/ 30 June 2023

Challenging Eurocentrism: A step towards social justice

Ilo Protests
Garment workers want Bangladesh to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s decision on ending discrimination against women, gender-based violence and minimum standards of social security. Photo by Mamunur Rashid/Getty Images

The recent standoff over the reference to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which pitted Westerners against countries from Africa and the Arab/ Islamic world during the International Labour Conference (ILC), shed light on the Eurocentric attitudes in the multilateral system.

This clash arose after some Arab and African member states objected to a clause related to LGBTQ rights in the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2024-25 work and budget document. Western countries insisted on the explicit text, while the opposing group preferred the phrase “vulnerable groups”.

The clause was retained in the document and a note recorded the differences on the issue. 

In its 100-year history, the ILO has, for the first time, an African at its helm. Gilbert Houngbo, a former prime minister of Togo, was elected as the ILO’s director general in 2022. His election triggered a false hope that the world’s subalterns would have a voice in matters that affect them. But the clash that unfolded at the ILC revealed the long-standing disparities in the global discourse on social justice and labour rights.

Founded in 1919, the ILO aimed to promote global social justice and protect labour rights. But workers in distant regions of the world were still oppressed and serving the interests of European superpowers. The independence for colonies in the mid-20th century did not automatically lead to any significant change in people’s lives or their countries. 

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 did 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 became more clouded by convoluted human rightism that became popular after the white man’s war from 1939 to  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 important 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 and push hard to impose their value system on everyone as they have always done. 

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”. According to Mutua, the SVS 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, of Australian National University, 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 becomes a moving target, denying rights to those in the developing world while adapting to the changing interests of Western states.

Although 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. 

Although lacking a constitutional or regulatory framework like the regional groups, the group known as Industrialised Market Economy Countries (IMEC) holds significant decision-making authority in the ILO. Formed in 1978 during the Cold War, the IMEC comprises about 30 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 United States withdrew from the ILO. 

The US terminated its membership in 1977 primarily because of 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’s 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. 

But the self-proclaimed international community’s continued inaction during the debilitating war in Sudan and other places exposes 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 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 to promote a more comprehensive understanding of labour issues and social justice.

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 in 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 participate 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.

Siyabonga Hadebe is a PhD candidate in international economic law and a labour market expert based in Geneva.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.