Histories of International Labour Governmentality

Mai Taha
Assistant Professor, Department of Law, American University in Cairo (AUC)


Six years ago, the International Labour Organization (ILO) started a collaborative project with the World Bank. Teams from both institutions produced what they call “an inventory of more than 3,600 policy responses” for work-related issues. Through this World Bank-ILO project, labour questions are streamlined into an inventory of thousands of policy responses, covering 77 countries. This project, “the first and largest of its kind” is intended to show how governments all over the world across the income spectrum have used labour market interventions to limit the adverse socio-economic effects of the financial crisis, and to offer an assessment of these interventions (ILO and World Bank Collaboration).

The website of the ILO links users to the online data tool that monitors government policy responses grouped under seven categories: “macroeconomic policies, measures to increase labour demand, active labour market policy, unemployment benefits, other social protection measures, social dialogue, and labour standards” (ILO/World Bank Inventory). This project follows an ILO consultation to the ten-year World Bank’s Social Protection Labour Strategy 2012-2022, which aims at moving social protection and labour strategy “from isolated interventions to a coherent, connected portfolio of programs” (The World Bank 2012-2022 Social Protection and Labor Strategy). In other words, making it a comprehensive and structured system of intervention. According to the ILO, technical assistance intervention is at the core of the World Bank-ILO collaboration. In fact, over the course of five years, the World Bank contributed 43 million dollars to support the ILO’s technical assistance program (World Bank ILO Cooperation, September 2015).

More than eighty-five years ago before the ILO’s partnership with the World Bank, the ILO had already started its technical cooperation practices. Commonly (and inaccurately) dated to the post-War II period, technical assistance includes both advisory and direct contact missions of ILO experts to the chosen country to address problems of legislation and compliance with ratified instruments (Technical Assistance and Training). Technical assistance, now one of the ILO’s most common functions, started in the early 1930’s in the colonized world in the wake of the economic crisis. It was through these early missions that we see the initial manifestations of what we now are quite familiar with: the technicalization of crisis. The West was facing the Great Depression, and dealing with political and social concerns – inequality, poverty, and unemployment – as merely technical questions, and their resolve requiring technical expertise. Labour experts were sent to select countries, initially in the ‘semicolonial’ world, to essentially draft new labour legislation that would strictly limit workers’ organization along their industrial lines.

Contemporary projects between an institution like the World Bank and the ILO have a history – a colonial history. The streamlining of social and labour problems into a set of limited technical arrangements or “an inventory of 3,600 policy responses,” and to a coherent system of intervention can be traced back to the ILO’s early attempts in labour governmentality and economic global governance. This policy effectively divides a hybrid sphere of social activity into rigid and separate domains: the ‘technical’ and the ‘political’.

The organization of labour in the colonies was considered a technical matter. While questions of labour legal reform, the organization of the local labour department, and the creation of trade unions can in fact be considered technical matters, a key aspect of the ILO’s policy was that ‘what is technical cannot be political’. For example, the organization of workers into trade unions becomes a function of the Geneva expert, not of workers’ political mobilization. International labour experts in the interwar period encouraged the spread of trade unions in the colonies. At the same time, they confined the functions of unions to the representation of workers’ constituencies in the workplace to control their political mobilization against the colonial presence and their (mostly European) bosses.

In September 1931, the government of Egypt through Prime Minister Sidqi Pasha invited the ILO and its Director, Harold Butler, to conduct a mission in Egypt to study ‘on the spot’ industrial conditions and to advise on the organization of the labour department. The Governing Body of the ILO quickly approved the request for the mission, and by October Harold Butler was already preparing his trip to Egypt.

The mission to Egypt was the first elaborate mission to a so-called semi-colonial territory. The creation of the League of Nations and its Mandate system established a new gradation of sovereignty according to the level of civilization, dividing the colonized world into classes A, B, and C. Former Ottoman territories, such as Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, were deemed semi-civilized, so they were awarded class A mandates. While Egypt was not a mandate territory, it was governed in a very similar way. Egypt, along with other mandate A territories were deemed civilized enough to manage their own labour affairs. However, it was through the ILO that the working classes of these territories become subjects of concern for international law, and it was through Egypt that the ILO made this encounter. The ILO’s technical assistance mission to Egypt was one of the first fully fledged missions to the region that aimed at transforming employer-labour relations in the country. And in some sense, this case is not about the intervention in Egypt per se, but about how this intervention was foundational for the labour governance of similar territories. It was, therefore, unsurprising that one year later the ILO sent a super-mission to Iran, Iraq, and Turkey – all territories deemed internationally to be semi-civilized.

