International Labour Organization

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Universal peace "can be established only if it is based upon social justice." This was the principle, found in the preamble of Part XIII of the Versailles Peace Treaty, signed on 28 June 1919, upon which was established the International Labour Organization (ILO). The ILO, at first an independent body associated with the League of Nations, has been since the end of World War II a specialized agency within the United Nations.

Recognition of the necessity of international rules to govern labor practices gestated slowly over the course of the nineteenth century, mainly within the social reform and socialist movements. Social reformers in the early nineteenth century favored some form of regulation, but the first international labor congress took place in Berlin only in 1890 at the invitation of Kaiser William II (r. 1888–1918). The aim was to preserve social peace by improving conditions for workers without changing the rules of the international competition. The International Association for the Legal Protection of Workers, founded in 1901, pursued and institutionalized these goals; from its works arose the International Labour Office in Basel in 1901. This agency published the first compilations of pertinent social laws, a mission that the ILO pursues today.

Two conferences in Bern in 1905 and 1906 adopted the first two international labor conventions. These conventions, ratified by national parliaments, prohibited employers from hiring women for night work in industrial settings and forbade the use of white phosphorus in the manufacture of matches. In addition to this direct antecedent of the ILO, a permanent committee in charge of accidents at work and social insurances was founded in 1898, and an international association to fight unemployment was established in 1910. These groups attracted the first civil servants engaged in international social policy, including Arthur Fontaine (1860–1931), the first president of ILO's Governing Body; a Belgian lawyer, Louis Varlez (1868–1930), who served as a policy-making advisor at the Bureau International du Travail (BIT) from 1919 to 1928; and the English civil servant Malcolm Delevingne (1868–1950), a member of the committee that wrote the ILO statutes. These associations pursued three objectives: peace, social justice, and respect for fair competition. These represent the ILO's basic mission to the present day. Since the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944 social activism has been viewed not only as a remedy to injustice or a means of keeping peace but as a fundamental human right.

The birth of the ILO was also a response to the increasingly reformist aspirations of workers' movements represented by the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which was formed in 1901. War World I reinforced these ambitions by bringing together representatives of workers' movement in the major belligerent nations in spite of the conflict. At international conferences they also demanded social rights be incorporated in future peace treaties. The sudden division of the workers' movement caused by the Russian Revolution in 1917 seemed to reinforce the urgent nature of these demands.


Only the victorious countries in World War I were invited to participate when the Commission on International Labor Legislation met in January 1919. Neither Germany, which in the 1880s had developed a distinctly progressive social policy, nor Switzerland, which had long made efforts in favor of international legislation, were invited. Representatives of the victorious countries, particularly the French and English, were in charge of the establishment of the new organization. Edward Phelan (1888–1967), a civil servant at the English ministry of labor, provided key inspiration for the ILO constitution. Albert Thomas (1878–1932), a French politician and socialist, was named first secretary of the ILO. From the beginning, the positions and roles assigned member countries would be a dominant problem. Tripartism, still in force in the early twenty-first century, favors national governments; each state sends to the ILO two representatives together with a representative of an employers' organization and a representative of a workers' organization. The Governing Body makes proposals that are submitted to these representatives for a vote during the annual ILO conferences. A proposal that obtains a two-thirds or better majority becomes a convention to be submitted for ratification by national parliaments. In the 1920s numerous international conventions were adopted concerning women and children, working conditions, length of workday, health and accident protection, and compensation. Ratification was often difficult. The refusal by France and Britain to ratify the first convention regarding the eight-hour day, which was a major issue for the new organization, questioned the ILO's very raison d'être.

However, the ILO functioned in a way that distinguished it from the usual intergovernmental bodies and created a new model of operation. In addition to requiring a two-thirds majority for ratification, the administrative tools to ensure that the conventions were respected were set up as early as 1919 and attended to from 1926 by a committee of experts. This approach, innovative at the time, continues to operate in the early 2000s and has been a factor in preserving the ILO's autonomy. Albert Thomas, the first president of the International Labour bureau, helped establish the stand-alone character of the ILO, traveling widely to open branches in many countries, appointing numerous permanent functionaries, and tirelessly promoting ratifications. Thomas nurtured a genuine European culture within the ILO, and his colleagues and successors extended his influence, among them the English president of the organization, Harold Butler (1932–1938), and the Irish president, Edward Phelan (1941–1948). Finally and above all, from the beginning the two autonomous groups in the organization, employers and organized workers in unions from around the world, effectively and efficiently counterbalanced national interests.

