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ILO-China ties draw closer after 100 years

ZHANG LONGPING | 2019-06-13 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Representatives of the ILO and China sign the Memorandum of Cooperation on “Decent Work in Global Supply Chain” in May 2018. Photo: ILO.ORG


The year 2019 marks the centenary of the International Labor Organization (ILO). China was one of its founding member states. Reviewing the century-old relationship between the two is of great historical, realistic and worldwide significance to understanding the development of labor management in China and the country’s participation in global governance.

Introduction to ILO
The ILO originated from Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles signed during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, aiming at protecting labor rights and interests and coordinating labor-capital relations through international labor legislation. It was once an autonomous institution attached to the League of Nations.

The ILO was founded on June 28, 1919, by 29 states. By October that year when the First Session of the International Labor Conference was convened in Washington, the membership had swelled to 40, and now it has 187 member states.

The Organization has a tripartite governing structure consisting of the International Labor Conference, the Governing Body and the International Labor Office. Among them, the International Labor Conference is the highest authority. Organized once a year, it brings together representatives and advisors of governments, workers and employers, charged to formulate international labor conventions and recommendations. The Governing Body is the executive body of the ILO, constituted by directors of governments, workers and employers, and responsible for major labor matters of the Organization. The International Labor Office is the permanent secretariat of the ILO, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.


Evolution of China’s role
A founding member state as it was, China didn’t engage much with the ILO during the rule of the Beiyang Government (1912–28). China never sent a formal delegation, which would have included two government delegates, an employer delegate, a worker delegate and their respective advisers, to attend the International Labor Conference between 1919 and 1928.

Normally Chinese officials of embassies in foreign countries were designated as government representatives to the conference, but no worker and employer representatives were ever present. China held no seat in the Governing Body and never approved any conventions or recommendations at the time.

This fact suggests that the Beiyang Government took little interest in managing domestic labor by drawing upon international experiences, due principally to the huge gap of industrial development between China and the West.

After the Nanjing Nationalist Government (1927–38) was established, Albert Thomas, head of the International Labor Office, paid a visit to China, where he had extensive contacts with the military, political, business, academic and labor communities.

In order to build its image as a labor protector, the Nanjing government was in dire need of experiential guidance from the ILO as it was preparing to establish the Factory Law. Bilateral ties were strengthened a little.

For the 12th Session of the International Labor Conference in May 1929, China began to dispatch a delegation of government, worker and employer representatives to the meeting. In February 1930, the Nanjing authority officially ratified the “Minimum Wage Fixing Convention.” Prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Nanjing approved a total of 14 conventions.

In May 1930, the International Labor Office established a China branch in Nanjing. It was one of the six branches in the world. In June 1934, China was elected as a non-permanent member of the Government Group of the Governing Body and reelected in 1937.

After the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression broke out, China regarded the ILO as such an important platform that it took advantage of the International Labor Conference many times to win over the international community’s support for China’s resistance against Japan, making itself a significant link in the world anti-fascist unified front.

In 1944, the 26th Session of the International Labor Conference adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia, which affirmed that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.”

China was a major participant and advocate of the Declaration and was granted a permanent government seat in the Governing Body, incorporated into the Group of Eight Industrial Powers. Following the war, the demise of the League of Nations led the ILO to reorganize itself, when it was affiliated by the United Nations as a specialized agency. China retained its permanent seat therein.
After the founding of the PRC, the seat of China in the ILO was taken by the Taiwan authority given peculiar domestic and global scenarios, so the government of the PRC was absent from ILO activities for a period of time.

On June 5, 1950, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai called UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie and ILO Director-General David Morse, notifying them that the so-called representatives comprising the remnants of the Kuomintang reactionaries were totally unqualified for participating in the ILO and must be banished from ILO institutions and meetings.

Thereafter at the International Labor Conference and regional gatherings in Asia, such states as the Soviet Union, India and Poland spoke in support of giving the PRC the right of representation many times, contending that the absence of PRC delegates was sufficient to ruin the prestige of the ILO.
In 1971, after the legitimate seat of China was resumed in the United Nations, the ILO therewith restored China’s lawful seat in November that year. Nonetheless, issues left over from history, like the Taiwan authority’s default on membership dues and whether to acknowledge ratified conventions, resulted in China’s long-time absence in ILO events.

In 1980, during his visit to China, ILO Director-General Francis Blanchard reached consensuses with related departments of the Chinese government on the membership and dues. In June 1983, China sent a delegation headed by the Labor and Personnel Minister Zhao Shouyi and Vice Minister Li Yunchuan, officially restoring the relationship with the ILO. The two sides entered a new period of close cooperation that has held ever since.

In January 1985, the ILO set up a Beijing Office in the capital of China and charged it with labor matters concerned with China and Mongolia, aiming to build closer cooperative relations with governments, workers and employers and promote decent work for all laborers.


Current situation
Now China holds a permanent government seat in the Governing Body of the ILO. Heads of the Chinese Labor Union have been elected as director of the Worker Group many times since 1984, and heads of the China Enterprise League have been appointed director of the Worker Group many times since 2005.

So far the country has ratified 26 ILO conventions, including four core conventions, namely, the Equal Remuneration Convention, the Minimum Age Convention, the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention.

In recent years, China and the ILO have kept increasingly close contact. On Nov. 29, 2011, Xi Jinping, then vice president of China, met with a delegation led by Juan Somavía, director-general of the ILO, in Beijing. Xi vowed that China would take an active part in affairs of the ILO and further enhance cooperation with the Organization, its member states, its labor unions and its enterprise associations, while Somavía echoed with the expectation that China would play a bigger role in the ILO, even in global governance.

On Sep. 5, 2016, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder was invited to attend the G20 Hangzhou Summit. In his meeting with President Xi Jinping, Ryder acknowledged China’s role in global governance, saying that China’s contributions will help cement the base of world economic recovery and growth. Having contributed nearly 30 percent to global growth, China has given a huge boost to the world economy, he said.

This high-level contact reveals ILO’s confidence in China’s development and in China’s willingness to develop relations with multilateral organizations including the ILO, contribute wisdom and provide proposals for global governance.

In the 100-year history of the relationship between the ILO and China, China as a founding member state of the Organization went through a tortuous course during the periods of the Beiyang Government, the Nanjing Nationalist Government and the early PRC. The organizational evolution of the ILO itself and changing political and economic situations in China have also profoundly influenced the development of bilateral ties. Not until reform and opening up did the relationship embrace steady development.

It is worth noting that the aim of the ILO coincides with China’s people-centered development philosophy. However, it should also be noted that the ILO has formulated 189 conventions, and the number China has ratified only accounts for a small proportion, which indicates large room for improving bilateral cooperation.

As the Chinese economy has developed rapidly since reform and opening up and as China approaches the center of the world arena, the country should actively participate in setting international labor standards and strive to raise Chinese voices in global governance throughout its next 100 years of cooperation with the ILO.


Zhang Longping is an associate professor from Jinan University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

edited by SU XUAN