty which it had hitherto imposed on progressive social legislation, could be gradually removed. This could only be done by international agreements having the force of treaties. Under the provisions of Article 405 of the Treaty these agreements are cast in the form of “draft conventions” and “recommendations,” which each State is bound to lay before its legislative or other authorities within a maximum period of eighteen months. Special provision is made to meet the case of federal constitutions, such as those of Canada, Australia and the United States, where labour legislation is not within the competence of the federal authority, but is a matter for the individual states or provinces. There were some who took part in the Paris negotiations and who wished to go further. They advocated that the Conference should be vested with the powers of a super-parliament, whose decisions should be immediately binding; but finally the more modest proposal of the British delegation, who put forward the scheme, was adopted, and it was left to the sovereign power in each state to accept or reject the proposals adopted by the conference. The constitution as defined by the Treaty provides therefore that the final decision rests with the government or parliament of each country. Once its approval is given to a draft convention, the formal ratification is conveyed to the secretary-general of the League, and the enforcement of its provisions becomes a treaty obligation.

This procedure is, apart from the imposition of a time-limit, not essentially different from the usual procedure followed by diplomatic conferences before the war, but when the composition of the International Labour Conference is considered, several marked departures from precedent will be observed. In the past governments alone took part in international discussions which were to result in creating international obligations. This meant that the delegates were tied down to carrying out their official instructions, and that mutual concession must be carried to the point where virtual unanimity was reached, if any practical consequences were to follow. The constitution of the International Labour Conference broke away from the diplomatic tradition. It provided for four delegates from each country, two only representing the government, the other two being chosen in agreement with the most representative organizations of employers and of workers in each country. The reason for this innovation is not far to seek. In discussing labour problems it is impossible to ignore the great employers' associations and trade unions, which are primarily interested and which are the controlling factors in modern industry. Once unofficial delegates were admitted, it followed as a necessary corollary that each national delegation could not be expected to act as a whole, but that its members must be free to speak and vote as they pleased. Hence it was no longer possible to look for unanimity, and it was accordingly provided that a draft convention or recommendation must be carried by a two-thirds majority, but that once so carried, its consideration (though not its adoption) became obligatory on the governments, whether their representatives had voted for it or not. By this means international public opinion could exert its influence even in countries which might be unwilling to accept the standards of the majority.

One further point requires brief notice. During the original discussions in Paris there was considerable division of opinion on the question whether the governments should have one vote or two. It was argued from the Labour point of view that the double vote would place the workers in a hopeless minority, and reduce them to impotence against the three votes exercised by the governments and the employers. On the other side, it was pointed out that not only was it probable that the official delegates would be as often on the side of the workers as on that of the employers, but that on the equal voting system the latter would with the assistance of a single government be able to block any proposal. Moreover, unless the majority of the governments accepted a draft convention, there was small likelihood of its being ratified, and this in itself justified their larger voting power. The subsequent experience of the Washington and Genoa conferences may be held to have justified these contentions.

Supposing then that a convention has been duly ratified by a number of states, what guarantee is there that it will be enforced? Clearly unequal enforcement would largely destroy its value, and would penalise the countries which had acted up to their obligations. To meet this contingency the Treaty provided that where a state failed to carry out its obligations after having its attention drawn to the matter, the governing body of the International Labour Office might, if it saw fit, appoint a commission of inquiry. If the commission's report was unfavourable and the state in question still refused to remove the cause of complaint, the matter could be referred to the Permanent Court of International Justice, who would issue a final judgment and might suggest the adoption of the appropriate economic penalties against the defaulting country. In practice it may be held highly improbable that it would ever be necessary to go to such lengths, but this attempt to provide an effective sanction for international engagements is not without interest.

