Rasmus Emil Hjorth – A gig worker’s view on the ILO conference 2024

Rasmus Emil Hjorth, a food delivery courier in Copenhagen and trade union activist in the Madbudenes Organisation, writes about his experience at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference 2024, which finished on Friday [14 June]. Hjorth finds that while platform work was on the agenda, the attempt to find a compromise to suit bosses and workers left him unimpressed.

The Gig Economy Project is a BRAVE NEW EUROPE media network for gig workers in Europe. Click here to find out more and click here to get the weekly newsletter.

Picture by International Labour Organisation

After almost three years of constantly entering and exiting venues to pick up goods for delivery, for once I was one of the attendees at a venue. I was invited as part of a joint delegation from the Nordic Folk High School to attend the International Labour Organisation (ILO) congress. 

In the world of gig work, although scholars and media publications have frequently addressed our issues, we had not been a focus for the ILO until recently. From an outside perspective, it is notable that two years after the pandemic, the ILO was only now having its first standard-setting discussion on platform work.  

Visiting Geneva for the first time, I was excited to be part of the discussion about something I have experienced directly for years. But I left the event with a sense of distrust.

It might be interesting for rank and file platform workers to get an insight into what the ILO is for us, and why yet another international institution is addressing our issues. This piece has two objectives. First, I want to share a gig worker’s perspective, albeit personal, which I believe will resonate with other platform workers. Second, I aim to highlight a forthcoming battle over the regulation of platform work that was unknown to me before attending this event. 

The ILO: a history of social partnership

To be honest, even as an active trade unionist and veteran of the food delivery scene, I thought I was well aware of the ins and outs of the international regulatory and political sphere in relation to platform work. It turned out I was entirely wrong. 

Digging deeper into the history of ILO, I found insights into many of our core discussions about labour rights and standards. These principled discussions often revolve around how different countries perceive and implement specific signed (ratified) conventions. 

The goal is to establish core principles and standards of work that are universally applied. However, the real impact depends on whether a member state (a country which is represented in the ILO) ratifies and enforces these standards. 

Given its limited political power, should rank-and-file workers consider the ILO a mere paper tiger?  As trade unionists, we understand we cannot rely solely on the good intentions expressed by our employers. So, why should we view the ILO any differently? 

Here lies the challenge: To reconsider this perception through exploration of its history. 

The ILO emerged as a reaction to the 20th century syndicalist and radical socialist movements all over the world. 

In his article ‘The great charter for the liberty of workingman: Labour liberal and the creation of the ILO’, the Finnish historian Markku Ruotsila emphasises that the origins of ILO were derived from the goal of “removing grievances and pre-empting socialism”.  As a counterpoint to more radically-inclined organised labour, moderate trade union leaders like Samuel Gompers of the AFL wanted social reform to sustain the workers. 

The aim was to establish a social partnership framework to address the labour question which brought workers and bosses around the table. Conventions that we are all familiar with today and are enshrined in labour laws, for example the right to organise and freedom of association, are derived from this social reform agenda. 

However, many of the gig economy companies are challenging this social partnership framework, especially in their rejection of the basic notion of employment and the workers’ rights which are attached to that. Many platform workers remain bogus self employed. This is the context for the discussion which unfolded at the ILO congress.

Fundamental principles of rights at work for some, but not for others

For three nights in a row I sat and listened intently to what I considered to be a battle of wits and minds. It’s not exactly clear to me who actually “won” the discussion. 

Every year, the institution meets to steer and discuss topics of work. I was on the committee to address what is called the Fundamental Principles of Rights at Work (FPRW).

They are:

  1. freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  2. the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
  3. the effective abolition of child labour;
  4. the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation; and
  5. a safe and healthy working environment.

A report was published in May by the ILO office which looks at the challenges to FPRW. The report highlights platform work as a significant threat for FPRW because “in many contexts [platform work] is also associated with heightened informality, low and insecure wages, exposure to poor [health & safety] conditions, an absence of labour and social protections, difficulties in exercising freedom of association and collective bargaining rights and discrimination.”

At the conference, the committee organised to address this issue, seeking to come up with an agreed text to move towards agreeing an ILO standard, was composed of three groups: workers, bosses and governments. 

The bosses were constantly trying to water down the text on platform work, which ultimately resulted in a very blunt agreement. The workers’ strategy was getting at least similar or softer expressions into the document, so as to shift the dialogue towards a consensus.

It resulted in the following text being adopted:

“Demographic, environmental and digital transitions, including the rise of artificial intelligence and related technologies, are transforming the world of work, reinforcing the urgency of promoting the FPRW to address challenges and seize opportunities”.

The negotiations exposed significant distance between the bosses and workers regarding algorithmic management and AI, highlighting ongoing challenges in achieving consensus. 

Frankly, I was not impressed. ILO standards need clear, accountable language, which employers appear reluctant to embrace and workers too fearful to ask for. The fact that, in 2024, the ILO still does not have a comprehensive set of standards to address the specific challenges faced by platform workers across the world is inadequate.

Thankfully, the standard-setting on platform work is not yet complete. The ILO takes two years before adopting a new standard, so next year’s congress will be decisive. It’s crucial that we actively participate. I encourage all workers to engage, as workers need to to take every opportunity to fight for emancipation, even within the complex, abstract world of the ILO.

Due to the Israeli war crimes in Gaza we have increased our coverage from five to six days a week. We do not have the funds to do this, but felt that it was the only right thing to do. So if you have not already donated for this year, please do so now. To donate please go HERE.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.