100 Years of the International Labour Organization
In 2019 the International Labour Organization (ILO) turns 100 years. It is one of the oldest international organizations still active in today’s world. Born in the wake of the First World War as part XIII of the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919, it was built on the belief that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice.” The Centenary provides an opportunity to take stock and draw a balance: Has the ILO lived up to this mandate and is it still relevant today?
The gate with its three keys at the old headquarters symbolizes the ILO’s tripartite structure and functioning. Photo: ILO historical archives.
When the ILO was founded in Versailles in 1919, there was no precedent to build on. Technically affiliated to the League of Nations, the ILO succeeded in securing a relatively high degree of autonomy from the start. This was one of the reasons why the ILO, as opposed to the League, would survive the Second World War and become a “specialized agency” of the United Nations in 1946. Part of the explanation for its endurance and a reason for the special position the ILO occupies to this day among all other parts of the United Nations system, is related to its unique “tripartite” structure: According to this principle, representatives of governments, trade unions and employers’ organizations from all member states take part on an equal footing in the decision-making process within the ILO’s political bodies. When the ILO came into being the idea behind this principle was still largely untested in peacetime. As a consequence, the ILO became a laboratory for new form of peaceful cooperation between capital and labour in various parts of the world. The tripartite principle has also shaped the specific way in which problems of labour and social policy are discussed within the Organization. The Frenchman Albert Thomas, the first Director of the ILO (1920-1932) has been credited with the dictum, that in the machinery of the ILO the “workers” (i.e. trade unions) have often taken the role of the “motor” or “locomotive” of the ILO’s, while the role of the Employers (i.e. business) has been mainly of a “brake” to what they saw as the trade unions and some government’s too ambitious plans.
Tripartism played out in particular on the ILO’s traditional field of action, which lay in the area of standard setting. The idea of international labour standards had roots that went back in the 19th century, where it had been first introduced against the background of industrialization by philanthropic entrepreneurs like the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen. Towards the end of the century, when governments in Europe first introduced social legislation and started to regulate hazardous working conditions and child labour, international labour law became the concern of a transnational network of mainly liberal social reformers. Their most important representation was the International Association for Labour Legislation (IALL), founded in 1900. Its members were united by the common goal to transform society by means of legal intervention. They promoted the adoption of international labour standards in order to protect social legislation introduced on the national level from turning into a competitive disadvantage. Conventions prohibiting the use of white phosphor in the fabrication of matches and on the prohibition of night work for women in industry (both from 1906) were the results of their efforts before the First World War.
[...] ILO’s story can be read as one of constant expansion - both geographically as well as with regard to the types of workers and of work it covered or aimed to cover through its work.
Increasing support for the idea of international labour standards during the early 1900s came from the non-revolutionary part of the socialist labour movement, and when the war broke out, trade unions used their strategic position to act as the main driver behind the project of a permanent international organization, whose main function would be the creation of international labour law. Already the first International Labour Conference in Washington, D.C. in late 1919 adopted important conventions concerning unemployment insurance, minimum age regulations and – a great symbolic victory for the international labour movement – a convention that introduced the eight-hour work day. Many more would follow in the future. To date the ILO has adopted 189 international labour standards and slightly higher number of non-binding recommendations. ILO conventions cover the entire field of labour and social policy, including employment policies, occupational health and safety and social insurance. In some cases, standards have tackled problems that move beyond the scope of social and labour policy in the narrower sense of the word: A case in point are two conventions on indigenous populations (1958) and on indigenous peoples (1989), which have been pioneering documents, and made indigenous peoples and their rights a subject of international law for the first time.
After the Second World War the ILO added a strong human rights component to its standard setting work. In the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944), which later became part of the ILO’s constitution, the Organization has defined its work as a whole as being grounded on a human rights foundation. ILO conventions cover social and economic as well as political rights: specifically they have adopted standards on Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining (1948 and 1949), on Equal Remuneration (Equal Pay) for Men and Women (1951), the Abolition of Forced Labour (1957), against Discrimination in Employment and Occupation (1958) and more recently the Convention on the Abolition of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999). The human rights approach has also been reflected in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998), which singles out the abovementioned conventions as so-called Core Labour Standards (CLS) that are held to be binding in principle for all member states regardless of ratification.
