The International Labour Organization (ILO)



       prepared by the ILO Bureau of Public Information



     1. The International Labour Organization was set up in 1919
to bring governments, employers and trade unions together for
united action in the cause of social justice and better living
conditions everywhere. It is a tripartite organization, with
worker and employer representatives taking part in its work on
equal status with those of governments. The number of ILO member
countries now stands at 170. In 1969 the Organization and was
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Its secretariat is based in
Geneva, Switzerland.

     2. Historically, the ILO is an outgrowth of the social
thought of the nineteenth century. Conditions of workers in the
wake of the industrial revolution were increasingly seen to be
intolerable by economists and sociologists. Social reformers from
Robert Owen onwards believed that any country or industry
introducing measures to improve working conditions would raise
the cost of labour, putting it at an economic disadvantage
compared to other countries or industries. That is why they
laboured with such persistence to persuade the powers of Europe
to make better working conditions and shorter hours the subject
of international agreements.

     3. The first concrete result of these efforts was an
international conference held in Berlin in 1890 and attended by
representatives of 14 countries. They put forward suggestions,
but did not make any commitments. In 1897 another conference was
held, this time in Brussels; it adopted a resolution providing
for an international bureau for the protection of labour. This
bureau never saw the light of day, but three years later a new
international conference in Paris succeeded in creating the
International Association for Labour Legislation. This forerunner
of the ILO, with its headquarters in Basle, undertook the
translation and publication of labour laws of many countries.

     4. As a result of efforts by the new association, a
diplomatic conference was held at Berne in 1906 to study the
adoption of two international conventions. The first was designed
to reduce the use of white phosphorus, a poisonous substance then
used in the manufacture of matches. The second was intended to
ban night work in industry by women, other than in small-scale
undertakings. The adoption of these two conventions opened a new
chapter in the history of international relations. The
association went on to work for a ban on night work for young
people and for a ten-hour working day for adolescents and women.
The outbreak of war in 1914 prevented the adoption of these two

Foundation of the ILO

     5. Towards the end of the First World War a new opportunity
for positive action arose. At the request of trade unions in
several countries, the Peace Conference of 1919 set up a
Commission on International Labour Legislation. Among its 15
members were labour leaders such as the American Samuel Gompers,
who became Chairman, and Leon Jouhaux of France, who was later
to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Also on the Commission were
leaders of the International Association for Labour Legislation
such as Arthur Fontaine of France, who was to become the first
Chairman of the Governing Body of the International Labour
Office, Ernest Mahaim of Belgium, who was to follow Fontaine in
the same post; the socialist leader Emile Vandervelde, also of
Belgium, and Harold Butler of Britain, later to become a
Director-General of the ILO. After ten weeks of work the Labour
Commission agreed on a document elaborated from a British draft,
which on 11 April 1919 became Part XIII of the Treaty of
Versailles. With amendments, it remains to this day the charter
under which the ILO works.

     6. In its preamble the ILO Constitution declares that
universal and lasting peace can be founded only on the basis of
social justice. At Philadelphia in 1944 the International Labour
Conference adopted a Declaration, now an annex to the
Constitution, which embodies an even more dynamic concept. It
proclaims the right of all human beings "to pursue both their
material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions
of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal
opportunity." It further states that "poverty anywhere
constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere."

The early years

     7. The first International Labour Conference was held in
Washington in October 1919. The man chosen to become the first
Director of the new International Labour Office was Albert Thomas
of France. A historian with a deep interest in social questions,
this former politician, ambassador and wartime Cabinet Minister
guided the ILO during its formative years.=20

     8. Between the two World Wars the ILO was an autonomous part
of the League of Nations. The most urgent problems of the time,
on which its first decisions were made, included the promotion
of the eight-hour working day, the struggle against unemployment,
maternity protection and the working conditions of women and the

     9. During the Second World War the ILO moved its
headquarters temporarily to Montreal, Canada. The International
Labour Conference held at Philadelphia in 1944, after an
interruption of five years, redefined the Organization's aims and
objectives in adopting the Declaration of Philadelphia and helped
prepare the ILO for the problems awaiting it after the war.=20

Post-war expansion

     10. In 1946, the ILO became the first specialized agency
associated with the United Nations. Since then, a system of close
cooperation has grown up between international organizations
which attempt to deal with the grave inequalities and imbalances
among the world's various regions. In the field of social policy
the ILO plays an active part in one of the most striking changes
since the Second World War: the large-scale development of
international technical cooperation. New problems continue to
arise as a result of technological, economic and social change.
While improved working and living conditions and the promotion
of full employment remain central aims of the ILO, it now has to
deal also with such matters as migrant workers, multinational
corporations, the working environment and the consequences of
economic restructuring.