Washington Conference, 1919. — The first International Labour Conference was held in Washington in Oct. 1919 as fixed by the Treaty. The fact of President Wilson's illness and of the failure of the United States to ratify the Treaty clouded the atmosphere. Moreover, the prevailing industrial strife in America did not make a favourable setting for the first attempt at coöperation between Capital, Labour and the governments on an international scale. Nevertheless, 123 delegates, drawn from 39 countries, assembled: 73 representing governments, 25 the employers and 25 the workers. They were accompanied by about 150 advisers, a good proportion of whom were women. The conference sat for a month and, once it had found its feet, worked with astonishing purpose and enthusiasm. It dispersed with the feeling that its work had not been in vain. Six draft conventions and six recommendations had been adopted by the necessary two-thirds majority, most of them almost unanimously. It must suffice here to enumerate them, calling attention to one or two points of special interest. The first draft convention provided for the 8-hour day and the 48-hour week in industrial undertakings, with a number of modifications and exceptions which are indispensable to meet the special needs of particular industries or particular countries. Particularly notable were the articles dealing with Japan and India, which, though not bringing them up to the western standard at one bound, contain very considerable reductions in the hours of labour hitherto permitted in those countries. Further draft conventions provided for the establishment of employment exchanges and other measures for combating unemployment, for the prohibition of the industrial employment of children under 14, for the assistance of women in industry before and after childbirth, and for the prohibition of the employment of women and young persons at night. In addition, recommendations were adopted dealing with the treatment of emigrants, the establishment of medical inspection of factories, the prevention of anthrax and lead poisoning, etc.

These results of a month's work on the part of such a heterogeneous and polyglot assembly meeting for the first time were certainly noteworthy. They were not reached without a great deal of keen discussion. Employers and workers stated their views with freedom and force, but at the same time with restraint, and not infrequently it was the r61e of the government delegates to construct a bridge between them. But for all the differences of standpoint, mentality, language and interest, which made the conference such a fascinating microcosm, there was a spirit of good-will and a general common-sense, which enabled it to arrive at solid and workmanlike agreements. The foundation was laid for a real system of international labour legislation immeasurably in advance of anything which had been contemplated before the war. The pioneer work of the International Association for Labour Legislation, which succeeded in bringing together an official conference at Berne in 1906, resulting in a convention for the prohibition of the use of white phosphorus in matches, found its consummation at Washington in 1919, when the beginnings were made of a comprehensive international labour code.

The Washington conference completed its work by laying the foundations of the International Labour Office, the other branch of the permanent organization. The conference elected the governing body, which under the Treaty is charged with the control of the office, and which consists of 24 members. Of these 12 are appointed by governments, eight by those of the eight states of chief industrial importance, the remaining four being selected by the government delegates of the conference. There was some contention as to which were the eight chief industrial states, but finally, under protest from India, the following list was accepted: — the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany,[1] Japan, Belgium and Switzerland. As the first named had not ratified the Treaty, and was therefore not a member of the organization, a fifth place was provisionally thrown open for election, and the following countries were chosen to complete the number: — Spain, Argentina, Canada, Poland and Denmark. In addition to the government members, six employers' and six workers' representatives were chosen by the employers' and workers' groups, which guided their selection by the industrial importance of the organizations which they contained rather than by considerations of nationality. The result was somewhat ill-balanced, as 20 out of the 24 members were from Europe, though the equilibrium would have been better preserved had America been able to fill the three places allotted to her. The conference felt the position to be unsatisfactory and passed a resolution in this sense, which led to the reconsideration of the constitution of the governing body.

When elected, the governing body proceeded to appoint the first director of the International Labour Office in the person of M. Albert Thomas, the French Socialist leader, who had created the French Ministry of Munitions during the war, a man of great energy, capacity and enthusiasm. He quickly set to work, and the office took up its quarters in London in Jan. 1920. Its functions as defined by the Treaty fall into two broad divisions. On the one hand, it carries out all the preparatory and complementary work connected with the conference. It prepares the agenda, presents a report on each item containing all the information available on the subject, it performs the secretarial duties, and conducts all the correspondence arising in connexion with the ratification, interpretation and enforcement of the conventions and recommendations adopted. It also undertakes any inquiries which the conference may order. These may be termed the diplomatic functions of the office, which are performed by one of its main branches known as the “diplomatic division.” The other main branch is the “scientific division,” which, as its name implies, is engaged in the work of investigation and research. The Treaty imposes upon the office “the collection and distribution of information on all subjects relating to the international adjustment of conditions of industrial life and labour,” together with the publication in French and English of “a periodical paper dealing with problems of industry and employment of international interest.” It is easy to see how huge a field the office is thus expected to cover. There are few, if any, industrial problems which have not their international bearing. If the war and the economic chaos resulting from it had brought home one truth to the world, it was that economically all the nations are to a greater or lesser degree interdependent. And when the importance of labour as an element in production, whether industrial or agricultural, is considered, it may readily be seen that almost all labour problems have their international aspect. It is unnecessary to insist upon a point which is demonstrated on the one side by the tendency of capital to create amalgamations and working agreements, which take no account of national frontiers, and on the other by the movement of the trade unions in almost every important industry, including agriculture, towards the formation of international federations for the protection of their interests. Neither international strikes nor international collective agreements are outside the realm of practical politics.

