News that Saudi Arabia had joined the International Labour Organisation (ILO) governing body shocked many observers last week, drawing many comparisons to the Kingdom’s incongruous re-election to the UN Human Rights Council last year. How could a country that so visibly violates the rights of millions of migrant labourers be elected into a position of authority, in an institution intended to protect workers' rights?
The dissonance is unsurprising, however, given that permanent member of the body, such as China, also have a poor record of labour rights.
But while these contradictions are not limited to Saudi Arabia, there is a particular aspect of Saudi’s membership that stands out. The ILO is a tripartite organisation meant to represent governments, employers and workers. But Saudi Arabia does not allow trade unions to exist. Only “workers councils” are permitted, and only Saudi nationals can join them. This means that migrant workers, 56% of Saudi’s labour force, have no voice in the policies that affect them.
The only representation of these migrant workers is through their own states membership in the ILO. Some of the top origin countries of the Gulf workforce have also been elected to the governing body this term, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. India is also a permanent member of the body.
Saudi Arabia and 24 other countries elected this term will serve for three years. Amongst the duties of the governing body are decisions on ILO policy and setting the agenda of the International Labour Conference.