The recent standoff over the reference to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity that pitted Westerners and groups of countries from the African and Arab/ Islamic world during the International Labour Conference (ILC) shed light on the underlying toxic Eurocentric behaviours and attitudes within the multilateral system. This clash of perspectives has transformed the multilateral system into a battleground where extreme poles or opposing factions vie for influence and power.

In its 100-year history, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has for the first time an African at its helm. Togolese Gilbert Houngbo was elected as the organisation’s director general in 2022. His election triggered a false hope and a narrative that the world’s subalterns will finally have a voice in matters that affect them. However, the clash of civilisations that unfolded at the ILC revealed the long-standing challenges and disparities in the global discourse on social justice and labourrights.

Founded in 1919, the ILO aimed to promote global social justice and protect labour rights. However, workers in distant regions of the world were still oppressed and serving the interests of European superpowers at that time. Independence for former colonies in the mid-20th century did not automatically lead to any significant change in their lives or their countries. 

In this regard, there was never a deliberate attempt to upgrade oppressed workers to become holders of rights. Toxic capitalism further stratified workers, with some relegated to dirty jobs in less privileged countries while others do clean, cushy jobs in wealthier countries. The former colonies were also “othered” under colourful labels such as ‘Third World’ and ‘developing countries’.Furthermore, they became the subject of ridicule and libelled as hapless recipients of aid and other forms of assistance. 

When it comes to the overall conditions of subalterns, the picture got even more clouded by convoluted human rightism that became popular after the infamous white man’s war in 1945, which resulted in more than three million Indians dying of starvation and malnutrition. Global history and multilateral architecture have been shaped by Western triumphalism, and it is imperative to challenge this narrative. 

In ‘The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order’, American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington predicted that people’s cultural and religious identities would become the main cause of conflict in the post-Cold War world. But Europeans cannot comprehend this as they push hard to impose their value system on everyone as they have done throughout. It is not that people do not desire rights and freedom but reject the idea that Westerners should dictate anything to them.

Kenyan scholar Makau wa Mutua highlights that the language and discourse of human rights perpetuate a metaphor known as the “savages-victims-saviours construction” (SVS metaphor). According to Mutua, this metaphor depicts Western powers, along with their foot soldiers such as civil society organisations and international bodies, assuming the role of saviours while simultaneously upholding cultural norms and practices inherent in liberal ideology.

According to Ntina Tzouvala, this ‘standard of civilisation’ oscillates between the possibility of equal inclusion for non-Western political communities and the conditionality of such inclusion based on their conformity to capitalist modernity. The human rights agenda, therefore, becomes a moving target, denying rights to those in the Third World while adapting to the changing interests of Western states.

While there have been changes to the structure of the ILO over time, including the formal composition of the Governing Body as a result of decolonisation and acceptance of both China and Russia, it is not evident that these changes have resulted in a more balanced or democratic decision-making process.

While lacking a constitutional or regulatory framework like the regional groups, the group known as Industrialised Market Economy Countries (IMEC) holds significant decision-making authority within the ILO. Formed in 1978 during the Cold War, the IMEC comprises approximately thirty states, exclusively from the traditional West. Unlike regional groups, it was established based on economic criteria rather than geographical considerations. 

It consists of major contributors to the ILO budget and was initially created to foster stronger ties among market-based economies after the US withdrew from the ILO. The US terminated its membership in 1977 primarily due to concerns over the organisation’s alleged pro-communist bias and its perceived anti-business stance. This decision resulted in a significant reduction of the ILO budget. 

It is worth noting that Washington pulled a similar stunt when it withdrew from the World Health Organisation a few years ago. The US and its allies use their excessive financial might to maintain an unequal international system.

At the ILO, Western powers under the IMEC and a string of European-linked groupings resort to destructive interventionism to maintain their hegemony. The resolution against Russia in 2022 for its “aggression” against Ukraine highlights the Eurocentric bias that often underlies their actions. These interventions are couched in benign terms, with justifications based on evidence of genocide or other humanitarian concerns. 

However, the self-proclaimed international community’s continued inaction during the debilitating war in Sudan and other placesexposes the inconsistency and selective application of these interventions. The construct of benign and malign interventions is controlled by narratives and strategic self-interest, with Western powers often perpetuating their dominance and control.

It is crucial to challenge the prevailing narrative that portrays Africans as the objects of charity and pity, perpetuated by the erasure of their contributions to modernity and civilisation. Africans have made significant historical and contemporary contributions, which have been overlooked or undervalued. 

Africans and Islamic states, often dismissed as ‘socially conservative’, did the unthinkable when they stood up to the mighty West during the ILC. These countries insisted that their voices not only needed to be heard but also that their cultures must be respected. 

The realisation of self-worth, self-belief and the recognition of the “other” and their cultural traditions are essential in changing the narrative and countering the Eurocentric bias in the international system. This is a necessary step towards dismantling Eurocentric biases and stereotypes to promote a more comprehensive understanding of labour issues and social justice

As with everything else, reforming the ILO is another crucial step towards reshaping the multilateral system and challenging Eurocentrism. Powerful states do not support the 1986 Amendment to the ILO constitution, which calls for changes in the decision-making structures and processes. These amendments enjoy universal support from all African countries as well as from Italy and India. 

Together with other bodies, the ILO must prioritise inclusivity and diversity within its structures, ensuring equitable representation of all regions and addressing power imbalances. This includes promoting the voices of African countries and workers in decision-making processes and the attainment of equality and social justice.

The organisation must also actively engage in dismantling Eurocentric biases and stereotypes by promoting a more comprehensive understanding of labour issues and social justice. It should also collaborate with regional organisations, such as the African Union, to address specific challenges faced by African populations and develop region-specific strategies free from Western dictates.

By addressing power imbalances, promoting inclusivity, and amplifying diverse perspectives, we can work towards a more equitable and just global labour framework. This transformation will not only benefit African workers and countries but also contribute to a more balanced and inclusive representation of the world’s labour challenges and aspirations.

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Siyabonga Hadebe is a PhD candidate in international economic law and a labour market expert based in Geneva. He was the spokesperson for the Campaign of Prof. Mthunzi Mdwaba for the 2022 Elections of the ILODG.