Genoa Conference, 1920. — The first big task of the International Labour Office was the preparation of the second annual conference, which was held at Genoa in June 1920. It was exclusively concerned with the conditions of employment at sea. Of all industries the shipping industry is the most essentially international, and of all callings the seaman's has perhaps received the least attention from the social legislator. The Genoa conference was more specialist in character than its predecessor, and its results necessarily less impressive, because they were less universal in their scope. Nevertheless, they are likely to produce considerable practical improvements in the sailor's lot. The conference adopted three draft conventions. The first suppresses the “crimp,” who made his living by fleecing the seaman under the pretext of finding him employment. The convention requires the abolition of all private employment agencies carried on for purposes of gain, or where they are allowed to continue temporarily, their supervision by the government. Moreover, each government undertakes to establish free public employment agencies conducted either by the State or by the joint effort of shipowners and seamen. The second convention provides for the payment to seamen of compensation for unemployment in the event of the loss of their vessel. Finally, a third convention prohibits the employment of boys under 14 on board ship. In addition to these conventions, recommendations were adopted in favour of unemployment insurance for seamen, and in favour of the establishment of national maritime codes. This last measure was regarded as the prelude to the drafting of an international code, which would enable sailors of all countries to serve under uniform conditions, under whatever flag they sailed. The International Labour Office was in 1921 engaged in collecting the material on which the joint maritime commission appointed by the conference might begin the work of framing such a code for submission to a future conference. Finally, two further recommendations were passed dealing with the hours of work on fishing vessels and in inland navigation, but on the difficult question of hours of work in seagoing ships, the conference failed to reach agreement. There were long and vigorous debates on this subject, the main point at issue being whether the French system of a 48-hour week with unlimited overtime compensated either by extra wages or by time off in port, or the British Government's proposal of a 56-hour week on deck and 48 in the engine-room, should be adopted. The former failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds -majority by a fraction, but as several of the most important seafaring countries were in the minority, including Great Britain, Japan, Norway and Spain, the convention would probably not have been generally applied, had it been actually passed. The sequel, however, showed that legislation is not the only method by which the International Labour Organization can assist in promoting industrial peace.

Shortly after the dispersal of the conference the International Seamen's Federation held a congress at which the results were discussed. A good deal of dissatisfaction was expressed at the failure to obtain any reduction of hours, and a resolution in favour of an international seamen's strike was moved. The loss, suffering and dislocation which such a strike would have caused, however short its duration, require no emphasis. An amendment was eventually carried, however, inviting the director of the International Labour Office to intervene with a view to securing a conference with the International Shipowners' Association, at which the matter could be reopened on a purely industrial basis. The shipowners agreed to the meeting which took place at Brussels in Jan. 1921 under the presidency of M. Albert Thomas. Two joint committees were appointed to examine in detail the revision of hours of work in the engine-room and on deck respectively. An excellent spirit was shown on both sides, with the result that it is proposed to make practical experiments on selected ships to test the new system of hours proposed, which may well pave the way to the first, international collective agreement. Such an agreement would undoubtedly mark an important landmark in industrial history.

International Labour Office. — As regards the development of the International Labour Office itself, its early months were largely occupied in recruiting and training the staff necessary to carry out its numerous duties. They were gradually drawn together from different countries, and in spite of the variety of language and tradition had at the end of six months attained a degree of unity and cohesion, which enabled the work of the office to reach a very reasonable standard of efficiency and its publication to commence. To the diplomatic and scientific divisions a number of small technical sections were attached, manned by specialists in the problems they were appointed to handle. These sections dealt with unemployment and emigration, agricultural questions, seamen's questions, industrial health, social insurance, including the rehabilitation of men disabled in industry or in war, and coöperation. A further special section was formed to study the social aspects of the Russian revolution in consequence of a decision of the governing body to send a mixed commission of inquiry to ascertain the industrial conditions under the Soviet régime. Owing to the refusal of the Bolshevik Government to admit them, the commission never carried out their mission, but the Russian section which had been formed to prepare the way for their inquiry succeeded in collecting a great deal of first-hand evidence, which had not been previously got together. The section made a scientific analysis of the data thus obtained, and produced the first attempt to give an objective account of the Bolshevik industrial system under the title of “Labour Conditions in Soviet Russia.”