     11. The ILO remains a standard-setting body, but today there
is also marked emphasis on operational programmes and on
educational work, in the broadest sense. This led to the creation
of the International Institute for Labour Studies (Geneva) in
1960 and the International Training Centre of the ILO (Turin) in
1965. The operational programmes have also been largely
responsible for the current effort to decentralize
responsibilities from Geneva headquarters to the various regions
of the world.

     12. The ILO has 170 member States, compared with 42 in 1919
and 58 in 1948. Its regular budget has grown from US $4. 5
million in 1948 to $466. 5 million for the 1994-95 biennium.


     13. The International Labour Organization is composed of a
yearly general assembly, the International Labour Conference; an
executive council, the Governing Body; and a permanent
secretariat, the International Labour Office. The Organization
also works through subsidiary bodies such as regional
conferences, industrial committees and panels of experts.

     14. The International Labour Conference elects the Governing
Body; adopts the ILO's budget, financed by contributions from
member States; sets international labour standards; and provides
a world forum for the discussion of social and labour questions.
Each national delegation is composed of two government delegates,
one employers' delegate and one workers' delegate, accompanied
as necessary by technical advisers. Employers' and workers'
delegates have a free voice; they can, and often do, disagree
with their governments and with each other.

     15. The Governing Body holds three sessions a year at Geneva
to decide questions of policy and programme. It is at present
composed of 28 Government members, 14 Employer members and 14
Worker members. Ten States of chief industrial importance have
permanent Government representatives and the others are elected
every three years by the Conference.

     16. The International Labour Office is headed by a Director-
General (Mr. Michel Hansenne since 1989) elected by the Governing
Body. The staff includes some 110 nationalities. The number of
officials has grown from 500 in 1948 to over 1,900 in 1993, plus
some 600 experts serving on technical cooperation programmes
around the world. In addition to its operational activities the
Office engages in research and publishes studies on a wide range
of labour and social matters

International labour standards

     17. The main task of the ILO at the outset was to improve
conditions of life and work by building up a comprehensive code
of law and practice. The Organizations's founders felt that
standards laid down through the joint efforts of governments,
management and labour would be realistic, solid and widely

     18. This standard-setting function is one that the ILO still
performs. The number of international labour instruments -
Conventions and Recommendations - adopted by the International
Labour Conference since 1919 has now reached 355 (174 Conventions
and 181 Recommendations). More than 6,000 ratifications of
Conventions have been registered.

     19. Each Convention is a legal instrument regulating some
aspect of labour administration, social welfare or human rights.
Its ratification involves a dual obligation for a member State:
it is both a formal commitment to apply the provisions of the
Convention, and an indication of willingness to accept a measure
of international supervision. A Recommendation is similar to a
Convention except that it is not subject to ratification, and
provides more specific guide-lines. Both Conventions and
Recommendations define standards and provide a model and stimulus
for national legislation and practice in member countries.

     20. ILO Conventions cover a wide field of social problems,
including basic human rights matters (such as freedom of
association, abolition of forced labour, and elimination of
discrimination in employment), minimum wages, labour
administration, industrial relations, employment policy, working
conditions, social security, occupational safety and health, and
employment at sea. A number of the agreements deal with women

     21. Conventions adopted at recent sessions of the
International Labour Conference covered night work and the use
of chemicals at work (both 1990), working conditions in hotels,
restaurants and similar establishments (1991), the protection of
workers' claims in the event of the insolvency of their employer
(1992), and the prevention of major industrial accidents (1993).

     22. Although the ILO cannot, of course, dictate action by
member countries, it can and does keep a careful eye on the way
governments carry out their obligations under ratified
Conventions. Two bodies share responsibility for this
supervision. Firstly an independent Committee of Experts on the
Application of Conventions and Recommendations, composed of
eminent jurists, whose task it is to put forward their
observations on an entirely independent basis. Secondly, a more
general review is made at the International Labour Conference by
a tripartite Committee on the Application of Conventions and
Recommendations which sits in public and discusses, on the basis
of the report of the Committee of Experts, the cases it considers
to he the most important. Since 1964, nearly 2,000 changes have
been registered to bring national law and practice into
conformity with the provisions of ratified Conventions, in
response to observations made by the ILO's supervisory bodies.
The Organization has also stepped up its activities of assistance
to member States in this field, notably through its regional
advisers on international labour standards, by increasingly
frequent recourse to a procedure of direct contacts with
governments, by organising seminars and study courses and by
diffusing information concerning ILO standards and principles.

     23. Particular attention is paid to freedom of association.
A special mechanism has been set up, in agreement with the
Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, to examine
complaints in this field. The main element of this is the
Governing Body Committee on Freedom of Association, which has
examined more than 1,700 cases since its creation in 1951. This
nine-member tripartite Committee has been called on to deal with
a steadily growing volume of complaints in recent years; around
80 cases now appear on the agenda of each of its three sessions
per year. If this phenomenon reflects a wider - and welcome -
acquaintance with ILO procedures, it should also be recognized
as a testimony to an undoubted deterioration in the human rights
situation in the world. In this light, the ILO proposes to
develop its research and information work in this field while
continuing to ensure effective operation of its systems for
supervision and examination of complaints.

