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The International Labour Organisation and the World Labour

Force: From “Peoples of the World” to “Informal Sector”

Jeffrey Harrod

Author's Preface.

This article was written for a conference on the history of the International Labour
organisation (ILO) held in 2007. It is part of a personal publishing project relating to the
study and understanding of the social movements and actions of what is now referred to as
the "global poor". (cf. M. Davies and M. Ryner (eds) (2006) Poverty and the Production of
World Politics (New York, Palgrave, Macmillan) Further publications in this project will
concern archival material, the development of a suitable theoretical approach (cf. Harrod
(2006) "The Global Poor and Global Politics: Neo-Materialism and the Sources of Political
Action@ in Davies and Ryner above) and the publishing of a lightly revised edition of the
author's 1987 work Power Production and the Unprotected Worker (Columbia UP, 1987).

This article has been produced to normal academic standards of evidence and construction
and is subject to normal international copyright rules. It may be used and distributed for
personal or educational use and may be quoted and referenced subject to standard citation
rules. The citation from this site would be: - Harrod, Jeffrey (2007) "The International
Labour Organisation and the World Labour Force: From “Peoples of the World” to “Informal
Sector”" ( Scribd URL)

Jeffrey Harrod
The Netherlands, 2008.

ABSTRACT At its foundation in 1919 the ILO (International Labour Organisation -

specialised agency of the United Nations) was actively involved in global politics through its
incorporation of trade unions in its governing structure. But the organisation found it
difficult to deal with the largest portion of the world labour force – that which is not
organised into unions or other social organisations. Thus, currently, unlike the ILO in the
first quarter of the last century, it cannot easily devise strategies for intervention into
different structures of work nor anticipate the socio-political importance of them. This
problem is not directly assigned to the ILO, its staff or leadership but to the interplay of
external and internal ideologies and rationalities. The article then develops a "concept
history" by examining chronologically some of the concepts which have been used at
different times to both exclude and include the unorganised, unprotected majority of the
world labour force. There follows a discussion of the succession of concepts used by and
within the ILO as, for example, “peoples”, “masses of workers” “worker”, “unionist”,
“informal sector”, and “poor”. It is noted that the newer concepts still result in exclusion
because they are not flexible enough to allow a narrowing of focus which would in turn
reveal the power and social dynamics of variegated economic activities.


The International Labour Organisations (ILO) was created in 1919 and made an annex to the
League of Nations. After World War II the ILO joined the other newly-created Specialised
Agencies of the United Nations such as the World Health Organisation and the Food and
Agricultural Organisation. In this manner it became one of the "social policy" inter-state
international organisations in contrast to the economic policy organisations of the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The ILO constitution states that a "lasting peace" can only be achieved on the basis of
"social justice" and then declares that in 1919 conditions of work exists which produce
"unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled". The preamble of
the constitution refers to protection needed for workers, children, young persons, women and
people in old age.

The use of the term "labour" in the name of the organisation, the preamble of the constitution
the inclusion of workers and the putative non-workers (of children, women and people in old
age) and the macro objectives of the organisation could not be said to impose a restrictive
intention on the organisation in dealing with the world labour force. In the constitution it is
only when the structure of the organisation is described and the requirement made that
delegates should be drawn from "industrial organisations, if such organisations exists" that
an element of exclusion is introduced. Even here, however, the "worker" of the preamble
becomes the more inclusive "workpeople" in industrial organisations.

Nevertheless, the representational requirement of workpeople meant that they would be

represented by trade unions as the most representative industrial organisation. This practical
need meant that for most of the Ilk's 90 year history the majority of the world labour force
have not been the prime nor discerning subject of the organisations activities because
workpeople in "industrial organisations" have always been a minority of the world labour
force. Thus in the general, academic and policy discourses the workpeople not represented
by industrial organisations have been assigned such names as "the unorganised" "peasants”,
“marginals” “unwaged”, “lumpenproletariat”, "informals" "underclass" and other, often
insulting, names. It is perhaps then not surprising that throughout the longest period of its
history until recently, and then only with uncertainty, has the ILO been able to engage with
the largest part of the world labour force in terms of programmes and activities for the
improvement of returns and conditions of work - if the latter is seen as a universal and
ubiquitous expenditure of energy for production of any type.

That it has been only a minority of workpeople who have been in trade unions is not in
doubt. Even if the very broadest definition of organisation is taken to include not only trade
unions in the EU and North America but the state organised unions in China and elsewhere,
the employee organisations and various organisations of farmers and self-employed it is still
that less than 20% of the world labour force are in such organisations. For example, of the
global labour force of 3.1 billion less than 200 million are considered to be in trade unions or
about 6 percent of the global labour force. This become more easily understandable if it is
noted that the self-employed, women working in the household, small farmers, landless
labourers, own-account workers, casual workers, unemployed are amongst those usually not
in meaningful organisations devoted to the improvement of their material conditions.

