Revealing what’s behind an ILC session © Shutterstock

Backstage at the International Labour Conference
An interview with Dimitrina Dimitrova, Clerk of the ILC, reveals the efficiency of proceedings.
1 Jun 2023

The International Labour Organization (ILO) will hold its annual International Labour Conference (ILC), its highest decision body, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva from 5–16 June. As every year, representatives from governments, employers, and workers from the ILO’s 187 Member States will discuss and develop International Labour Standards, policies, and programmes that will shape the world of work. 

Dimitrina Dimitrova, Deputy Director and Chief of the Official Documents Service of the ILO, has been the Clerk of the Conference since 2017. She oversees all the logistics of the meeting, which this year is expected to be attended by more than 4,000 persons, including official delegations and observers. UN Today interviewed her about the conference.

What are some of the key challenges of organizing such a big event?

The ILC is, after the UN General Assembly in New York, the largest gathering of delegates within the UN system. The Conference is responsible for developing and adopting International Labour Standards, i.e. conventions and recommendations, that aim to improve working conditions and promote social justice. Each Member State is represented by a delegation consisting of two government delegates, an employer delegate, a worker delegate, and their respective advisers. We broke a record during the ILO centenary in 2019, with more than 7000 attendees. Last year, due to the COVID-related travel restrictions that still existed in certain countries, not all delegations were able to come, so, there is a lot of enthusiasm to return to the face-to-face interaction this year. No technologies can replace human interactions.

How important is the ILC as a networking event?

Very important. The ILC reflects the composition of the organization, bringing together governments, employers and workers’ representatives, the key actors in the world of work. This is unique within the UN system. Every delegate has the same rights, and all can express their views freely and vote differently. Many of the government representatives are cabinet ministers responsible for labor affairs in their own countries. Accredited international organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, can also participate. In the Conference plenary, the delegates discuss the ILO Director-General’s report presented each year. This year it is entitled ‘Advancing social justice’. We expect around three hundred interventions on this subject during the Plenary.

Heads of State and prime ministers will also take the floor at the ILC World of Work Summit, on the 14-15 June, which will focus this year on the importance of promoting social justice. In addition to its core work, the Conference is the place where numerous informal and bilateral meetings happen on the sidelines. Often, members of national delegations find the ILC a nice occasion to escape from daily pressures and discuss national policies through an international lens.

The pandemic must have made organizing the ILC very tricky. How did you adjust?

Indeed, the ILO had to cancel the ILC in 2020. However, the Office managed to adjust swiftly and split the 2021 Conference into two periods, in May-June and then in November-December, because we could not include all the debates in one go. Let’s not forget that at that time, video conferences were not as common as they are now. We had to make sure that all countries, regardless of their internet access, could participate in the discussions. Also, due to time zone differences, the sittings were compressed between 12 and 4pm CET to allow all regions to participate. It was incredibly demanding, and I cannot hide, a very stressful time for our team. However, we mobilized and were happy that we succeeded in making it happen, despite the exceptional circumstances.

How far in advance is the ILC prepared?

The Conference agenda is determined two years prior to the Conference to allow the Office to produce the thematic reports and make them available to the constituents well in advance. 

This allows proper preparation for the discussions. The agenda for this year’s Conference was set in 2021. As far as logistics are concerned, we started sending out invitations in January. After the meeting of the ILO’s Governing Body, we sent out the guide to the delegations with more details on the practical arrangements concerning the discussions, including the Conference technical committees, which this year focus on three topics: quality apprenticeship, just transition and inclusive labor protection.

How is the daily life of the ILC? I understand your team meets at the end of the day to further fine-tune details for the sittings the day after.

During the ILC, more than 700 staff are directly involved, from the Director-General to the drivers and cleaning staff. The daily life of the ILC is highly structured, with everything running like a Swiss watch. There is no room for improvisation. The Director-General keeps the pulse of the ILC. He meets with his team every other day, at around 8am, to see how the discussions in the Conference plenary and the various committees are progressing. On the logistical side, my team, and others that service the Conference, meet every day to make sure that everything goes according to plan and to make the necessary adjustments – from the registration desk, through to translations and interpretations, to transport and catering. We publish a Daily Bulletin, making sure that the more detailed information, in English, French and Spanish, that is prepared during the night by a trilingual team, reaches the delegates in the morning of the next day. Everything must stick to the plan. 

* Isabel Piquer is Senior Communication and Public Information Officer at the ILO.
Read more articles about FOCUS ON