22 January, 2019
Geneva – The International Labour Organization (ILO) turns 100 this year, marking ten decades working for social justice and decent work for all.
The UN agency’s flagship programme Better Work—co-managed by the International Finance Corporation and aimed at improving working conditions in the global garment industry—is joining the celebrations, and using the anniversary year as a chance to take stock and look to the future.
The garment sector provides employment opportunities to some 60 million workers worldwide—around 80 per cent of them women—and can be critical driver for social and economic development. A look back through the archives reveals how the ILO recognized this potential and has supported the industry since its outset.
Here are ten ways the UN agency and its partners have and made a lasting difference in the garment sector over the years.
The ILO’s unique structure gives governments, workers and employers an equal voice when setting labour standards and policies. An example? Businesses, unions and the national government collaborated on a ground-breaking collective bargaining agreement for Jordan’s garment sector in 2013. The agreement provided formal recognition for tens of thousands of migrant workers for the first time, mandating equal treatment for all, and providing clear regulations on work hours, wages and bonuses.
Garment manufacturing has long been associated with excessive work hours. The ILO has been tacking this issue for decades, and in fact the first ILO Convention, adopted in 1919, limited hours of work and ensured adequate rest periods for workers. Flash forward to 2016 and a study showed that Better Work is helping reduce the ongoing and widespread issue of working hours in the garment sector. While the industry still has a long way to go, Better Work has showed notable improvements in working hours in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, bringing benefits for workers, their families and employers alike.
The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh claimed the lives of 1,134 garment workers and called the world’s attention to the importance of industrial safety. The ILO responded at both the policy and the practical level, enhancing cooperation between all parties and, for example, working with the Government of Bangladesh to assess structural, fire and electrical safety issues in the 1,549 ready-made-garment factories not inspected by brand-led initiatives. Since 2014, Better Work Bangladesh also supports these efforts, and helps make workplaces safer, fairer and more conducive to worker-management dialogue.
Over the past 15 years, nearly one million children have been withdrawn or prevented from entering child labour thanks to ILO projects across 110 countries. As an example, a new project across Burkina Faso, Mali, Pakistan and Peru strives to eliminate child labour in cotton and textile supply chains by cooperating with local businesses and international buyers, as well as by advocating for enhanced legislation at the national level.
The ILO first took a public stand against human trafficking and debt bondage in the 1930s with a renewed campaign to end modern slavery launched in 2014. As one example of concrete results, in 2016 the U.S. removed Jordan’s garment sector from its forced labour list. “Collaborating with the ILO on the Better Work Jordan programme is one of the country’s most significant steps to combat forced labour in the garment industry,” the report from United States Department of Labor read.
Better Work has shown that gender-based workplace violence like sexual harassment are not only damaging for workers, but also for business. Though it is a female-dominated sector, women are vastly under-represented in management positions across the garment industry, and female workers are particularly vulnerable to harassment. In June 2019, delegates of the ILO’s International Labour Conference will discuss violence and harassment in the workplace, with a view to adopting the first international convention to help prevent the problem and put into place measures to protect and support affected workers everywhere.
Ensuring that the work done by women and men is valued fairly and ending pay discrimination is essential to achieving gender equality. Yet serious disparities persist, not least in the garment industry. Better Work and its partners are helping change this through training, factory assessments and public reporting that pushes compliance with international and national labour standards. Better Work-affiliated factories in Nicaragua have reduced the gender pay gap by up to 17 per cent, for example.
A lack of opportunities to upgrade skills is a major constraint for local industry development. The ILO is helping companies address this challenge, including through its International Training Centre, which was established in 1964 and now trains 14,000 people per year on employment, labour and human resources themes. Better Work places a similar emphasis on training in the garment sector. For example, more than 7,000 people have now completed the programme’s Supervisory Skills Training, leading to measurable improvements not only in worker morale but also in factory productivity and profitability.
Access to decent work for all is both an essential right and a vital economic advantage. The ILO is working to establish legal frameworks and practical schemes to promote greater opportunities and fair treatment for people with disabilities. The garment industry is no exception. In 2014, for example, Better Work Haiti helped establish the first group of peer-to-peer educators to train hearing-impaired garment workers.
The world of work is evolving rapidly and many say the Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. To understand and effectively respond to new challenges, the ILO is increasingly disseminating knowledge on recent trends and driving discussions on the future of work. In Cambodia, where garment production dominates the manufacturing sector, close to half a million sewing machine operators may be at risk of losing their jobs. The ILO is working with partners at the local level to provide trainings that help workers adapt to the market’s changing needs.
What’s next for the ILO? Throughout 2019, follow our special centenary series as we assess the Organization’s key achievements and share perspectives on the future of work.
Photos from the ILO historical archive