Within the ILO that trade unions should service its membership and its representation
function needed no justification - it would be a dereliction of duty and responsibility to
behave otherwise. For the ILO, however, the restrictive definition of its operations and its
actions had to be supported by concepts and definitions which at the level of discourse
confirm that such a trajectory is both legitimate and justified.

The purpose of this article is then a preliminary attempt at the history of the concepts used
by and within the ILO which were involved in the approach to the world labour force and
which prevented a sustained focus on the majority of the people in it. It is therefore uses
some of the ideas found within discourse analysis, social constructivism and path-
dependency (Heller, 2006). The history of concepts helps reveal the process of agenda
setting (Palonen 2005) and thus, important in this context, what is excluded from the agenda.
Finally, it is also contributes to the discussion of the “rationalities” which are used to justify
material outcomes within the framework of a neo-materialist approach (Harrod, 2006).

The focus on the concepts used within the ILO means that concepts developed outside the
ILO and in other possibly oppositional traditions have not been examined - especially
Marxist concepts such as the “labour aristocracy” the “petty bourgeois mode of production”,
“reserve army of labour” and likewise with the neo-classical view of a global “labour
market” or "segments of the labour market", "secondary labour market" and other such

The unpacking of a concept, its history and its change in meaning overtime requires
intensive research of each concept and each change. (de Goede, 2005) Because of the
number of concepts discussed in this article it can only be a survey supported with
illustrative evidence.

The history of concepts used in the ILO must be clearly distinguished from a history which
attempts to evaluate an entity or organisation in absolute terms as, for example, the success
or failure an organisation has in achieving a declared mission. Global social-policy
organisations, in contrast to global economic-organisations such as the World Bank and IMF,
have at best a persuasive and informational power. Thus the ILO as an organisation nor its
staff and policy-makers can or should be held substantially responsible for the history of the
exclusionary nature of its operations.

The lack of autonomy of international organisations, however, cannot simply be assigned to

their nature as inter-state organisations. This observation is particularly apt in the case of the
ILO where it has the original and continuing mandate to be involved with organisations at
the sub-state level in the “civil society”. The operational outputs of the organisations are not
only governed by an international relations realism and national interest. but rather the over-
arching global hegemony based upon a widely accepted ideology with which the
organisation must interact (Harrod, 1985, 2001). Such ideologies provide guidelines both
for the executors of power and the willing conformists to it. In addition, the latter part of the
20th century must be considered to be the high point of neo-liberal doctrine. This doctrine,
aggressively promoted by the major powers within the international economic agencies, had
the effect of marginalising the ILO within substantive discourses on global social and
economic policy (Wilkinson, 2005).

The opportunities for international social policy organisations to increase their influence are
then based upon any changes (additions or diversions) which can be made to the prevailing
ideology. This in turn is dependent upon, first the strength of the prevailing economic
ideology, second, the level of comprehension within the organisation of that ideology and the
opportunities and possibilities for engaging with it and finally, but to a lesser extent, the
internal and external leadership within the organisation (cf. Reinalda, 1998).

This view of organisational possibilities lies behind the purpose of examining how the
organisation has accepted, resisted, changed, promoted or dealt with the conceptions of
differences within the world labour force

"Worker" in ILO pre-history (1789 -1919)

An organisation is only created in the mood of the times and incorporates in its initial
configuration the history of the development of that mood. The subsequent history of the
organisation is the articulation of contemporary developments with the embedded notions of
the past. This is both the creationist and evolutionary view of organisation. Often created
for high purpose derived from a theology or ideology of the time, the organisation must
immediately begin to evolve as that purpose either becomes fulfilled or remains

The creation of the ILO was a mix of motives including the realist view that ILO was created
by the British to prevent labour cost competition from the non-colonies, the class-political
view that improving the lot of the working class would reduce the likelihood of a working-
class- based revolution as predicted by Marx and the liberal view that working conditions
should be improved because it was right to do so.

All these creational motives all had one aspect in common – the target, instrument or social
phenomena most crucially involved was a so-designated “worker” or “working class”. The
origin of these concepts is connected with the Enlightenment manner of dealing with the
"fear of the mass" (Balibaar, 1993). The French revolution of 1789 launched the concept of
"citizen" but it also fuelled the fire of the fear of the mass so evident in the schemas designed
by Enlightenment philosophers to assuage it. Bulbar (op. cit.) and Israel (2001) single-out
Spinoza as one Enlightenment writer who had a different view of the mass and indeed saw it
as a political force which could only be made positive by recognising and accepting
leadership from it.