The adoption of international labour standards has never been the sole occupation of the ILO. During the early years it was decisive for the survival of the Organization that the ILO was able to demonstrate its usefulness through its capacity to work as a clearing house for information on social questions on a worldwide scale. Starting in 1923 it has provided statistics on all possible aspects and practices of social and labour policy across the globe, which gave governments access to knowledge, which they would not have been able to find elsewhere. In the economic crises of the inter-war years the ILO contributed to a better understanding of the effects these crises had on the labour market and employment. Research on social insurance, on working conditions and living standards would further enhance the ILO’s reputation as a “social library”, and “locus of expertise and authority on social regulation”. In some cases, the ILO contributed through this work to regional forms of integration: this was the case for Scandinavian countries, where the ILO had its part in the construction of a “Nordic model” during the inter-war years. While for instance trade unions in the Nordic countries at this time differed widely in their approach towards industrial conflict (with the Norwegians being the most radical and left-leaning), the ILO provided a forum that helped to form a common model of “Scandinavian class compromise”, which emphasized collective bargaining and negotiated agreements between labour and business. 
A method increasingly used during the 1930s to prepare the further dissemination of ILO standards, was the dispatch of “technical assistance” missions to countries on the poorer European periphery (Greece and Romania among the first) and in the course of the 1930s also to a range of Non-European areas like China, Egypt and a couple of Latin American countries. The real take-off for this area of activity would come after the Second World War, when the ILO shifted the focus of its work to the problems of the so-called developing countries.
The History of a “wild dream”
The ILO’s history was always closely related to its broader historical context. During the first decade some basic questions stood in the forefront: An international bureaucracy had to be built up from scratch and the ILO had to assert its position within a volatile and crises-ridden international environment. In many areas the ILO entered unchartered territory. Albert Thomas would refer to his own role as that of a “traveling salesman of social policy” during the years that the ILO tried to establish itself within the world that the War had created.
One question accompanied the ILO from the very first day: Whose organization would and could it be? What kind of workers and what forms of work would it represent? Both geographically and with regard to the problems it addressed, the ILO was initially far from covering the global realities of work in all their facets. On the one hand the ILO started from a largely European focus and was oriented towards a particular kind of labourer, typically an industrial worker, male, with a regular employment contract. Seen from these beginnings the ILO’s story can be read as one of constant expansion - both geographically as well as with regard to the types of workers and of work it covered or aimed to cover through its work. Female workers were one of the groups that were there from the beginning and who moved (in a process spanning decades) from the margins to the centre of the ILO’s attention. At the same time standards tackling women’s work started from a mainly protective point of view, relegating women implicitly to the role of mothers and housewives. Only after the Second World War legal equality and equal pay gained the upper hand in the treatment of women workers.
The ILO became a sounding board for new human rights discourses.
Already during the inter-war years, the ILO included agricultural and intellectual labour as well as workers in the European colonial territories, seafarers, migrant workers, refugees or the disabled into its work. From the 1970s onwards the ILO has eventually also started to take an interest in the many millions of people working outside regular employment contracts, in the so-called informal economy. A convention addressing the often-precarious working conditions of domestic workers (2011) contains the latest addition to the list. The ILO has thus come a long way in its present approach to represent all working people, in so-called standard or non-standard employment. This has been the declared aim of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda and the Future of Work initiative, launched on the occasion of the centenary.
While the ILO by and large has become a more inclusive organization, this project seems still an ongoing one. For instance, all attempts to strengthen the position of the ILO with regard to international migration, have been repeatedly frustrated by government’s resistance. In parallel to its expansion, the ILO has developed a growing interest beyond the workplace in factors that shape working people’s lives as well as in the forces that impact the world of work more generally. It has for instance taken an early interest in economic questions: Against the background of the Great Depression the ILO greatly contributed to popularize Keynesian economics and actively helped to promote economic planning, public works schemes and the extension of social security programs to counter mass unemployment. It has also involved itself in the study of workers’ broader living conditions including issues like public health, housing or spare time. Against the background of this broader interest, the ILO also entertained close relations with the international cooperative movement. The cooperative principle was seen not only as a mode of production, but rather as a social laboratory that would ultimately bring about better living conditions for workers, a more humane and democratic organization of the economy at large, and ultimately peace both within societies and on the international level.
