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Small Flag of the United Nations ZP.svg International Labour Organization
Organisation internationale du Travail
Organización Internacional del Trabajo
ILO logo.svg
Org type UN agency
Acronyms ILO
Head Chile Juan Somavía
Status active
Established 1919
Headquarters Switzerland Geneva

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that deals with labour issues. Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland. Its secretariat — the people who are employed by it throughout the world — is known as the International Labour Office. The organization received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969.[1]



E. H. Greenwood, US Delegate and Harold B. Butler, Secretary-General, with secretarial staff of the first International Labour Conference in Washington, D.C., October-November 1919, in front of the Pan American Building.

The ILO was established as an agency of the League of Nations following the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.



In 1919 a pioneering generation of scholars, social policy experts, and politicians designed an unprecedented international organizational framework for labour politics. The founding fathers of the ILO had made great strides in social thought and action before 1919. The core members all knew one another from earlier private professional and ideological networks, in which they exchanged knowledge, experiences, and ideas on social policy. Prewar 'epistemic communities,' such as the International Association for Labour Legislation (IALL), founded in 1900, and political networks, such as the Socialist Second International, were a decisive factor in the institutionalization of international labor politics. In the post-World War I euphoria, the idea of a 'makeable society' was an important catalyst behind the social engineering of the ILO architects. As a new discipline, international labor law became a useful instrument for putting social reforms into practice. The utopian ideals of the founding fathers - social justice and the right to decent work - were changed by diplomatic and political compromises made at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, showing the ILO's balance between idealism and pragmatism.[2]

Trade unions

Over the course of World War I, the international labor movement proposed a comprehensive program of protection for the working classes, conceived as compensation for labor's support of the war. This program was supposed to become an international agreement after the war. In 1919, politicians took it up in order to give social stability to the postwar order. However, the way in which the program was instituted disappointed the high expectations of trade unions. Politicians offered labor an institution that could be used, at best, to attempt to achieve trade-union demands. Despite open disappointment and sharp critique, however, the revived International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), founded in 1913, quickly adapted itself to this mechanism. The IFTU increasingly oriented its international activities around the lobby work of the ILO.[3]

Post-war reconstruction and the protection of labour unions occupied the attention of many nations during and immediately after World War I. In Great Britain, the Whitley Commission, a subcommittee of the Reconstruction Commission, recommended in its July 1918 Final Report that "industrial councils" be established throughout the world.[4] The British Labour Party had issued its own reconstruction programme in the document titled Labour and the New Social Order.[5] In February 1918, the third Inter-Allied Labour and Socialist Conference (representing delegates from Great Britain, France, Belgium and Italy) issued its report, advocating an international labour rights body, an end to secret diplomacy, and other goals.[6] And in December 1918, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) issued its own distinctively apolitical report, which called for the achievement of numerous incremental improvements via the collective bargaining process.[7]

As the war drew to a close, two competing visions for the post-war world emerged. The first was offered by the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which called for a meeting in Berne in July 1919. The Berne meeting would consider both the future of the IFTU and the various proposals which had been made in the previous few years. The IFTU also proposed including delegates from the Central Powers as equals. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, boycotted the meeting, wanting the Central Powers delegates in a subservient role as an admission of guilt for their countries' role in the bringing about war. Instead, Gompers favored a meeting in Paris which would only consider President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points as a platform. Despite the American boycott, the Berne meeting went ahead as scheduled. In its final report, the Berne Conference demanded an end to wage labour and the establishment of socialism. If these ends could not be immediately achieved, then an international body attached to the League of Nations should enact and enforce legislation to protect workers and trade unions.[7]

Meanwhile, the Paris Peace Conference sought to dampen public support for communism. Subsequently, the Allied Powers agreed that clauses should be inserted into the emerging peace treaty protecting labour unions and workers' rights, and that an international labour body be established to help guide international labour relations in the future. The advisory Commission on International Labour Legislation was established by the Peace Conference to draft these proposals. The Commission met for the first time on 1 February 1919, and Gompers was elected chairman.[7]

Two competing proposals for an international body emerged during the Commission's meetings. The British proposed establishing an international parliament to enact labour laws which each member of the League would be required to implement. Each nation would have two delegates to the parliament, one each from labour and management. An international labour office would collect statistics on labour issues and enforce the new international laws. Philosophically opposed to the concept of an international parliament and convinced that international standards would lower the few protections achieved in the United States, Gompers proposed that the international labour body be authorized only to make recommendations, and that enforcement be left up to the League of Nations. Despite vigorous opposition from the British, the American proposal was adopted.[7]