But the basic core Enlightenment project of dealing with the mass prevailed in which
segments of the mass were to be institutionalised and brought by "reason" into a social
contract. Such a dismemberment of the mass was not without its opposition. In the United
Kingdom the concept of a "labourer" had emerged while the division at least in industry
between "master" and "journeyman" lead eventually to employer and worker. But "labourer"
and "journeyman" were still euphemisms for the threatening masses of potential opposition.
British parliamentarian Wilberforce (of slavery abolition fame) declared in 1799 that
workers' organisations (combinations of journeymen) were “a general disease of our society”
which required a permanent and general elimination. (Hammod & Hammod, 1920:117).
More benignly the "poor" was used as a concept which enabled a sanitised ontology of the
existing social circumstance. As Disraeli (1845) pointed out the concept only demarcated
the “two nations” of rich and poor and did nothing to engage or mitigate any fear.

Despite his known antipathy to work-place based movements and his notion of the
"pauperisation of the mass" it was left to Marx and liberal reformers to finally segment the
mass into worker, lumpenproletariat and the agriculturalist. The criterion for Marx was the
concept of industrial work. Thus those without it were beyond the pale and "form a mass
strictly differentiated from the industrial proletariat, a recruiting ground for thieves and
criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade,
vagabonds, gens san feu et san aveu (without hearth or home) “…as he famously described
the lumpenproletariat of 1848 in France (Marx, 1848: 108-109). With Engels, in the
Communist Manifesto, this group became "social scum" while peasants were not afforded
more positive attributes for they were living in the "idiocy of rural life".

The narrower concept of worker and workpeople was also well received by supporters of
liberal reform. Activists considered to be amongst the important contributors to the founding
of the ILO were rooted in the catholic-liberalism of Daniel LeGrand and the evangelical
Protestantism of Wilfred Owen (Fellows, 1951; Beeler, 1956). Significantly both of these
activists were manufacturers.

Thus whether revolutionary or reformist the changes to be effected, observers were assured,
would not be that of the beheading peasants of the French Revolution seeking to escape from
rural idiocy nor the unemployed, homeless, criminals and deserters who supported Napoleon
and erupted into chiliastic violence but the rational, calculating and cognisant workers. The
fearsome “mass” dissolved and the redeemable “worker “emerged

In this fashion the "worker" concept became important to the ILO foundational myth and the
ILO itself became a creature of the Enlightenment with the workers being partners in a social
contract. Shotwell, an early ILO supporter and policy activist, writing in 1932 expressed
these sentiments in the title of an article “The ILO as an Alternative to Violent Revolution”
(Shotwell, 1932).

The discourse before the creation of the ILO had already pushed the bulk of the then world
labour force into the background. The contradiction between this discourse and the discourse
of universality and universal peace through law inherent in the social legalists of Pound,
Ihering and Duguit (Harrod, 1977) resulted in the changing concepts as the organisation
wrestled to incorporate these two opposing notions.

“Peoples” and “Mass of Workers” ( ILO 1919 -1935)

Given the above account it may be strange to argue that at the beginning of the ILO
existence it was not so firmly glued to the worker concept as might have been expected.
There were perhaps two reasons for this. The first was the belief of the socialists that
socialism was immediately universal rather than a target which needed at the beginning a
leadership from one segment of the population, and second, both the character and the
political philosophy of the first Director General Albert Thomas.

Thomas was a socialist and his concept of his constituents was broader than working class.
He referred often to “masses of workers” (Phelan 1936:41) and argued for a social justice
which although spearheaded by worker organisations would be essential to the “liberation of
other “social layers”. Trade unionism was not an end in itself but “as a means of securing
for the masses of the people a real political apprenticeship.” (Phelan 1936:23).
Such a position in turn may have been derived from his early involvement with organisations
other than those based on work. At the turn of the century while Mayor of a Paris suburb he
found that the workers from Paris, taking advantage of the new railways, were using his
suburban village as a dormitory with the consequent frictions and financial problems for the
local authority. Thomas thus became a “banlieusard” promoting the interests of those in the
suburbs (Ramadier, 1951:54).

It may be for these reasons then that Phelan could say with such certainty that Thomas saw
it as an organisation of the “peoples of the world” (Phelan, 1936: 240) rather than an
employer-worker constellation. Within this conception the “peoples” certainly included all
those in work regardless of sector or organisation.

