The ILO was created in 1919, as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, to reflect the belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice.
The Constitution was drafted between January and April, 1919, by the Labour Commission set up by the Peace Conference, which first met in Paris and then in Versailles. The Commission, chaired by Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) in the United States, was composed of representatives from nine countries: Belgium, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States. It resulted in a tripartite organization, the only one of its kind bringing together representatives of governments, employers and workers in its executive bodies.
The Constitution contained ideas tested within the International Association for Labour Legislation, founded in Basel in 1901. Advocacy for an international organization dealing with labour issues began in the nineteenth century, led by two industrialists, Robert Owen (1771-1853) of Wales and Daniel Legrand (1783-1859) of France.
The driving forces for ILO’s creation arose from security, humanitarian, political and economic considerations. Summarizing them, the ILO Constitution’s Preamble says the High Contracting Parties were ‘moved by sentiments of justice and humanity as well as by the desire to secure the permanent peace of the world…’
There was keen appreciation of the importance of social justice in securing peace, against a background of exploitation of workers in the industrializing nations of that time. There was also increasing understanding of the world’s economic interdependence and the need for cooperation to obtain similarity of working conditions in countries competing for markets. Reflecting these ideas, the Preamble states:
- Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice;
- And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required;
- Whereas also the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.
The areas of improvement listed in the Preamble remain relevant today, for example:
- Regulation of the hours of work including the establishment of a maximum working day and week;
- Regulation of labour supply, prevention of unemployment and provision of an adequate living wage;
- Protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment;
- Protection of children, young persons and women;
- Provision for old age and injury, protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own;
- Recognition of the principle of equal remuneration for work of equal value;
- Recognition of the principle of freedom of association;
- Organization of vocational and technical education, and other measures.
Working for social justice is our assessment of the past and our mandate for the future.”
Juan Somavia, Director-General
The ILO has made signal contributions to the world of work from its early days. The first International Labour Conference held in Washington in October 1919 adopted 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.
The ILO was located in Geneva in the summer of 1920 with France’s Albert Thomas as the first Director of the International Labour Office, which is the Organization’s permanent Secretariat. Under his strong impetus, 16 International Labour Conventions and 18 Recommendations were adopted in less than two years.
This early zeal was quickly toned down because some governments felt there were too many Conventions, the budget too high and the reports too critical. Yet, the International Court of Justice, under pressure from the Government of France, declared that the ILO’s domain extended also to international regulation of conditions of work in the agricultural sector.
A Committee of Experts was set up in 1926 as a supervisory system on the application of ILO standards. The Committee, which exists today, is composed of independent jurists responsible for examining government reports and presenting its own report each year to the Conference.
Depression and War
The Great Depression with its resulting massive unemployment soon confronted Britain’s Harold Butler, who succeeded Albert Thomas in 1932. Realizing that handling labour issues also requires international cooperation, the United States became a Member of the ILO in 1934 although it continued to stay out of the League of Nations.
American John Winant took over in 1939 just as the Second World War became imminent. He moved the ILO’s headquarters temporarily to Montreal, Canada, in May 1940 for reasons of safety but left in 1941 when he was named US Ambassador to Britain.
His successor, Ireland’s Edward Phelan, had helped to write the 1919 Constitution and played an important role once again during the Philadelphia meeting of the International Labour Conference, in the midst of the Second World War, attended by representatives of governments, employers and workers from 41 countries. The delegates adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia, annexed to the Constitution, still constitutes the Charter of the aims and objectives of the ILO. In 1946, the ILO became a specialized agency of the newly formed United Nations. And, in 1948, still during the period of Phelan’s leadership, the International Labour Conference adopted Convention No. 87 on freedom of association and the right to organize.
The Post-War Years
America’s David Morse was Director General from 1948-1970 when the number of Member States doubled, the Organization took on its universal character, industrialized countries became a minority among developing countries, the budget grew five-fold and the number of officials quadrupled. The ILO established the Geneva-based International Institute for Labour Studies in 1960 and the International Training Centre in Turin in 1965. The Organization won the Nobel Peace Prize on its 50th anniversary in 1969.
Under Britain’s Wilfred Jenks, Director-General from 1970-73, the ILO made advanced further in the development of standards and mechanisms for supervising their application, particularly the promotion of freedom of association and the right to organize.
His successor Francis Blanchard of France, expanded ILO’s technical cooperation with developing countries and averted damage to the Organization, despite the loss of one quarter of its budget following US withdrawal from 1977-1980. The ILO also played a major role in the emancipation of Poland from dictatorship, by giving its full support to the legitimacy of the Solidarnosc Union based on respect for Convention No. 87 on freedom of association, which Poland had ratified in 1957.
Belgium’s Michel Hansenne succeeded him in 1989 and guided the ILO into the post-Cold War period, emphasizing the importance of placing social justice at the heart of international economic and social policies. He also set the ILO on a course of decentralization of activities and resources away from the Geneva headquarters.
On 4 March 1999, Juan Somavia of Chile took over as Director General. He emphasizes the importance of making decent work a strategic international goal and promoting a fair globalization. He also underlines work as an instrument of poverty alleviation and ILO’s role in helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, including cutting world poverty in half by 2015.
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