This bipartisanship, however, also raised considerable difficulties of its own that have persisted to the present. The 1919 text specified that delegates and their advisors must be chosen with the consent of the most representative professional organizations. This arrangement was anchored in a liberal vision by which society hoped to encourage the organization of economic and social interests in order to favor dialogue. But the limits of this approach soon became clear. In countries with a pluralistic political system, when union organizations are divided, the choice of the "representative organization" in fact was decided upon according to the power dynamics within the directive bodies of the ILO. Favored were the best-represented factions in the international organizations, not necessarily the most representative of the country in question. In the case of dictatorships, the very notion of representation is problematic. In 1923 the Italian Fascist government sent a workers' delegate chosen by the national confederation of corporations, which led to protests by the workers' representatives; a similar situation occurred in 1937 with a delegate from Spain. Still more difficulties arose after the Soviet Union was readmitted to the ILO in 1954. Alongside the thorny question of the freedom of workers to choose a union, an issue raised with dictatorships, the employers' group objected to the representative character of the designated employer delegate when chosen directly by the government. The admission into the ILO of countries with planned economies put into question the liberal rules upon which the organization was based. An investigation in 1955 advised revision of the initial conventions, even a new definition of union freedom to save the principle of universality.


From the beginning, universality has been an important element undergirding the legitimacy of the ILO. In 1919 the organization included forty-five members, among them Germany and Austria, even though both were excluded from the League of Nations. Although twenty-seven member countries were non-European, western Europe played a dominant role in terms of the ILO's management, personnel, and overall conception as to role and operations. The organization's objective, influenced by nineteenth-century social reformers, was to prevent the exploitation and abuse of workers and to fight both material poverty and moral corruption. European domination was explained by the special status accorded "members whose industrial importance is more considerable" on the ILO's governing body and also by the fact that colonialism had not yet been put into question.

European supremacy diminished in the years after World War II, with more members—178 in 2005—including the former colonies that were agitating for and achieving independence. In the 1960s developing countries founded the Group of 77 and, with the support of socialist governments, began objecting to the way in which the ILO favored industrialized nations. Revision of the statutes in 1986 allowed a more equitable representation on the governing body of the ILO. In 1998 a Chilean, Juan Somavia (b. 1941), became the first director of the ILO from the southern hemisphere.

Overall, recent developments have led the organization to reconsider the rules that provided its foundation when it was formed in 1919, with a series of declarations and actions that, in addition to traditional efforts in the direction of social melioration, take a clear position in favor of development for all countries. This major orientation on behalf of norms has been modified. Apart from traditional efforts to improve work conditions, the conventions and directives aim to secure human rights in work: freedom to join a union, equal pay for men and women, and elimination of forced labor—the latter a central objective of the organization beginning in the mid-1960s. Due to increasing diversity among member nations, normative action tends toward regionalization, occasionally expressed through arguments that manifest hostility toward the economic and intellectual domination of Western countries. Consequently, the ILO has developed other modes of action aiming to reach not only specific groups but also entire countries. Technical aid and assistance missions have increased in number. Already employed between the two world wars to meet the legal needs of European governments, such missions became part policies intended to provide aid to developing countries. At the start of the twenty-first century, the ILO, as an international agency of expertise about social affairs, is thus particularly well placed to chart and to help determine the effects of economic globalization. The ILO responds to the threat of war by appealing to economic development and to the threat of economic conflict by developing consultation and cooperation together with norms that favor a socially equitable globalization and "decent work."

See alsoLabor Movements; League of Nations; Nobel Prize; United Nations; Versailles, Treaty of.


Primary Sources

International Labour Organisation. Dix ans d'organisation internationale du travail. Geneva, 1931.

Morse, David A. "ILO and the Social Infrastructure of Peace." Nobel lecture, Oslo, December 1969. Stockholm, 1970.

Organisation internationale du travail. 1919–1969, 50 années au service du progrés social. Geneva, 1969.

Secondary Sources

Alcock, Anthony Evelyn. History of the International Labour Organisation. London and Basingstoke, U.K., 1971.

Bonvin, Jean-Michel. L'Organisation internationale du Travail: Étude sur une agence productrice de normes. Paris, 1998.

Follows, John W. Antecedents of the International Labour Organization. Oxford, U.K., 1951.

Ghebali, Victor Yves. L'Organisation internationale du travail (OIT). Geneva, 1987.

Guérin, Denis. Albert Thomas au BIT 1920–1932: De l'Internationalisme a l'Europe. Geneva, 1996.

Sandrine Kott

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International Labour Organization

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International Labour Organization