Further evidence for the broader position taken in this period comes from the events and
documents surrounding the request for an Advisory Opinion from the Permanent Court of
International Justice (PICJ) in 1921. An ILO publication of the late 1920’s argued that the
recourse to the Court came from a general opposition to the ILO “since it was impossible to
make a direct attack on the existence of the organisation without provoking serious
discontent among the workers, efforts were directed towards excluding from the competence
certain classes of workers whose inadequate trade union organisation made their claims the
least insistent (Shotwell, 1934:59).

The ILO's notion of a more inclusive competence led the PICJ to make an Advisory Opinion
in 1922. The judges argued that the English word “industrial” before "workers" also meant
agricultural workers because of the confusion between the different meanings of the work in
French and English. Significantly the judges found a solution to the concept of “worker”
problem by referring to “work-people” (PICJ Advisory Opinion 2 1922). From the ILO
Conference standpoint the route away from a people's organisation was to concentrate on
those Conventions which were segmental and applied to workers in specific industries and to
specific conditions of work.

Towards the end of this period, having fought but not won, the battle to make the ILO a
“work-peoples” organisation the escape route was not through further broadening concepts
but to base the arguments on the underlying concept of “social justice” which would have
included “peoples”. The rhetoric turned from socialism to social justice and the instruments
of the state and legislation to achieve it.

Tripartitism and “workers” (ILO 1935-1950)

During the first period of the establishment of concepts to deal with the competence of the
ILO the external ideology neither was hardly global nor was it formed with any degree of
sophistication. However, from 1930 the ideology laid down its global dimensions when first
the United Kingdom and then subsequently all the currently dominant countries of the world,
with the exception of the USSR, accepted the Keynesian economic idea that full employment
was the responsibility of the state and that the state had a role in macro-economic
management far beyond that of the neo-classical purview.

For the ILO the issue of unemployment presented an opportunity to continue the inclusive
objective of the organisation. The unemployed were not essentially workers and most of
them would not be and need not have been trade unionists yet it was an easy project for an
ILO to promote a focus on the unemployed. But that possibility was not taken and it was
soon eliminated by the world-wide state action to legitimise trade unions and the tripartite
system. The spate of legislation in the 1930s throughout the world brought renewed vigour
to the “worker” concept as organisations of workers become institutionalised at the state

The 1944 ILO Declaration concerning the Aims and Purposes of the International Labour
Organisation (commonly known at the Philadelphia Declaration) was entirely confident on
the target section of the world labour force – it was “The employment of Workers in the
occupations in which they can have the satisfaction of giving the fullest measure of their
skill and attainments and make the greatest contribution to the common well-being
“(Johnston, 1970: 303). This was perhaps the highpoint of exclusory concepts in the ILO.

Likewise, the reason for such a focus was also clear. Harold Butler, ILO Director from
1932-1938 and supporter of Keynesian economic policies opined in memoirs in 1941
concerning the foundation of the ILO - “the working man is deluded into belief that the less
work he does the more [work] is left to his workmates. His state of mind was a danger to the
community and a menace to the peace of the world. The problem was not merely how to
improve his material conditions but how to produce a better mental atmosphere. That was
why labour regulation and the improvement of labour conditions was an urgent part of the
work of the peace conference” (Butler, 1941: 110).

Conceptually then the potentially dangerous mass of unemployed and the social conditions
which seemed to portent social difficulties metamorphosed into the more comprehensible
and understandable worker and trade union. In doing so the peoples of the lumpenproletariat
and all others outside mass production work become the shadowy backdrop to the power
plays of the tripartite system as it became installed. The installation at the global level was
led and consolidated by the ILO conventions as it was in this period that the fundamental
conventions were passed by the Conference – 1948 Freedom of Association and Protection
of the Right to Organise and 1949 Right to Organise and Bargain Collectively.

Again, it should be noted that the support of unionists was useful and necessary and in the
history of the rise and decline of the traditional union structure the ILO will be seen as a
useful if not proactive tool.
Corporatism and “trade unionists” (ILO 1950-1980)

The period after World War II through to the 1970s was a time of conceptual peace during
which social, state and enterprise, corporatism were established and institutionalised. The
concepts of tripartism remained unchallenged – “worker” and “workers” delegates were
understood to be the union representatives in the tripartite arrangement. Corporatism – the
national or enterprise institutionalised relationship between management and production
workers and state regulation– had in these period two important origins.

The first was the heightened level of state involvement at all levels and its consequence the
need to develop tripartite corporatist arrangements in the Anglo-American model and the
social partner models in continental Europe. In both cases this reinforced the “trade
unionist" concept as the legitimate holder of power on behalf of workers.

