Sat | May 27, 2023

Elizabeth Morgan | Labour Day: the ILO and workers’ rights at home and abroad

Published:Wednesday | May 24, 2023 | 12:35 AM
Jamaicans participating in Labour Day projects in Denham Town, Kingston yesterday.
Jamaicans participating in Labour Day projects in Denham Town, Kingston yesterday.

This week, Jamaica marks Workers’ Week and Tuesday was Labour Day which commemorated the 1938 labour uprisings which gave rise to trade unions and political parties, placing the territory on the road to self-government. Jamaica’s first Labour Department was established on June 5, 1939 with Frank Arthur Norman, a British National, appointed the first labour adviser, and George Hosford Scott, a Jamaican, the first labour officer. This also gave Jamaica a more direct link to the International Labour Organization (ILO) which was established in 1919, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

The ILO emerged from the peace treaty (Treaty of Versailles) concluding World War I as it was recognised that sustained international peace and security had to include improvements in social justice which meant providing equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Working conditions, worldwide, up to the early 20th Century were described as horrendous characterized by extremely long working hours, very low wages, dangerous and dirty conditions, gender discrimination generally, and child labour.

Exploitation was the order of the day with workers having no rights. The working conditions worsened with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which included the period of transatlantic slavery. Today, the ILO is the oldest UN specialised agency. Its regional office in the Caribbean dates to 1969 and is based in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

May 1 became International Labour Day and is associated with the commencement of labour movements in the latter part of the 19th century to improve working conditions. The ILO observes May 1 as International Labour Day and so do a number of CARICOM countries. The ILO Director General Gilbert Houngbo, in his International Labour Day address, pointed out that after three years of the COVID-19 pandemic many workers are not seeing the results of a promise to “build back better”. He sees social justice as a keystone of recovery and thus requiring the establishment of a Global Coalition for Social Justice to reshape economic, social and environmental policies to create a more stable and equitable future.


Trade and labour are intertwined. It is not surprising that the 1938 labour uprising started at the port and on the sugar estates, a primary Jamaican export, and in the throes of the Great Depression. People must be working to produce goods and services and to enable their export to spur economic growth. There was a discussion in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1996 about the effect of working conditions on competitiveness in trade.

The question was whether the WTO dispute settlement mechanism should become involved in ensuring that members applied the ILO fundamental (core) labour standards. WTO developing members in Asia and Latin America resisted insisting that the labour standards should remain solely in the ILO.

The developed countries, such as the European Union (EU) member states, USA, and Canada, have included observing the ILO core labour standards in bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements. The US, Mexico, Canada Trade Agreement now has a provision on the protection of workers’ rights.

Note though that US investors have benefited from cheap labour in China and, in the USA, companies have discouraged trade union representation for workers, for example, the situation at Amazon Inc. This very much seems like a double standard. Note also the backlash against migrant workers and the shortage of workers on the other hand. Migrant work programmes are also considered in the ILO and should meet ILO core standards.

Trade unions in Jamaica did support having the core labour standards placed under WTO rules. It was left that Jamaican workers were at a competitive disadvantage in trade with countries which did not implement the ILO Core Labour Standards.


The ILO’s fundamental Core Labour Standards include:

1. Eliminating all forms of forced labour

2. Freedom of association

3. The right to organize and have collective bargaining

4. The right for equal remuneration for work of equal value by men and women

5. Eliminating discrimination in employment and occupation

6. Setting a minimum age for work

7. Eliminating the worst forms of child labour

8. Providing a safe and healthy work environment

Jamaica is applying all these standards except for that on addressing a safe and healthy work environment. A country, such as Canada, is applying all the standards.

A number of labour issues have been in the news in Jamaica which includes remunerations and working conditions both in the domestic public and private sectors, and affecting Jamaicans working in Canada’s seasonal foreign agricultural workers’ programmes.

The ILO director general, in his address, also noted that globally real wages have declined, poverty increased, and inequality become more entrenched. Small and medium-sized enterprises greatly affected. People feel that their voices are not being heard after weathering the pandemic. Opportunities are few for many and mistrust is growing. The DG feels that to shape a new, more stable and equitable world, there has to be a different path which prioritises social justice.

We do need to recall the purpose of Labour Day and the national, regional and international movements to secure workers’ rights, provide jobs, and promote a higher standard of living, especially in home countries.

Note that UN Sustainable Development Goal No. 8 promotes sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to