The need for social justice

The aspiration for social justice, through which every working man and woman can claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity their fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate, is as great today as it was when the ILO was created in 1919. The current global economy has grown to a scale unprecedented in history. Aided by new technologies, people, capital and goods are moving between countries with an ease and at a speed that have created an interdependent global economic network affecting virtually every person on the planet.

While globalization has created opportunities and benefits for many, at the same time millions of workers and employers worldwide have had to face new challenges. The globalized economy has displaced workers and enterprises to new locations, resulted in the sudden accumulation or flight of capital, and caused financial instability which in turn led to the 2008 global economic crisis. Despite the clear benefits, globalization has not ushered in an era of prosperity for all. In fact, in spite of strong economic growth that had produced millions of new jobs since the early 1990s until the 2008 crisis, income inequality also grew dramatically in most regions of the world. The personal distribution of wages has become more unequal, with a growing gap between the top 10 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent of wage earners (Note 1). Moreover, six years after the 2008 economic and social crisis, the global employment situation remains uneven: if certain advanced economies have managed to recover some of the jobs lost, other economies are still confronted with significant challenges with respect to their labour market and social prospects continue to deteriorate. From the economic point of view, indicators show that profitability and stock markets have recovered in the majority of countries. Executive pay is also on the rise, following a pause in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. Therefore, the key issue is how to translate these profits into productive investment (Note 2). Over 30 million jobs are still needed to return employment to pre-crisis levels (Note 3). The fact that the global crisis has had significant negative repercussions for labour markets and that recovery is proving uncertain and elusive has further highlighted the necessity of inclusive growth.

Inequality not only leads to a decline in productivity but also breeds poverty, social instability and even conflict. In view of this, the international community has recognized the need to establish some basic rules of the game to ensure that globalization offers a fair chance at prosperity for everyone.

The ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization of 2008 reaffirmed the relevance of the ILO’s mandate to promote social justice using all the means available to it, including the promotion of international labour standards.

The role of international labour standards

In 1919, the signatory nations to the Treaty of Versailles created the International Labour Organization (ILO) in recognition of the fact that "conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled." To tackle this problem, the newly founded organization established a system of international labour standards - international conventions and recommendations drawn up by representatives of governments, employers and workers from around the world - covering all matters related to work. What the ILO's founders recognized in 1919 was that the global economy needed clear rules in order to ensure that economic progress would go hand in hand with social justice, prosperity and peace for all.

The landmark Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, adopted by governments, workers and employers in June 2008, was designed to strengthen the ILO’s capacity to promote its Decent Work Agenda and forge an effective response to the growing challenges of globalization. The Decent Work Agenda which takes up many of the same challenges that the Organization faced at its inception, aims to achieve decent work for all by promoting social dialogue, social protection and employment creation, as well as respect for international labour standards.

International labour standards have grown into a comprehensive system of instruments on work and social policy, backed by a supervisory sys- tem designed to address all sorts of problems in their application at the national level. They are the legal component in the ILO’s strategy for governing globalization, promoting sustainable development, eradicat- ing poverty, and ensuring that people can work in dignity and safety. The Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization underlined that, in order to reach the ILO’s objectives in the context of globalization, the Organization must “promote the ILO’s standard-setting policy as a cornerstone of ILO activities by enhancing its relevance to the world of work, and ensure the role of standards as a useful means of achieving the constitutional objectives of the Organization”.

Note 1 - Global Wage Report 2012/13, Wage and equitable growth, ILO, Geneva, 2013.
Note 2
- World of Work Report 2013: Repairing the economic and social fabric, International Institute for Labour Studies, ILO, Geneva, 2013
Note 3
- ibid.