The second was the perceived utility of corporatist arrangements as preferential to any
further collectivisation. Power writing in 1968 concerning US employer delegates notes that
“Determined to make American capitalism influential and to counter other economic systems
in the ILO, they have discovered tripartitism a useful means to communicate their ideas and
work the reform of the organisation” (Power, 1968: 259) The cold war battles thus only
reinforced the existing concept of the labour force as represented by “responsible” organised
labour. One important example of this was the McNair Committee which was established to
investigate whether trade unions in different countries were “free” or not, Although the
committee findings were inconclusive, that the trade unions should be investigated as to their
legal requirements for legitimacy within liberal democracies further pushed the unorganised
workers who had no civil society legal status into the background. In the 1950s, for
example, the British national centre, the Trades Union Congress (TUC, opposed the
independence of Jamaica on the grounds that it was not ready for self-government having no
freely functioning trade unions (Harrod, 1972).

Thus the corporatist period can only be seen, from the standpoint of this paper, to be the
most stable and confident in the concepts which excluded that part of the labour force
outside the corporatist umbrella, whether that be essentially state labour law or trade union
power, were not considered either as targets for control, or groups in need of pacification nor
suitable objectives of social policy.

In the 1970s and thereafter the exclusory concepts associated with corporatism began to
falter (Ryner, 2006). The corporatist system, the legitimisation of the trade unions, and the
Keynesian policies resulted in redistribution against the higher incomes. The reaction to this
long-term process ushered in supply-side economics and the “deregulation” of the pre-
existing labour laws in the rich and industrialised countries which spilled over to the inherent
weaknesses in state corporatism in some third world countries (as they were then known) .
The attack upon regulation and upon the source of such regulation corporatist mediation at
the national level essentially represented an attack upon two of the ILO’s major elements –
improvement of wages and working conditions by legislation and, the legitimate role and
power of unions while at the same time increasing the numbers of workers outside the
corporatist umbrella.
In the state corporatist system of the developing countries the process was two-staged but
even more dramatic. The first stage was the destruction of corporatist unions by revolts
within them. Thus in Brazil and South Korea at different times, originally corporatist
unionists founded and led independent unions. But if tripartitism had decayed into
corporatism the decay of corporatism did not resurrect tripartitism. The end result was an
individualist neo-liberal labour market which massively moved workers from the corporatist
umbrella to the realms of the unemployed or partially employed.

Developmentalism and “Informal Sector” (ILO 1980 – 2000)

It was not only the decline of corporatism which raised the need for a more inclusory
concept than worker and unionist. Of importance at that time was the successful challenge
of the feminist movement and its insistence that the worker concept was too narrow to allow
the proper discussion of both the waged work of women as well as the unwaged work in
child-bearing, child-rearing and household service production. (Deckward, 1975; Davies,
2006) Of equal importance, as it included the labour force participation of women, was the
obvious failure of the modernisation school to “clear the labour” market by supplying
sufficient employment in the developing countries.

The result of all these trends was that the third world became more visible within the ILO.
The increasing membership of the organisation of the developing countries which had started
in the 1960s meant that the organisation now had member states in which the “worker” or
“unionist” concept had limited relevance. With often under 5 percent of the national labour
force in industry, with unions which were politically weak and employers associations which
sometimes had to be created in order to join the organisation, the labour force of these
countries bore no resemblance to the foundational concepts of the ILO which was based on
the worker in industry and employed labour in agriculture.

This problem might have been surmountable if it were not for the further complication that
the numbers of people without structured work was growing and did not appear to making an
easy transition from peasant to worker as the modernisation theory had expected. (cf. Kerr et
al, 1960) Latin American scholars defined those stuck between peasant as and worker as
“marginals” living at the marginal areas of urban areas. They further argued that this was a
permanent feature of underdevelopment under the existing (dependent) model (cf.
Stavenhagen, 1970).

Another important factor contributing to the conceptual uncertainty was that the ILO was
increasingly involved with these marginal populations by virtue of becoming the executing
agency for the UNDP. Between 1960 and 1975 the funds arriving from the UNDP to be
administered by the ILO grew from $2 million to $22 million (Harrod, 1977:189).
In the 1970s then this resulted in a serious effort to devise new concepts which could account
for the changing situation. Two initiatives within the ILO can be identified at this time. The
first was the Future Industrial Relations Project at the International Institute for Labour
Studies (IILS) and the second was the “employment missions of the World Employment
Program (WEP).

Future Industrial Relations Project and the “Marginals ”1

The Institute for Labour Studies was founded in 1960 largely at the initiative of David Morse
as an embryonic staff college and a place where the staff “could be protected against
elements which will inhibit the free and independent exchange of views” (Morse, 1966). In
this role it would be a “ginger” group - that is a group of individuals linked but independent
of the organisation proper who could consider the conventional wisdom and doctrine of the
organisation for its benefit. It was thus independently funded from the ILO budget and the
staff was provided “academic freedom” unlike international civil servants who may not
publish without permission of their respective higher authorities. At the time of the launch
of the Future Industrial Relations Project the Institute was headed by Assistant Director
General, Robert Cox.

