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ILO sets New Guidelines for Wage Policies and Living Wages

Mar 25, 2024

The final conclusions of the agreement reached by workers, employers and governments include a clear definition of a living wage and detailed methodologies to calculate it. The following account was written by Jon Richards, UNISON's Assistant General Secretary.

A week of long days and nights in a dark room on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland, is not most people’s idea of fun, but for those committed to improving the pay of workers it was recently a necessity. 

At the end of February 2024, the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO)  – the tripartite body that sets international labour standards - held a meeting of experts to produce guidance on wage policies, including living wages.  

I attended to represent Public Services International as an adviser to the main group of eight workers representing trade union organisations. There were also eight representatives from international employers’ associations and governments, plus their advisers. Each group appointed a lead speaker who became a Vice-Chair to the meeting. 

This was my second time at the ILO, having previously represented PSI on an expert group on violence in public services over 20 years ago. To my surprise the format and the venue had not changed much in that time.  

From the outset, the employers’ group was resistant to setting a definition of a Living Wage – referring to it throughout as a ‘concept’. 

The meeting was scheduled to take five days (Monday 19th February -  Friday 23rd February) and had been set four detailed points to examine by the ILO’s Governing Body. These points can be summarised as: examine the key principles of wage-setting processes; review recent initiatives on living wages; provide guidance on a definition of living wages; and examine how the ILO could provide additional support. A detailed background paper to the meeting and supporting materials were provided. 

Following a helpful pre-meeting discussion with PSI’s TU Rights and Administration officer, Camilo Rubiano, I joined an online meeting with the workers' expert group (which was pulled together by the ITUC) to discuss initial thoughts on the opening speeches and plans for the meeting. A week later, I left a grey and wet London and headed for a grey and wet Geneva. 

The first two days of the meeting were taken up with speeches and exchanges on the principles of wage setting and living wages, addressing the four questions from the different perspectives of governments, workers and employers. During these early exchanges, the ILO Secretariat noted down key ideas and principles, working late into Tuesday night to produce a draft document that would form the basis of a final set of agreed conclusions.   

Whilst some international meetings have a relaxed schedule, this experts group did not. Once the meeting started, there was little socialising as the working days got longer and longer. Sessions on Wednesday and Thursday went on for 13 hours until 10 o clock at night, with the final day’s negotiations lasting 18 hours, finishing at 3am early Saturday morning (I had returned home by the last day but joined online until I had to leave my office on the Friday evening). Huge respect to my dedicated colleagues who stayed on for the late final hours. 

From the outset, the employers’ group was resistant to setting a definition of a Living Wage – referring to it throughout as a ‘concept’. They also sought to minimise important areas which we had put forward around collective bargaining, freedom of association and the inclusion of global supply chains, while they pushed for reactionary wording on productivity and economic factors. 

The last three days were spent working through the ILO’s draft conclusion paper line by line, seeking areas of agreement and difference. The early part saw little compromise. The first session on the ILO paper saw clashes as the workers tried to strengthen the document and defend keywording, while the employers tried to take out details, weaken meanings and insert business concepts. Helpfully, the government group led by their vice-chair from the Netherlands, with strong support from the US government representative, were surprisingly progressive, supporting some of our workers group’s key points. 

At times it seemed that no agreement would be reached, but all sides were committed to finding a way through, and compromises were eventually made by all sides. So even the hardest areas of disagreement were eventually overcome, for instance, the final conclusions include a clear definition of a living wage and detailed methodologies to calculate it, but some wording on the living wage as a concept and economic factors also appear.  

The final agreed conclusions became the basis for a report to the ILO’s Governing Body (GB), which approved the conclusions at their meeting in early March 2024. The GB agreed that the ILO Director General should disseminate the conclusions, give sufficient resources to take account of the guidance and update the GB at a future meeting. 

Ultimately, because of a strong workers’ negotiating group, we now have ILO guidance about wage setting process and living wages which are underpinned by collective bargaining and freedom of association, which can only be helpful to unions in countries where these ideas have not been accepted by governments and employers.   

The report to the ILO GB, which includes the conclusions of the experts' group meeting, can be found here 

ILO Background papers can be found here: Meeting of experts on wage policies, including living wages ( 


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