The sense of urgency under which the ILO acted during the 1930s was heightened by the presence of increasingly powerful political forces that challenged the social liberal model the Organization represented. Italian fascism and the rise of National Socialism to power in Germany in particular put into question the principles on which the Organization had been founded. The ILO answered this threat with a geographical re-orientation towards the Western hemisphere. The entry of the United States in 1934, which had not become a member of neither the League nor the ILO after the First World War, was an important step in this regard. The support from the United States government and not to the least the inspiration the ILO drew from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies revived the Organization. The New Deal above all represented a democratic alternative at a time when totalitarian model of social organization thrived. It conveyed the positive concept of the active and economically interventionist state, which invested in social security and public work schemes, within an open economy and under liberal democratic auspices. At the same the ILO also entered in a closer cooperation with Latin America, which started a process of which the ILO became a much more “global” organization.
The Second World War stands out as a turning point in the ILO's history. In 1940 the Organization left its Geneva headquarters in in the face of Nazi Germany’s advance in Europe and found a safe haven on the side of the Allied powers. From its exile in Montreal, Canada the ILO contributed to Allied post-war planning. The ILO’s solemn Declaration of Philadelphia of 1944 in this sense embodied the will for renewal and social reform among the liberal democracies at war. It was based on a shared assumption among many of the ILO’s members (among them a Norwegian delegation from the London exile government) that the war was fought for political and social aims alike. In this sense, the Declaration of Philadelphia was among the founding documents for the erection and extension of welfare states in the post-war era. It also put the ILO’s on a new human rights foundation and on this basis declared an overarching social objective of all policies, explicitly including the economy, finance and trade on the national as well as the international level.
During the long era of the US-American Director-General David Morse (1948 to 1970), the ILO underwent another profound transformation. The Cold War and Decolonization were the two main drivers behind this process, which changed the ILO’s face and its internal power balance and left hardly any area of its work untouched. The dissolution of European colonial empires in Asia and Africa led to a massive increase in member states - from 55 in 1948 to 121 in 1970. Consequently, so-called developing countries from the 1960s onwards formed a majority of the ILO’s members. This growth posed a strong incentive for the ILO to adapt its profile and programs to the needs and demands of these countries. It pushed the ILO to further expand the area of technical cooperation and to put an ever more pronounced emphasis on development. The influence of decolonization became also apparent in the area of standard setting: During the late 1940s and 1950s landmark human rights conventions on freedom of association, equal pay for equal work, forced labour and discrimination in employment and occupation were adopted by the ILO. In these discussions controversies along the East-West divide began to overlap with parallel debates along the North-South axis between the industrialized nations of the West and an emerging group of countries from the global South.
The 1970s and 1980s were a period of many different, often countervailing tendencies. The ILO became a sounding board for new human rights discourses. The ILO took a particularly activist stance in the international struggle against South Africa’s apartheid regime. It raised its voice against the violation of trade union rights under the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina and it played a part in democratic transition processes from Spain and Portugal to Poland, where the organization contributed to the struggle of the independent trade union federation Solidarnosc for recognition by the Communist government.
At the same time, the 1970s and 1980s defined a period in which the ILO had lost momentum. After the first oil crisis of 1973, which in hindsight marked the beginning of the end of the “golden age” of post-war growth and prosperity in the industrialized countries, the ILO slowly began to feel the repercussions of a progressing paradigm change in economic thinking around the turn to the 1980s. When Keynesianism lost its decades-long supremacy in economic discourse to supply-side, monetarist economics, this change deeply affected the ILO. Calls for economic liberalization, labour market “flexibilization” and deregulation entered the bigger political stage with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States.
The ILO has tried to reposition itself as the social consciousness of the post-Cold War world.
The dawn of the “neoliberal age” influenced the ILO’s development policies: In the first half of the 1970s the Organization seemed to be on top of the debate when it launched a comprehensive World Employment Program (WEP) which promoted a poverty-centred approach to development. The WEP first popularized terms like the “informal economy” and the “basic needs” approach later broadly in use within the United Nations. However, while the ILO received broad attention and recognition for the WEP, it faced marginalization only a decade later when “structural adjustment programs” imposed by the the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), based on so-called Washington Consensus did away with much of what the ILO had previously promoted.