The core of the project was the understanding that tripartitism was essentially a way of
viewing segments of the labour force using a power criterion. Thus “workers” organisations
were a power entity within the power relations of tripartiism. Industrial or labour relations
likewise with their processes of bargaining, mediation and conciliation were also systems of
power relationships.

If one segment of the world labour force could be so distinguished it should also be possible
that other segments could also be identified using the power criteria. Thus tripartitism
became only one “industrial relations system” amongst many (Cox, 1971). The Interim
report of the project identified at least eleven such systems (Cox, Harrod et al, 1972). If the
ILO was able to be involved in, to attempt to regulate, for one such power relationship then
that also could legitimately be possible for others. For the self-employed (non-employing
artisans) conditions of work and return to work would be affected if the power relations
between the self-employed and suppliers, buyers, regulators and competitors were changed.
Thus the argument was that if there was an ILO “workers” department dealing with the
power relations in the tripartite circumstance there could be a “self-employment” department
dealing with the power relations of the self-employed. At the time there were no new
concepts introduced although the “marginal” concept was used often to describe at least
those unorganised workers in an urban circumstance.

Concepts for segments of the world labour force were not needed if labels were devised from
power relations. The global labour force would be disaggregated by the criteria of power
relations rather than sector, occupation, gender, or physical attribute (as for example,
infancy). But in making this argument it was necessary to note in the published documents
that of the total world labour force less than 10% at that time were covered by what could be
considered as “organised “ in the traditional sense and that the part within the tripartite
system covered less than six percent of the world labour force. This six percent, however,
still absorbed the bulk of the budget of the organisation.

The author must declare an interest in the following account. He was the Research
Coordinator for the Future Industrial Relations Project from 1970 to 1972 at the International
Institute for Labour Studies (under its independent constitution) and resigned on being
ordered to transfer to a department of the ILO

This observation was not appreciated by the embedded representatives of tripartite who,
when supported by the new Director General Wilfred Jenks, wedded as he was as an in-
house lawyer to an exclusively state-sourced regulation of people, objected to the IILS role.
Robert Cox, the Director of the Institute was challenged by the Director General for not
submitting publications to receive the latter’s “nihil obstat” which meant that the Director
General assumed the right to prevent publication if it was considered to “offend dogma” of
the ILO (Tribune de Geneve 15.June 1972). This stricture was not acceptable to the
Director of the Institute, the very purpose of which was freedom of discussion and
publication, who consequently resigned on this issue. As a result of these events the project
was officially closed, the research team disbanded and the project never completed. (It was,
however, continued privately and the schema for the world labour force was subsequently
presented by Robert Cox in his Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces in the
Making of History (1987) and the detailed application and elaboration of it to the
unprotected work of the world labour force in the current authors Power, Production and the
Unprotected Worker (1987).

This initiative of the Future Industrial Relations was both inclusory and discerning and had it
been accepted would have provided an understanding if not a status to the different sections
of the world labour force be they casual day labourers or self-employed neuro-surgeons.

World Employment Programme and “Informal Sector”

The World Employment Programme (WEP) was created in 1969 partly as a result of the
demand to create programmes suitable for the new members. Essentially this sought a way
out of the conceptual impasse by categorising the “marginal” population as the
“unemployed” No further names or concepts were needed because the world comprehended
the unemployed. But it required the belief that unemployment could be solved by
employment and that essentially unemployment and under-employment were transitional

Part of the WEP action programme were employment missions and it soon became apparent
that the absence of a concept for the “unemployed” which fitted the conditions in the third
world was a major problem. Typical of these missions was the mission to Colombia which
reported in the document Towards Full Employment: A program for Colombia prepared by
an inter-agency team organized by the ILO. The report was one of the first examples to
challenge the corporatist idea in favour of considering people , sectors and issues which fell
outside the trade union and the structured formality which that attempted to bring to the issue
of employment. It was condemned both by employer's organisations and trade unions
(Harrod, 1977) more overtly than was the Future Industrial Relations Project for publishing
the same sentiment. For persons outside the ILO the issue was simple ,as noted by the head
of the Colombia mission Dudley Seers, a development economist, “Of course, workers need
protection, but the total effect of labour laws in Colombia ….is to give greater security to a
small minority of workers at the cost of greater insecurity for the remainder” (Seers, 1970:
383) The Columbia report then rejected the idea that the focus should be on the protected
worker but did not offer a new concept which would allow perceptually a way of dealing
with people neither in trade unions nor in industry and thus not collectively organised for
production. It was three years later in 1972 that a similar mission to Kenya, presumably
cognisant of the problems of the Colombia mission, launched the now ubiquitous concept of
the informal sector and the informal sector worker (ILO, 1972).