These territories acted as testing sites for a new form of global governance that moved beyond the League of Nations big slogans of state-building and disarmament. The then new institution was to deal with problems of social concern, specifically facing the working masses at the beginning of the red scare. The mission to Egypt was a case in point.

According to Harold Butler’s account of his 4-week visit to Egypt, the mission visited 32 factories and 28 workshops across the country in different industries, ranging from pottery and cement to railways. He explained that workers needed the real, the material, and the technical, not the philosophical and the political, which were merely abstractions from the material realities of their working conditions. But according to his own account, workers’ demands included the desire for better education, lower rents in working-class neighborhoods, addressing the problem of lung disease among hand weavers, and the legal regulation of the conditions of employment. (Butler, 1932b: 3). While these could hardly be constrained to the domain of ‘on- the-job’ or economistic demands, the ILO’s mission needed to maintain the distinction between a militant labour force, and a subdued or a more agreeable labour force that organizes strictly along industrial lines.

The success of the ILO mission hinged upon streamlining a series of labour problems into a series of labour codes constitutive of any modern legal system. This process of streamlining employer-labour relations entailed both disciplining and oversight. It entailed law. It also entailed rights. In 1930, the ILO cohered its colonial labour policy when it instituted a native labour code in addition to the international labour code created for Western and industrialized states. Colonial workers were not entitled to the same rights as North American or European workers. It was only after the 1944 Philadelphia Declaration that the ILO changed its approach toward the colonized world. However, its involvement in places such as Egypt and Iraq prior to the 1944 Declaration came from its belief that the recognition of labour conditions in the colonies was instrumental in maintaining stability in the new postwar international arrangement, especially in the early years of the red scare. Therefore, the interwar period saw a significant increase in policing colonial workplaces, a policy that was adopted by both the ILO and the colonial administrations in the periphery (Thomas, 2012: 22). Expertise and technical assistance went in hand with the policing of labour.

The case of the ILO’s intervention in Egypt shows the beginning of the transition to the new politics of expertise in the colonial governance of international legal institutions that is manifested in different forms until today. By announcing its 10-year partnership with the World Bank, an institution known to propagate free market fundamentalism, the ILO articulated its interwar methods of labour governmentality in the neoliberal era. Today, the domain of expertise on labour questions widened from the ILO’s colonial social reformists to include the World Bank’s reform experts. It widened from select sporadic missions to comprehensive ten-year strategies that fundamentally transform employer-labour relations. Looking at these transformations historically demonstrates the continuities of relations of power and capital from the colonial period to the neoliberal one.

Mai Taha is the author of ‘Reading “Class” in International Law: The Labour Question in Interwar Egypt‘ published OnlineFirst in Social & Legal Studies (10th May 2016), and later in print (2016) 25(5) Social & Legal Studies 567-589.  She has research interests in in the concepts of class, nationality and extraterritoriality in the Middle EAst during the colonial period.


“ILO and World Bank Collaboration,” available at: http://www.ilo.org/washington/areas/multilateral-initiatives/ilo-and-world-bank-collaboration/lang–en/index.htm

“The ILO/World Bank Inventory of Policy Responses to the Global Financial and Economic Crisis of 2008,” available at: http://www.ilo.org/empelm/projects/WCMS_158875/lang–en/index.htm

“The World Bank 2012-2022 Social Protection and Labor Strategy,” available at: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/SOCIALPROTECTION/Resources/280558-1274453001167/7089867-1279223745454/7253917-1291314603217/SPL_Strategy_2012-22_FINAL.pdf

“World Bank ILO Cooperation” (September 2015), available at: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—exrel/documents/genericdocument/wcms_399641.pdf

“Technical Assistance and Training” International Labour Organization website, available at: http://www.ilo.org/global/standards/applying-and-promoting-international-labour-standards/technical-assistance-and-training/lang–en/index.htm

Harold Butler, “Report on Labour Conditions in Egypt with Suggestions for Future Social Legislation: Advisory Labour Council” (1932) International Labour Office, ILO Archives.

Thomas M (2012) Violence and Colonial Order: Police, Workers and Protest in the European Colonial Empires 1918-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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