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Sweden’s century-long relationship with the ILO

Sweden’s century-long relationship with the ILO

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Crozet / Pouteau, ILO

Sweden has had a relationship with the ILO for 100 years. Yet the country never ratified the labour organisation’s first convention. There have been tensions behind the scenes from time to time – like when the conventions have clashed with the Swedish model for collective agreements.

This emerged when the Swedish ILO committee held a webinar to present a new anthology called Sweden and the ILO – One hundred years of tripartite cooperation for a better working life. Petra Herzfeld Olsson has been the anthology’s editor.

The Swedish ILO committee is the government’s advisory body on ILO issues. It was the first committee of its kind to be set up by ILO member states, back in 1927. The work in the committee also builds on the cooperation between government representatives and the social partners. 

“The committee is almost unknown in Sweden, but is it a world celebrity within the ILO? asked Hanna Svensson, before partly answering her own rhetorical question. 

She and Linnéa Blommé have written the chapter on the ILO committee. Both work at the Swedish Ministry of Employment. 

The ILO celebrated 100 years last year. Sweden became a member in 1920, alongside Denmark, Finland and Norway.

“The ILO was established in the difficult period after World War 1 and during a different pandemic to the one we have today: the Spanish Flu. That pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people globally, and 37,000 in Sweden between 1918 and 1920,” the Minister for Employment Eva Nordmark reminded the audience.  

Guy Ryder

Guy Ryder during his visit to Iceland in 2019 – the first-ever by an ILO Secretary-General. Photo: Björn Lindahl

ILO Secretary-General Guy Ryder also participated down the line from Genève, bringing sombre figures of how many jobs that have disappeared because of the Corona pandemic.

“We’re talking about 495 million jobs lost since the pandemic broke out. The world’s workers have lost 10.7% of their total earnings or 3.5 trillion US dollars, in the first three quarters of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019

“That’s why we need what we call a human-centred recovery and a new drive for multilateral negotiations,” said Guy Ryder.

Right now, many international organisations are struggling. The USA left another UN agency this year, the World Health Organisation. The ILO has not been immune to stormy weather either, and the multilateral cooperation has at times more or less ceased to exist. In 1977, when the confrontation with the Soviet Union was at its peak, the USA also left the ILO for three years.

“Despite the political turbulence, the technical cooperation did continue and new conventions and recommendations were produced. The cooperation was not so paralysed as you might think,” said Kari Tapioka, the ILO’s former Deputy Secretary-General and Executive Director. He has written an overarching chapter on the ILO’s history spanning three time-periods. 

Tapiola described the final period, leading up to today, as the ILO’s search for a social dimension within globalisation. 

Sweden sometimes thinks it is so far ahead of the ILO when it comes to introducing new labour market rights that ratifying ILO conventions is but a formality – the minimum standard has already been met. Minister for Employment Eva Nordmark nevertheless underlined that it is not a given that all conventions are ratified, since they are far from toothless.

Albert Thomas

The ILO’s first Secretary-General, Albert Thomas from France, visited Sweden in 1927 in the year the Swedish ILO committee was created. He was impressed by the organised manner in which negotiations between workers and employers took place in Sweden. Photo: ILO archive.

Sweden has not ratified conventions on working hours noticeably often, pointed out Kerstin Ahlberg, who wrote the chapter on the ILO, Sweden and work environments.

“This goes beyond convention number 1 about the 48-hour week. Out of 14 conventions with associated recommendations that concern different aspects of working hours, Sweden has only ratified five.”

So what happened with the ILO’s very first convention? Why did Sweden never ratify that?

Kerstin Ahlberg explained this by pointing out that Swedish legislation got there first with introducing a 48-hour week. This had been done to get to grips with revolutionary tendencies among workers in Sweden in the 1920s. The law became a forerunner that did not fit with the convention. There were consequences to not ratifying it in 1936, when the government refrained from ratifying convention 47, which detailed a 40-hour week. 

Convention 47 was not ratified until 1982 – ten years after the 40-hour week was introduced in Sweden, and 47 years after the convention was first written.

Kerstin Ahlberg sees a pattern where conventions dealing with working hours are not being ratified by Sweden. Convention 1 was also not ratified by any of the other Nordic countries.

“Working hours are to a great degree a collective agreement issue in Sweden. Sweden joining the 1919 working hours convention would have been an unwelcome limitation to the freedom of contract for the social partners.

“Traditionally, the Swedish social partners have broad freedom to agree on exceptions to existing working hours legislation,” pointed out Kerstin Ahlberg.

According to the ILO’s own overview of how many conventions have been ratified, Sweden is not even top of the Nordics.

Countries and conventions ratified

Compared to other countries, the Nordics are quite high up, however. The UK has ratified 88 conventions, Germany 85 and the USA only 14. France is higher with 127 ratified conventions.

ILO convention 182 is the most ratified one. It deals with the worst types of child labour.

“This became historic on 4 August 2020 as the first ILO convention to be ratified by all of the ILO’s 187 member states,” said Ulf Edström, who has written about the ILO from employees’ perspective. 

Göran Trogen has written about the employers’ view of the ILO, while Martin Clemensson describes the ILO’s technical department which has a budget the size of the organisation’s regular budget – both nearly 800 million dollars.

One of the newest conventions, number 190, deals with violence and harassment at work. 

It was voted through in June 2019 with 439 for, seven against and 30 abstentions. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise was among those 30, while employees’ organisations and the government voted for. 

In one of the concluding chapters, Ann Numhauser-Henning compares the Swedish view of gender equality issues with the ILO’s view of how sexualised violence and harassment should best be fought. She says there are two models:

  • The discrimination model, where the employer is ultimately responsible to make sure violence and harassment does not take place.
  • The honour model, where sexual harassment is treated in the same way as bullying and physical violence.

“By focusing on the perpetrator and dealing with sexual harassment as an attack on the woman concerned and her honour, we render invisible the structural and systematic way in which women are treated in working life, of which sexual harassment is a symptom, as we saw with the #metoo movement,” said Ann Numhauser-Henning. 

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ILO 100 years

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven addresses the 118th session at the ILO headquarters in Genève on 19 June 2019 (above). To his right, ILO Secretary-General Guy Ryder. The Organisation celebrated its centenary last year. Sweden joined one year after its birth, and therefore marks its 100 year relationship with the ILO this year.

The International Labour Organisation, ILO, is known as OIT (Organisation International du Travail) in French.

Read more about the book here (in Swedish):

Sweden ILO book


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