Finally a small section was formed to carry out the inquiry into production, which was decided upon by the governing body on the motion of the employers' representatives. The object of this inquiry was to ascertain, if possible, how far the diminution of production was due to the shortening of hours of work, the physical and moral exhaustion produced by the war, or to other causes affecting the output of the individual worker, or how far it was due to deeper economic causes produced by the generally chaotic conditions in which the war had left the machinery for the production and exchange of goods all over the world. To attempt to obtain a clear view of a subject of such complexity was in itself a vast undertaking, but in response to the questionnaire which was sent out in twelve languages to the governments, employers' organizations and the trade unions, a great deal of valuable information about the conditions affecting production in all countries had already been obtained in 1921.

After six months' work in London, the Office was transferred to Switzerland. The Treaty required it to be established at the seat of the League of Nations, and though the secretariat of the League was still in London, the governing body decided for reasons of convenience to transfer the office somewhat earlier to Geneva, which was designated as the future home of the League. Consequently in July 1920, immediately after the close of the Genoa conference, the International Labour Office settled down in its new quarters. After three months' breathing space, it was called upon to take its part in the work of the first assembly of the League. The constitutional relationship between the Labour Organization and the League was generally defined in the Treaty, though some points were not free from ambiguity. The International Labour Office is “part of the organization of the League” and is “entitled to the assistance of the secretary-general in any matter in which it can be given”; but it is not subject to the control of the council of the League, nor is the Labour Organization as a whole in any way dependent upon or subordinated to the assembly, except in the important matter of finance. Unlike the other technical organizations of the League, such as the health or transit organizations, the Labour Organization does not submit its decisions to the council for approval and its agenda are settled not by the council but by its own governing body. Save in the matter of finance, it is an autonomous body attached to the League by ties of common interest rather than by constitutional bonds; in fact, it is a sort of self-governing dominion. The financial link is, however, naturally one of great importance, since money questions are not less vital in international than in national affairs. Hence when the budget of the League was considered by the assembly, the finances of the Labour Organization, which form part of it, also came under review.

As the taxpayer is acutely interested in all public expenditure, it may be interesting to give a rough idea of the cost of the International Labour Office. Its estimates, which were voted by the Assembly for 1921, amounted to 7 million gold francs, which may be taken as approximately equivalent to £350,000. This total is contributed by the 48 States Members of the League, Great Britain as a first-class State paying about £16,000. If these figures are compared with the cost of an average civil department in England, it will be seen that they are exceedingly modest, and it has to be remembered that they include a great many items which do not enter into the estimates of government departments, such as rent, repairs, postage, telegrams, stationery, printing, etc. Again, the conduct of correspondence and publication on a considerable scale in two or more languages more than doubles the effort of the staff, and consequently the cost, which would be entailed if only one language were employed. In order to insure that the utmost economy was being practised, however, and to advise as to the conditions of service, the assembly resolved that a committee of experts should be appointed to inquire into the organization of the secretariat and of the International Labour Office.

At the beginning of 1921 the Office consisted of 95 men and 115 women drawn from 17 different countries. It could deal with every language, except Chinese, in which books bearing upon industrial questions are published. Its library consisted of about 30,000 volumes, mostly purchased from the International Association for Labour Legislation, who had formed at Basle an unique collection of literature on labour and economic questions. The demands made on the office for information by governments and employers' and workers' organizations were growing steadily, and were requiring a constantly widening range of knowledge. A general idea of its work on the scientific side may best be gained by enumerating its publications. Every day it issues a small pamphlet entitled Daily Intelligence, which gives information about important events connected with labour and industry, which are not usually available to the reader of the daily press. Every week it issues an Official Bulletin, which reports the sittings of the governing body, records the progress of the ratification of the conventions and of the legislation for giving effect to them, and reproduces any important official correspondence. It is, in fact, the official organ of the International Labour Organization. Every month the office publishes the International Labour Review, which consists partly of studies prepared in the office dealing with the various subjects which concern it, partly of articles contributed by well-known economists or by leaders of thought in the industrial and trade-union worlds. Apart from these regular publications, all of which appear both in English and French, the office also issues a legislative series containing reprints or translations in English, French and German, of the principal labour laws passed by the parliaments of the world, as well as a number of special studies and reports on questions of current importance, such as the occupation of the factories by the workers in Italy, the history of the miners' strike in Great Britain, the conditions of labour under the short-lived Soviet régime in Hungary and similar topics, which have an interest to the social student everywhere, but about which he finds it difficult to get trustworthy information. In all its publications the aim of the office is to treat the subject-matter with scientific accuracy and complete objectivity, so that they may come to be regarded as really valuable and impartial contributions to social science. In the controversial atmosphere which surrounds so many economic problems to-day, this is not an ideal easily achieved; but if it can be realized, the presentation of the facts upon which future policies must be founded from an international and unprejudiced standpoint will be of real service to honest seekers after truth.

