International Handbooks on Gender series
Edited by Jill Steans and Daniela Tepe
Chapter 51: The International Labour Organization and the gender of work
The International Labour Organization was formed in 1919 to counter the threat of class revolution and to level economic competition among nations. As an interstate (and inter-empire) organization it began as a specialized agency of the League of Nations and then became part of the United Nations. Its internal organization resembles that of these larger bodies: it consists of a secretariat – the International Labour Office (the Office) run by an elected director-general – and a general assembly – the annual International Labour Conference (ILC) – as well as an elected Governing Body. It is uniquely tripartite, with all committees and national delegations divided between government, worker, and employer representatives. ILO conventions, non-binding recommendations, and declarations on conditions of employment and social insurance have applied to the worker, regardless of sex. However, the male industrial worker defined the norm, and gender-neutral instruments could carry highly gendered implications and effects. Women workers constituted a distinct class, requiring specific conventions to address the bodily functions and social circumstances that differentiated them from men. Within this configuration, women of colour and rural women in the South stood as the ‘other’ in relation to their male counterparts and to women in industrialized countries, needing additional measures to protect their income-generating and childbearing capacities. Though conventions function as binding treaties for signatory nations, the ILO never possessed the hard power necessary to compel member states to implement them.
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