Gompers also set the agenda for the draft charter protecting workers' rights. The Americans made 10 proposals. Three were adopted without change: That labour should not be treated as a commodity; that all workers had the right to a wage sufficient to live on; and that women should receive equal pay for equal work. A proposal protecting the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association was amended to include only freedom of association. A proposed ban on the international shipment of goods made by children under the age of 16 was amended to ban goods made by children under the age of 14. A proposal to require an eight-hour work day was amended to require the eight-hour work day or the 40-hour work week (an exception was made for countries where productivity was low). Four other American proposals were rejected. Meanwhile, international delegates proposed three additional clauses, which were adopted: One or more days for weekly rest; equality of laws for foreign workers; and regular and frequent inspection of factory conditions.[7]

The Commission issued its final report on 4 March 1919, and the Peace Conference adopted it without amendment on 11 April. The report became Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles.[7]

The first annual conference (referred to as the International Labour Conference, or ILC) began on 29 October 1919 in Washington DC and adopted the first six International Labour Conventions, which dealt with hours of work in industry, unemployment, maternity protection, night work for women, minimum age and night work for young persons in industry.[8] The prominent French socialist Albert Thomas became its first Director General. The ILO became a member of the United Nations system after the demise of the League in 1946. Its constitution, as amended, includes the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944) on the aims and purposes of the organisation. As of April 2009, the current director-general is Juan Somavia (since 1999).


Unlike other United Nations specialised agencies, the International Labour Organization has a tripartite governing structure — representing governments, employers and workers.[9]

Governing body

Today the Governing Body is the executive of the International Labour Office. It meets three times a year, in March, June and November. It takes decisions on ILO policy, decides the agenda of the International Labour Conference, adopts the draft programme and budget of the organisation for submission to the conference, and elects the director-general.

The Governing Body is composed of 28 government representatives, 14 workers' group representatives, and 14 employers' group representatives. Ten of the government seats are held permanently by Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The remaining government representatives are elected by government delegates every three years.[10]

International Labour Conference

The ILO organises the International Labour Conference in Geneva every year in June, where conventions and recommendations are crafted and adopted. The conference also makes decisions on the ILO's general policy, work programme and budget.

Each member state is represented at the conference by four people: two government delegates, an employer delegate and a worker delegate. All of them have individual voting rights, and all votes are equal, regardless of the population of the delegate's member state. The employer and worker delegates are normally chosen in agreement with the "most representative" national organizations of employers and workers. Usually, the workers' delegates coordinate their voting, as do the employers' delegates.[citation needed]

International Labour Code

One of the principal functions of the ILO is setting international labour standards through the adoption of conventions and recommendations covering a broad spectrum of labour-related subjects and which, together, are sometimes referred to as the International Labour Code. The topics covered include a wide range of issues, from freedom of association to health and safety at work, working conditions in the maritime sector, night work, discrimination, child labour, and forced labour. The term "code" is somewhat a misnomer insofar as adoption of new standards and revision of old ones has not resulted in an entirely integrated and homogeneous body of law. This is not the case. Nevertheless, the broad scope of the subjects covered by the ILO's standards suggests that the term "code" would be appropriate to use.



Adoption of a convention by the International Labour Conference allows governments to ratify it, and the convention then becomes a treaty in international law when a specified number of governments have done so. But all adopted ILO conventions are considered international labour standards regardless of how many governments have ratified them.


The coming into force of a convention results in a legal obligation to apply its provisions by the nations that have ratified it. Ratification of a convention is voluntary. Conventions that have not been ratified by member states have the same legal force as do recommendations. Governments are required to submit reports detailing their compliance with the obligations of the conventions they have ratified. Every year the International Labour Conference's Committee on the Application of Standards examines a number of alleged breaches of international labour standards. In recent years, one of the member states that has received the most attention is Myanmar / Burma, as the country has repeatedly been criticised for its failure to protect its citizens against forced labour exacted by the army.[citation needed]

1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

In 1998 the 86th International Labour Conference adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This declaration identified four "principles" as "core" or "fundamental", asserting that all ILO member States on the basis of existing obligations as members in the Organization have an obligation to work towards fully respecting the principles embodied in the relevant (ratifiable) ILO Conventions. The fundamental rights concern freedom of association and collective bargaining, discrimination, forced labour, and child labour. The ILO Conventions which embody the fundamental principles have now been ratified by the overwhelming majority of ILO member states, not least because of the declaration's denomination of the principles they contain as "fundamental".[11]

Criticism of the establishment of core or fundamental labour standards

Despite the rapid ratification by many countries of the eight conventions whose principles have been identified as fundamental, a number of academics and activists have criticised the ILO for creating a "false division" between different international labour standards, many of which cover specific and concrete human rights topics but were excluded from the 1998 declaration, such as those on health and safety and working hours. To add further confusion, the new core conventions are often exclusively referred to as being human rights, whereas before all international labour standards were viewed as human rights. Philip Alston, John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University, has written on this "narrowing" of international labour standards in the name of human rights advocacy.[citation needed]