The end of the Cold War and the watershed of 1989/90 saw the ILO further losing ground in international debates. Within the deep-going processes of economic and social transformation in the former Eastern Bloc countries, the ILO was sidelined. Even more alarming, it saw itself widely excluded from the debates on the newly emerging international economic governance structures, which lead to the foundation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. At the heart of these debates, which were dominated by the quest for economic liberalization under the new buzzword of “globalization”, was the accelerating disentanglement of economic and social questions, with the latter pushed to an ever more subordinate role.
Against this gloomy background, the ILO has tried to reposition itself as the social consciousness of the post-Cold War world. An important step in this direction was the “Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998)”, which defined core labour standards promoted as a minimum set of common values shared by all of the ILO’s members. With the “Decent Work Agenda”, launched in 1999, the ILO has made a renewed claim to participate prominently in international debates on the social aspects of globalization. Supporters take it as a sign of its improved standing, that the goal of “decent work for all” has lately become part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
How relevant is the ILO today?
At the start of the centenary the question of the ILO’s relevance remains an open one. A short look back on some of the basic principles on which the ILO had been founded in 1919 might be helpful here: «Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice»
For the authors of the ILOs constitution and of the Declaration of Philadelphia, both under the impression of the horrors and destruction of war, it must have seemed natural to give this sentence a prominent position. This was even more so in Philadelphia were many thought that it had been the failure of liberal democracies to address the social consequences of the Great Depression that had facilitated the rise of fascism and led into another disastrous war. One of the lessons of the past most of the political leaders, trade unionists and employers gathering in Philadelphia subscribed to was that social justice was a pre-condition – not only for peace – but also for the stability of democratic government. The rise of neo-nationalist and right-wing populist movements in recent years, built in parts on the very real experience of staggering social inequalities both globally and within societies, thus seem to carry echoes of past debates that still resonate today. Beyond, the ILO’s efforts for peace have been acknowledged among others by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded the Organization the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969 on the occasion of the ILO’s 50th anniversary.
“Labour is not a commodity”. In a nutshell this phrase encapsulates the social liberal ideology of the ILO. According to this understanding, people´s work cannot and must not be treated as a commodity first and foremost because of its nature as an integral part of the human condition and of human dignity. “Labour is not a commodity” is a core element of the consensus that carries the ILO, an organization that had been founded to tame the forces of capitalism without replacing it. Implicitly the phrase includes an acknowledgement by all the ILO’s constituents, greatly strengthened during World War II, that the survival of open market economies ultimately depended on at least a partial de-commodification of labour. Modern welfare states have been built on this premise. However, whether it has ever reflected a reality for the majority of working people around the world seems questionable. Labour is treated as a commodity among others in many different variations. The ILO’s present activities in the field of human trafficking might serve as an illustration of the dark side of global supply chains: Debates surrounding the adoption of the 2014 forced labour protocol targeting various forms of modern slavery have put a spotlight on the dimensions of the most brutal forms of commodification of labour with approximately 40 million people suffering under inhumane conditions in agriculture, on construction sites, in domestic work and forced sexual exploitation.
“Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”. This sentence from the Philadelphia Declaration as well is a modified form of a central part of the ILO’s constitution which held that “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”. Both sentences make the case for the international labour standards as a reaction to tackle the potentially hazardous effects of interdependence within the international economy, which obviously has lost nothing of its relevance. “Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere” could well be read as a commentary on current discussions on migration against the background of global inequalities. The ILO’s contribution to the Global Compact on Migration of 2018 emphasizes this connection.
While the ILO celebrates its centenary, there is a sense of pride about past activities and achievements. Indeed, much of what the Organization has accomplished was little more than a “wild dream” in 1919, as the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it in 1944. While the ILO looks back to the past and to its work for social justice, global migration, climate change and the digital revolution impact the world of work and add new and pressing questions to the debate. Whether the ILO can play a prominent role in these discussions and whether it will be able to bring new life to the quest for a social objective for all policies, remains to be seen. Maybe it can be called another “wild dream”. By all means, it constitutes a reason to wish the ILO a healthy start in its second century.