Internationalism. — There is one other task which lies upon the International Labour Organization and which goes to the rooi of its existence — the creation of an international spirit. Unless that spirit can be born and fostered, neither the League of Nations nor any institution connected with it can hope to survive. It is not a question of paying lip-service to catch-words, of realizing “the brotherhood of man,” of reviving in the 20th century the picturesque but shadowy idealism of Rousseau. To create a true international spirit it is necessary to begin practically and prosaically at the bottom instead of presumptuously and poetically at the top. The first and most elementary lesson consists of the inculcation of the fact that there are more links, economic, social and human, which bind nations together than there are divergent interests and antagonistic aims which pull them asunder. It is not an easy lesson to learn. The nationalistic impulse in a people is almost as deep-rooted and instinctive as the egoistic impulse in the individual. But just as men cannot live without working with and for their fellow-men in society, so nations cannot exist without coöperating with other nations. Because, however, the nation, being the larger unit, is more nearly self-sufficient than the individual, national public opinion is slow to realize its dependence on others and is apt to believe its national self-sufficiency far more complete than in the modern world it can possibly be. Internationalism is not the antithesis of nationalism, but its complement. Properly understood, it does not mean the emasculation of the national spirit, which represents the embodiment of the ideals, the traditions and the virtues built up during many generations of common national effort. On the contrary, it means the pooling of the spiritual resources of all nations in order to make their intercourse more fruitful and to bring the society of which they are all members to a higher level of prosperity and civilization. To achieve such a result public opinion needs to possess an international as well as a national consciousness. It must acquire a world point-of-view, a Weltanschauung, as a corrective and an enlargement of its national standpoint. Instead of regarding the foreigner with instinctive mistrust, if not with sub-conscious aversion, it will then realize that in most respects he is remarkably similar, that he is grappling with similar problems, faced by similar needs, the victim of similar economic disabilities, which everyone can meet more successfully by working together to find the right solution than by working alone without each other's experience.

Perhaps the principal work of the International Labour Organization is to bring about such collaboration in the industrial field, and so to contribute towards the formation of a practical international spirit. In the present state of economic interdependence which the world has reached, to hunt in isolation for the solution of economic problems, which are in a large measure common to all countries, is hunting deliberately in the dark. When the delegates of the 48 states comprising the League meet at the annual conferences, they not only discover an unsuspected community of ideas and sentiments, but also an astonishing identity in the difficulties which preoccupy them. The labour question, which is largely a psychological question, is essentially the same in Japan as in Great Britain, despite all the variations of mentality, historical evolution and national tradition which go to make up its setting. The mere meeting of the International Labour Conferences does much to promote a sense of common interest and an understanding of the value of coöperation. For its everyday work the International Labour Office attempts to reach the same end by making known to every country what is being thought and done in others through the medium of its publications ana of its correspondents. In London, Paris, Washington, Rome and Berlin, regular correspondents are established. Their business is partly to collect first-hand and complete information about the industrial developments in their own country and to keep the office in touch with its government and its great organizations of employers and workers. But an even more important part of their duties is to make known the work of the organization, and so to educate public opinion to see things through international eyes. The value, indeed the indispensability, of such a system of contact for an international organization is shown by the frequent demands which have been received for its extension to other countries. Such a network of international connexions can only be gradually and carefully built up, but it is the surest method of fostering the sense of international community, which is essential to the life of the League of Nations and its allied institutions. Like all other institutions, they are liable to feel the effects of the actions and reactions which affect the current of human progress. The vaulting idealism which marked the close of the World War has given ground before a wave of more materialistic sentiment bred of discouragement and disillusionment, because the new world is as yet apparently no better and certainly less prosperous than the old world we remember before the war. But the ideas embodied in the labour part of the Peace Treaty have already obtained a sufficient hold to justify the bdief that their survival and development are as certain as those of any movement can be in an age when all things are in flux and nothing can claim finality. (H. B. B.)


  1. Germany and Austria were admitted to the organization at one of the first sittings by 71 votes to 1.