This criticism must however be seen in the light of the historical background of the declaration and the ten year period leading up to its adoption. For many years, the Governing Body of the ILO had categorized the body of international labour standard conventions and recommendations. This categorization was largely—and continues largely to be—of a technical nature, rather than a prioritization, i.e. some standards are more important than others. With the fall of the communism in the late 1980s perception of a need to prioritize standards grew, the view in some groups being that globalization would truly put pressure on real labour standards and the Organization truly needed now to take its mandate to improve them to heart. The view was held also in the light of the patchy ratification of some standards' areas; although there were significant numbers of ratifications, there were also many ILO conventions which did not attract large numbers of ratifications, and these included instruments that many would see to be of very great importance. The drive to come to a consensus on what the high priority standards would be, how they would be enunciated as such, and what mechanisms would be used to either enforce or promote them was a difficult one within the ILO, with workers', employers' and government groups taking different positions.

These views were debated in the work of the ILO's Governing Body on the Social Dimensions of International Trade (latter called the Working Party on the Social Dimensions of Globalization) during the period. There were also significant splits along developing and industrialized country lines. The significant first important consensus was reflected in the UN's World Social Summit held in Copenhagen in March, 1995. Commitment 3(i) of the closing Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, Part C: Commitments, identified the 4 subject areas that were to be repeated in 1998 inside the ILO's Declaration. It is in this context that the criticism of the ILO Declaration has to be assessed. In the event, there is now almost universal ratification of the relevant 8 ILO Conventions, thereby bringing regular international supervision to bear on their implementation. Importantly, a number of important countries—in terms of economic strength and sizable working populations—continue to be non-ratifiers of important conventions. An important question applies to them in terms of the obligations under the declaration. Probably this is the most common on the world, and their effects are henormous.


Recommendations do not have the binding force of conventions and are not subject to ratification by member countries. Recommendations may be adopted at the same time as conventions to supplement the latter with additional or more detailed provisions. In other cases recommendations may be adopted separately and may address issues not covered by, or unrelated to any particular convention.[citation needed]

Child labour

The term "child labour" is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.

It refers to work that:

  • is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and
  • interferes with their schooling by:
  • depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
  • obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
  • requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

In its most extreme forms, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age. Whether or not particular forms of "work" can be called "child labour" depends on the child's age, the type and hours of work performed, the conditions under which it is performed and the objectives pursued by individual countries. The answer varies from country to country, as well as among sectors within countries.

Not all work done by children should be classified as child labour that is to be targeted for elimination. Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling, is generally regarded as being something positive. This includes activities such as helping their parents around the home, assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays. These kinds of activities contribute to children’s development and to the welfare of their families; they provide them with skills and experience, and help to prepare them to be productive members of society during their adult life.

ILO’s response to child labour

The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) was created in 1992 with the overall goal of the progressive elimination of child labour, which was to be achieved through strengthening the capacity of countries to deal with the problem and promoting a worldwide movement to combat child labour. IPEC currently has operations in 88 countries, with an annual expenditure on technical cooperation projects that reached over US$74 million in 2006. It is the largest programme of its kind globally and the biggest single operational programme of the ILO.

The number and range of IPEC’s partners have expanded over the years and now include employers’ and workers’ organizations, other international and government agencies, private businesses, community-based organizations, NGOs, the media, parliamentarians, the judiciary, universities, religious groups and, of course, children and their families.

IPEC's work to eliminate child labour is an important facet of the ILO's Decent Work Agenda.[12] Child labour not only prevents children from acquiring the skills and education they need for a better future, it also perpetuates poverty and affects national economies through losses in competitiveness, productivity and potential income. Withdrawing children from child labour, providing them with education and assisting their families with training and employment opportunities contribute directly to creating decent work for adults.

Forced labour

The ILO has always considered the fight against forced labor to be one of its main priorities. During the interwar years, the issue was mainly considered a colonial phenomenon, and the ILO's concern was to establish minimum standards protecting the inhabitants of colonies from the worst abuses committed by economic interests. After 1945, the goal became to set a uniform and universal standard, determined by the higher awareness gained during World War II of politically and economically motivated systems of forced labor, but debates were hampered by the Cold War and by exemptions claimed by colonial powers. Since the 1960s, declarations of labour standards as a component of human rights have been weakened by government of postcolonial countries claiming a need to exercise extraordinary powers over labor in their role as emergency regimes promoting rapid economic development.[13]

In June 1998 the International Labour Conference adopted a Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up that obligates member States to respect, promote and realize freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour, the effective abolition of child labour, and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

With the adoption of the Declaration, the ILO created the InFocus Programme on Promoting the Declaration which is responsible for the reporting processes and technical cooperation activities associated with the Declaration; and it carries out awareness raising, advocacy and knowledge functions.