Daniel Maul is an Associate Professor in History at the University of Oslo. He is currently at work on a book on “The International Labour Organization – 100 years of Global Social Policy”, due for publication in the summer/fall of 2019.
 The ILO Constitution (1919), www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:62:0::NO:62:P62_LIST_ENTRIE_ID:2453907:NO
 Quoted from Marieke Louis, "Building a Transnational Business Community. Insights from the International Labour Organisation," ILO Century Project 16, no. 3 (2018).
 Bruno Cabanes, The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924, Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
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 Cabanes, The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924.
 Pauli Kettunen, "The Ilo as a Forum for Developing and Demonstrating a Nordic Model," in Globalizing Social Rights: The International Labour Organization and Beyond, ed. Sandrine Kott and Joelle Droux (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
 Véronique Plata-Stenger, ""To Raise Awareness of Difficulties and to Assert Their Opinion". The International Labour Office and the Regionalization of International Cooperation in the 1930ies. ," in New Histories of Latin America at the League of Nations, ed. Alan McPherson (University of New Mexico Press, 2015).
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Geneva, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan ;
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 Eileen Boris, Dorothea Hoehtker, and Susan Zimmermann, eds., Women’s Ilo. Transnational Networks, Global Labour Standards and Gender Equality, 1919 to the Present, Studies in Global Social History (Leiden
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 See Amalia Ribi Forclaz, "A New Target for International Social Reform: The International Labour Organization and Working and Living Conditions in Agriculture in the Inter-War Years," Contemporary European History 20, no. 3 (2011); Isabelle Lespinet-Moret, "Promouvoir La Santé Au Travail Comme Droit Social (1919-1940)?," Le Mouvement Social 263 (2018).
 Claudia Sanchez Bajo, "Work and Cooperatives: A Century of Ilo Interaction with the Cooperative Movement," in Cooperatives and the World of Work ed. Bruno Roelants, et al. (2018).
 Stefano Gallo, "Dictatorship and International Organizations: The Ilo as a Test Ground for Fascism," in Globalizing Social Rights: The International Labour Organization and Beyond, ed. Sandrine Kott and Joelle Droux (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Sandrine Kott, "Dynamiques De L'internationalisation: L'allemagne Et L'organisation International Du Travail (1919-1940)," Critique internationale 52 (2011).
 Jill Jensen, "From Geneva to the Americas: The International Labor Organization and Inter-American Social Security Standards, 1936-1948," International Labor and Working-Class History 80, no. Fall (2011).
 Norberto Ferreras, " Europe-Geneva-America: The First International Conference of American States Members of the International Labour Organization " in New Histories of Latin America at the League of Nations, ed. Alan McPherson (University of New Mexico Press, 2015).
 Geert van Goethem, "Phelan's War: The International Labour Organization in Limbo (1941-1948)," in Ilo Histories. Essays on the International Labour Organization and Its Impact on the World During the Twentieth Century, ed. Jasmien Van Daele, et al. (Bern et.al.: 2010).
 Daniel Roger Maul, "The "Morse Years": The Ilo 1948-1970," ibid.
 Maul, Human Rights
 Victoria Basualdo, "The Ilo and the Argentine Dictatorship (1976-1983) " in Ilo Histories. Essays on the International Labour Organization and Its Impact on the World During the Twentieth Century, ed. Jasmien Van Daele, et al. (Bern et.al.: 2010); Idesbald Godeeris, "The Limits of Lobbying: Ilo and Solidarnosc " ibid.
 Emmanuel Reynaud, "The International Labour Organization and Globalization. Fundamental Rights, Decent Work and Social Justice ", ed. ILO (2017).
 Corinna Unger, International Development. A Post-War History (Bloomsbury, 2018).
 Reynaud, "The International Labour Organization and Globalization. Fundamental Rights, Decent Work and Social Justice ".
 The original sentence in the 1919 constitution was “Labour is not (merely) a commodity”, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:62:0::NO:62:P62_LIST_ENTRIE_ID:2453907:NO
 Quoted from Kari Tapiola, "A Wild Dream. A Century of Tripartite Cooperation and Social Dialogue," (2017).