The informal sector concept was the dialectic expression of the inability of the organisation
to rise above its foundation concept because the informal sector was defined negatively in
relation to the formal sector which was populated by the “workers” and “trade unionists”. It
was perhaps a politically more acceptable concept for the “marginals” or lumpenproletariat. .
In 1991 nearly twenty years after the informal sector was first mentioned the Director
General in his report The Dilemma of the informal Sector stated “it has so far proved
impossible to reach a clear and generally accepted definition of the concept. There is far
from universal agreement on what constitutes an “informal activity or what distinguishes it
from a “formal” production unit. Indeed there continues to be some controversy as to
whether the concept is useful or appropriate either for analysis of for policy-making, or
whether the phenomenon that it describes can in any way be called a “sector” (ILO, 1991: 3).

In 2000 twenty eight years after its first mention a World Employment Programme paper
written by an ILO official entitled The ILO and the Informal Sector and Institutional History
states “but the concept remains as elusive and mercurial and ephemeral and mysterious as it
was in 1992 ….only bigger” (2000: 25). After an exhaustive review of the institutional
history of the concept Bangasser points out that the uncertainty and malaise the organization
staff and directorate had with the concept is reflected in the fact that by 2001 there were no
units in the organization based on it, there were no posts created for it and there were no
international labour standards applied to it (Bangasser: 26-27).

Thus after nearly three decades the informal sector was not made a focal point of the
organisation and there were substantial doubts by the Director General and the writer on the
history of the concept in the ILO and presumably large sections of the staff. This has not
stopped an informal sector “industry” from developing especially in academia. While this
reflects the current sociology of knowledge in which a concept or “theory” is introduced and,
regardless of its initial validity, provokes a massive and exhaustive literature usually denying
its validity, in the case of the “informal sector” it went even further. It has been both reified
provided personality and even produced its own people - the “informals”. The “informals”
are said to join political community holders’(Staudt, 1998) to compete with other sectors
(Maldonado 1995); while collectively they make a contribution to the national economy
(Chen,Sebstad,O’Connel,1999) At the time of writing an on-line library (Questia) yields
23,459 entries in a search for “informal sector”.

The early criticisms of the concept were ones of non-engagement – to oppose is to accept.
(Bremen, 1976; Bromly,1979). More important, however. was the policy, social and political
effects if it were to be accepted. The acceptance of the concept meant that a power and
work-empty concept was being accepted as a suitable descriptor for more than 80 percent of
the world labour force. The worker and union concepts were descriptions of power – the
“worker” concept as noted in the introduction may have emerged from a fear of the mass and
in particular the possibility of a “workers revolution”. The unionist was a consolidation of
this power legitimised as a power-exerting entity in a tripartite power relationship. Both of
them were associated with a form of power relations and a type of work – so-called blue
collar mass production.

The informal sector, however, had no power and yet had no focal point of work. Thus it hid
more than it could ever reveal. There was no possibility that accepting it could provide an
understanding of the socio-politics of the world labour force. To do so sections would have
to be singled out. Thus the analysis at the World Bank, more politically astute perhaps than
elsewhere, sought out the self-employed from the informal sector in an attempt to make them
employing entrepreneurs and supportive of the neo-liberal doctrine.

It is to the credit of the ILO organisation that it did not accept the informal sector as a guide
to policy and action but at the same time it still did not move to fill the conceptual hole left
by the decline of the “worker” and “unionist” concepts at the end of the 1980s. The concepts
of “informal economy” and “informal activity” still remain (cf. Director Generals Report
2003) but have no central importance.

“Work” and “Poor” (ILO 2003 -

It is not the purpose of this paper to examine in depth the contemporary developments within
the ILO although the same analytical framework could be applied to the new concepts
Viewing the introduction of new concepts exclusively from the standpoint of this paper – the
degree of exclusivity inherent in them - some preliminary observations may be made. Three
changes in the use of concepts can be observed in the last years. First, the move from
“informal sector” to “informal economy” solves perhaps the “sectoral problem” but does not
solve the problem of the criteria needed to distinguish the people who work in the informal