In November 2001, following the publication of the InFocus Programme's first Global Report on forced labour, the ILO Governing Body created a Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL), as part of broader efforts to promote the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up.

Since its inception, SAP-FL has focused on raising global awareness of forced labour in its different forms, and mobilising action against its manifestation. Several thematic and country-specific studies and surveys have since been undertaken, on such diverse aspects of forced labour as bonded labour, human trafficking, forced domestic work, rural servitude, and forced prison labour.


Under the name ILOAIDS, the ILO created the Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work as a document providing principles for "policy development and practical guidelines for programmes at enterprise, community, and national levels." Including:[14]

  • prevention of HIV
  • management and mitigation of the impact of AIDS on the world of work
  • care and support of workers infected and affected by HIV/AIDS
  • elimination of stigma and discrimination on the basis of real or perceived HIV status.

Indigenous peoples

ILO-Convention 169 concerns indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries. It was adopted on 27 June 1989 by the General Conference of the ILO at its 76th session. Its entry into force was 5 September 1991.[15] [16]


Membership is limited to nation-states, including all who were members on 1 November 1945, when the organisation's new constitution came into effect. In addition, any original member of the United Nations and any state admitted thereafter may also join. Other states can be admitted by a super-majority vote of any ILO General Conference. ILO Constitution

There are 182 members of the ILO.

See also

Further reading

  • Alcock, A. History of the International Labour Organization (London, 1971)
  • Chisholm, A. Labour's Magna Charta: A Critical Study of the Labour Clauses of the Peace Treaty and of the Draft Conventions and Recommendations of the Washington International Labour Conference (London, 1925)
  • Dufty, N.F. "Organizational Growth and Goal Structure: The Case of the ILO," International Organization 1972 Vol. 26, pp 479-498 in JSTOR
  • Endres, A.; Fleming, G. International Organizations and the Analysis of Economic Policy, 1919-1950 (Cambridge, 2002)
  • Evans, A.A. My Life as an International Civil Servant in the International Labour Organization (Geneva, 1995)
  • Ewing, K. Britain and the ILO (London, 1994)
  • Fried, John H. E. "Relations Between the United Nations and the International Labor Organization," American Political Science Review, Vol. 41, No. 5 (Oct., 1947), pp. 963-977 in JSTOR
  • Galenson, Walter. The International Labor Organization: An American View (Madison, 1981)
  • Heldal, H. "Norway in the International Labour Organization, 1919-1939" Scandinavian Journal of History 1996 Vol. 21, pp 255-283,
  • Imber, M.F. The USA, ILO, UNESCO and IAEA: politicization and withdrawal in the Specialized Agencies (1989)
  • Johnston, G.A. The International Labour Organization: Its Work for Social and Economic Progress (London, 1970)
  • Mainwaring, J. International Labour Organization: A Canadian View (Ottawa, 1986)
  • Morse, D. The Origin and Evolution of the ILO and its Role in the World Community (Ithaca, 1969)
  • Ostrower, Gary B. "The American decision to join the international labor organization, Labor History, Volume 16, Issue 4 Autumn 1975, pp 495-504 The U.S. joined in 1934
  • Schlossberg, S. "United States' Participation in the International Labour Organization: Redefining the Role," Comparative Labor Law Journal 1989, Vol. 11, pp 48-80
  • VanDaele, Jasmien. "Engineering Social Peace: Networks, Ideas, And the Founding of the International Labour Organization," International Review of Social History 2005 50(3): 435-466
  • VanDaele, Jasmien. "The International Labour Organization (ILO) In Past and Present Research," International Review of Social History 2008 53(3): 485-511, historiography


  1. ^ "The Nobel Peace Prize 1969". Retrieved 2006-07-05. 
  2. ^ VanDaele, (2005)
  3. ^ Reiner Tosstorff, "The International Trade-Union Movement and the Founding of the International Labour Organization," International Review of Social History 2005 50(3): 399-433
  4. ^ Haimson, Leopold H. and Sapelli, Giulio. Strikes, Social Conflict, and the First World War: An International Perspective. Milan: Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, 1992. ISBN 8807990474
  5. ^ Shapiro, Stanley. "The Passage of Power: Labor and the New Social Order." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 120:6 (29 December 1976).
  6. ^ Ayusawa, Iwao Frederick. International Labor Legislation. Clark, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2005. ISBN 1584774614
  7. ^ a b c d e f Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 7: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918. New York: International Publishers, 1987. ISBN 0717806383
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ See Article 7 of the ILO's constitution at
  11. ^ See the list of ratifications at
  12. ^
  13. ^ Daniel Roger Maul, "The International Labour Organization and the Struggle against Forced Labour from 1919 to the Present," Labor History 2007 48(4): 477-500
  14. ^ "The ILO Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work". ILOAIDS. Retrieved 2006-07-05. 
  15. ^
  16. ^

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