“The dynamism of competition should lead to a ‘race to the top’ instead of a ‘race to the bottom’ in labour standards”
Gilbert Houngbo, ILO Deputy Director-General, addressed the University of Leuven, Belgium, in a public lecture on the “Key challenges for global protection of labour rights”.
The founders of the ILO foresaw the danger of a ‘race to the bottom’ as international competition encouraged producers to cut labour costs in an effort to expand market share. Constructive competition would focus on high quality products, better technology and higher productivity with the benefits evenly shared throughout society.
Gilbert Houngbo - ILO Deputy Director-General
The ILO’s Deputy- Director-General highlighted that “the main challenges we face is that the drivers of the demand for labour are becoming increasingly global but the supply of labour is still largely regulated nationally”, and that “this poses the risk of a ‘race to the bottom’ in labour and social protections.”
Gilbert Houngbo compared the actual situation of the globalized world with the situation in 1919, when the ILO was established. “In many ways the origins of the ILO were part of an attempt to build a better world out of the wreckage of the pre-1914 globalization, widely seen as unjust and a contributory factor to the descent into the First World War. The pre-1914 period was one of increasing globalisation and booming international trade and investment”, Houngbo explained.
“When the First World War ended, political leaders tried to construct a system to end all wars that addressed the injustices of the pre-war period. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles gave the role of promoting social justice to the ILO. The basic logic that still drives the ILO, as stated in our Constitution, is that ‘the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries’.”
“The founders of the ILO foresaw the danger of a ‘race to the bottom’ as international competition encouraged producers to cut labour costs in an effort to expand market share. Constructive competition would focus on high quality products, better technology and higher productivity with the benefits evenly shared throughout society.”
“Of course, much has changed during the long life of the ILO”, Gilbert Houngbo continued, “but the basic challenge remains the same: how do we ensure that the dynamism of competition, across national boundaries and legal systems, does not lead to widening inequality and a downward spiral in working conditions, but rather to just societies and a race to the top?”
Gilbert Houngbo concluded his lecture by referring to the power of the ILO’s standards system, which remains highly influential, and of the ILO’s creative response to a new and powerful aspect of global market integration – the rapid growth of global supply chains – by developing cross border partnerships to upgrade progressively working conditions in low cost producing countries.