October 29, 2019, will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the first International Labor Conference (ILC), held in the Pan American Union Building in Washington, D.C., under the nascent International Labor Organization (ILO). During the following weeks, delegates from some forty nations adopted international conventions that addressed working hours, child labor, unemployment, maternity protection, and night work. These labor standards assumed Western male industrial workers as the norm, with different treatment offered on the basis of gender, age, and geography. European empires insisted on lesser standards for their colonies, while war-torn nations obtained leeway in implementation. Although the United States hosted the conference and the U.S. Secretary of Labor presided, the United States was ineligible to send delegates because it was not part of the League of Nations. Indeed, it would reject League membership in the midst of the ILC deliberations. After joining the ILO in 1934, the United States often played a defining role even though it actually ratified few conventions.
This conference will mark the centenary of that watershed event. It will be both retrospective and prospective. It will look back to analyze and evaluate a century of efforts to advance workers’ rights around the globe. It will look forward to ponder the ways in which global supply chains, financialization, and the growth of the “gig” economy and other forms of non-standard work challenge the ILO system and raise questions about the very definition of employers and employees and the basis of labor relations. As we look forward, we will also examine the conditions of the most vulnerable workers, including internal and external migrants, women, and youth who disproportionately make up the majority of domestic workers, care workers, and low-end manufacturing workers such as in the garment and electronic sectors. We will consider what approaches might be most effective in developing the cause of worker rights and empowerment in the century ahead. To explore these questions, the conference will gather both academics and practitioners, including policymakers, union leaders, and leaders of worker rights organizations.
The conference invites participants who can contribute to the exploration of a range of themes related to the ILO’s work through scholarship or organizational work. The themes are detailed in the attached flyer.