Keynes, Sen, and Hayek: Competing Approaches to International Labor Law in the ILO and the WTO, 1994–2008

McDougall, Pascal | April 24, 2017

In discussions of recent human rights-driven developments in the International Labour Organization (ILO), as well as in other international legal debates, many scholars have suggested that human rights and “neoliberalism” intrinsically tend to converge. Such purported convergence is at once deplored by critics of “globalization” and applauded by its defenders. This article offers an empirical refutation of this convergence thesis by documenting the potential for systematic divergences between human rights, neoliberalism and a third omnipresent discourse, social legal thought (i.e. tropes associated with the welfare state and Keynesianism). I support this claim by taking as a case study three interrelated and historically fateful debates about international labor standards in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the ILO. The debates are those pertaining to (1) the failed 1990s project of conditioning WTO trade status with respect for labor standards (“trade/labor linkage”), (2) the prioritization of human rights-based labor standards in the ILO’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998 Declaration) and (3) the shape of the ILO corpus under the Decent Work Agenda (DWA), a social policy programmatic initiative on labor standards fiercely debated in the 2000s. I argue that human rights, neoliberalism and social legal thought diverge a great deal because they have different degrees of normative malleability. I propose a methodology, structuralist argumentative analysis, to address the question of discursive convergence and divergence, an issue of crucial importance for those interested in the political stakes of debates on international labor standards and the future trajectories of neoliberalism and human rights.