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How to change the world

| By Björn Lindahl, acting editor

In this edition of the Nordic Labour Journal, we write about the ILO, the Treaty of Versailles and tourism. In a funny way, they are all linked.

100 years ago, the world’s three most powerful men met in Paris to redraw the world map together with delegations from 30 countries. US President Woodrow Wilson, UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau were all victors after World War I.

Much had to be done in two months. The terms of Germany’s surrender, the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, the founding of the League of Nations. Two years previously, workers had staged a revolution in Russia. The founding of the International Labour Organisation was one way of counteracting communism. Governments would be joined by trade unions and employers in the work to improving conditions for workers, without damaging capitalism.

Much of what was decided by the three men in Paris came to nothing. Germany rapidly restored its military might, and the League of Nations collapsed as World War II broke out in 1939. The ILO was the only thing that remained. The tripartite cooperation proved to be resilient. New countries joined the organisation, which now counts 187 members. As the ILO held its 108th conference between 10-21 June in Genève, it was in a world with no centre, however.    

The USA’s influence has weakened dramatically under President Donald Trump. The UK is being torn apart by Brexit. In France, the people’s parliament is again showing its strength. It is China’s Xi Jinping who increasingly appears to be the most powerful leader, but even his representatives are facing millions of demonstrators in Hong Kong.

Under these circumstances, it is quite an achievement to get the ILO’s 187 member countries to agree on a new declaration on the future of work, and on a convention against sexual harassment in the world of work. 5 700 delegates representing governments, trade unions and employers have come together in an enormous group effort.

The new declaration calls on all member countries to make sure:

  • the effective realisation of gender equality in opportunities and treatment
  • effective lifelong learning and quality education for all
  • universal access to comprehensive and sustainable social protection 
  • effective measures to support people through the transitions they will face throughout their working lives

The conventions are the ILO’s tool for changing the world. When they become part of national legislation, a level playing field is created. This is a long and difficult process, but the world has shrunk in the past 100 years. One country’s labour force is only a plane journey away, just like one country’s tourists. Whether the USA or China has the largest economy is still up for debate. The Chinese have passed the Americans with a good margin when it comes to tourism, however.

Chinese tourists now spend 258 billion US dollars abroad every year, compared to 135 billion dollars spent by Americans.

When we met the ILO’s Director-General Guy Ryder in Reykjavik, Iceland, it was refreshing to meet someone who really carries a vision for how the world can be improved. Perhaps we could even control tourism? There will in any case be many Chinese tourists in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles this summer.


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