Second, the introduction of “Decent Work” to be the guiding concept of the ILO in 1999
(ILO, 1999) appeared to be an important departure. It does not seem to be exclusionary–
the world labour force is economically active in the sense of expending energy for the
purposes of survival and material gain. It can be seen as an attempt to end the 30 year old
struggle with the “informal sector”; an entirely new departure from agents of work to work
itself. But without a qualifying adjective there could be no entry point. Thus “Decent”
became necessary and the success depends upon the definition of it. Initially it was simply
defined in terms of the existing core concerns of the organisation and thus represented only
new configurations rather than new substance. Added concepts as “productive” work move
back towards the exclusionary concepts of the 1950s as noted above. In terms of capturing
the bulk of the world labour force at least the first years do not reveal it as the answer to this
problem. Writing in 2003 Dharam Ghai notes “It shows how the notion of decent work is
anchored in the long-established and enduring concerns of the ILO” (2003:114) and
concludes that more data was needed on decent work characteristics of“non-formal
employment in the informal economy, in the countryside and in home-based employment."

Third, is the appearance of “poverty” derived from the increasing pressure to revise the neo-
liberal doctrine promoted by the international economic agencies and the popularity of the
idea of “helping” the poor. The notion of poverty and the need to alleviate it has, of course,
been a constant since the beginning of the organization and reasserted in the Philadelphia
Declaration of 1947. However the new appearance of poverty is in the garb of “the poor”
that is, a concept applied to a collection of individuals in the world population to whom can
be ascribed the definition of poor which is usually of a material nature. The ILO approach
to the poor is said to be based on macro-economic policy which “implies a stress on
redistribution, equity and solidarity “(ILO,2007) “but once the answer to the question of
what the poor do every day? There emerges the “working poor” and this concept joins the
list of descriptions for unorganised, unprotected workers.


The focus of this article has been the use of concepts which until recently have been able to
exclude the majority of the world labour force variously referred to as the marginals,
informal sector workers, unorganised and unprotected workers.

In terms of concepts the historical trajectory of the organisation has been a u-curve starting
with the inclusionary “peoples” and “mass of workers” becoming narrower with “workers”
and “trade unionists” then moved to an apparently unsuccessful and inelegant expansion
with the “informal sector” and ending with the and yet to be concluded flirtation with
“work” and “poor” At each point on this curve the organisation has had to respond to
powerful external ideologies and doctrines and especially those which sought to perceptually
tame the threatening nature of the work-produced and related political movements. While
there have been some missed opportunities there have also been resistances and a
consistencies in producing the work of the organisation. The failure to be able to deal
adequately with the bulk of the world labour is largely because the external doctrines were
joined with the internal first to deny its existence and then when it became too large to
ignore moved to power-denying and work-empty concepts.

In the first quarter of the 20th Century the ILO was equipped with concepts of elements,
organisations and movements within the world labour force which reflected power in the
major societies. It was indeed possible then to consider the role and purpose of these power
entities in the establishment of peace and a general conflict resolution because it was
thought, with some justification, that these power entities would be involved in both the
creation and the solution to war and conflict . Yet since the middle of the 20th century
political change has been sourced precisely outside the traditional concepts of worker and
unionists It was the women forced from the countryside into the slums of Argentina who
socially determined Eva Peron as the first woman in power ever to suggest wages for
women’s housework (Hollander 1974) , according to Thaxton (1982) the revolutionary Red
Army in China in 1949 was not an army of peasants as is popularly believed but an army of
“urban marginals”, it was the self-employed truck drivers in Chile who spear-headed the
social turmoil which precipitated the military coup which brought down the democratically
elected government of Allende in 1974 , it was the self-employed taxi drivers who were
involved in unseating Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, it is the millenarian appeal of the Islamic
religion to urban-living traumatised peasants in Iran which upheld the Iran Revolution in
1979, (Harrod 1987) , and now it is urban marginals who support the popularism of Chavez,
the movement of the untouchables in India which is , according to a long- time social
commentator, restoring to the Indian rich the “fear of the mass” (Sainath, 2006) and it is
partially employed, marginals, homeless, criminals and deserters of Marx’s
lumpenproletariat who disproportionately make up the Mahadi Army in Iraq in 2007.

In each case the populations involved are parts of the “informal sector” or the “poor” who
work under different conditions and different power relations and have therefore different
needs and consciousness and yield to different mobilizing appeals. Yet unlike the first
quarter of the 20th century there are no concepts which can effectively reflect and help deal
with these differences.

To deal with these developments in the sources of political change, concepts are now needed
which, as before, facilitate an engagement with different types of workplaces and work and
the different power and social dynamics which govern them. The doctrines and ideology
which have prevailed for almost the past three decades are beginning to falter, the era of the
weakened state begins to end and strategic populations begin to respond to new forms of
mobilization. Under these circumstances the opportunity presents itself again, as it did more
than a century ago in the decades before the founding of the ILO, to devise new concepts,
but this time representing the new power of the largest proportion of the world labour force.

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