     24. The Conventions and Recommendations form the
International Labour Code. The standards embodied in the Code
transcend the significance of the particular matters covered.
They put into application a large number of the principles
enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the
UTN human rights covenants by incorporating them in agreements
of world-wide scope. They also constitute a common pool of
accumulated experience which is available to countries at any
stage of development. The Code exercises an important influence
on the development of social legislation throughout the world.

Technical cooperation

     25. Given the universal nature of the goals set before it
at the start - given also a specific obligation under its
Constitution to participate fully in the war against want - the
ILO has joined with other organizations of the United Nations to
improve world economic and social well-being. Even before the
Second World War, the ILO often sent advisory missions to help
governments with specific labour or social problems. During that
war, the ILO sent missions to Latin America, mostly in the social
security field, and soon afterwards it decided to carry out
operational technical cooperation activities on a continuing

     26. Following the Second World War, the ILO's technical
cooperation programme expanded rapidly, in close collaboration
with United Nations bodies, particularly the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP) and, to a lesser extent, the United
Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). The UNDPs share
in the total technical cooperation expenditure amounted to $75.
8 million of a global budget of $163. 5 million in 1992. A second
important source of financing is multibilateral assistance,
through which ILO-executed projects are funded directly by the
national development aid agencies of donor countries, and Trust
Fund arrangements with recipient countries; expenditure on
projects of this type amounted to nearly $65 million in 1992.
Other funding sources for the ILO's technical cooperation
programme include the ILO's own Regular Budget for Technical
Cooperation, as well as the World Bank (IBRD) and regional
development banks which now commonly include technical
cooperation components in their loans.

     27. In expenditure terms, the major share of technical
cooperation activity is directed to Africa, followed by Asia and
the Pacific, the Americas, the Middle East and, to a lesser
extent, Europe. Interregional projects also play an important and
growing part in the over-all programme, as technical cooperation
between developing countries (TCDC) takes shape as a means of
sharing technical knowledge, information and experience among
Third World countries.

     28. In line with the recommendations of the Resolution
concerning ILO Technical Cooperation Programmes adopted by the
International Labour Conference in 1979, the operational
activities of the ILO now have stronger tripartite participation,
involving more and more not only government agencies, but also
workers' and employers' organizations in project preparation and

     29. Technical cooperation is concentrated in the following
major areas:

     -    employment and development: definition of national
          policies and strategies; manpower planning; special
          labour-intensive public works; alleviation of rural
          poverty; choice of technology; and small-scale
          industry development;

     -    training: assistance in the formulation of training
          policies and systems; management training and
          enterprise development; industrial, rural and
          commercial vocational training, and development of
          teaching methodologies and materials. Special
          attention is given to vocational rehabilitation of the
          disabled and training for women and out-of-school

     -    sectoral activities, including development of
          cooperatives and programmes for the maritime industry;

     -    conditions of work and the working environment:
          occupational safety and health; conditions of work and
          life; and the eradication of child labour;

     -    industrial relations (including labour
          administration); social security; workers' education
          and assistance to employers' organizations.

     30. A growing number of projects are concerned with the
complex problems posed by development and call for a
multidisciplinary approach. These include projects in the rural
and urban informal sectors, or to assist disadvantaged groups
such as migrants, refugees, women and uneducated youth. A major
effort is currently under way to help countries eliminate child

     31. A new phase in technical cooperation has now begun,
meeting new challenges of a changing environment. The ILO is
adjusting its programme to take account of main trends in the
world of labour and at the same time honing its capacity to
respond effectively to increasing requests for assistance. The
cornerstone of this organizational change is an active
partnership policy taking the Organization closer to its
constituents in order to respond better to their priorities and
needs in its special area of competence and within the framework
of its principles and objectives. A key element of this approach
is the creation of 14 multidisciplinary teams - in Africa, the
Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe and
the Arab states - geared to deliver technical guidance on policy
issues and development programme design. Most of these teams
include advisors on employers' and workers' activities, and
specialists in international labour standards - underlining the
continuing organic link between standards and technical

     32. Three central priorities have been defined for the
1994-95 programme period:

     -    promoting the advance of democracy - through the rule
          of law, tripartism, sound industrial relations
          practice and the elimination of discrimination;

     -    the fight against poverty - by developing responsive
          training systems, employment creation schemes and
          social institutions, and ensuring that restructuring
          policies take account of social needs;

     -    protecting working people - by creating safe and
          humane working conditions, reforming and extending
          social security and meeting the needs of the most
          vulnerable groups: child workers, women workers,
          migrants and those in the informal sector.

     Within these priorities, operational energies are focused
on five key themes:

     -    international labour standards and the defence of
          human rights

     -    equality for women

     -    employment promotion and structural adjustment

     -    environment and the world of work

     -    the rural and informal sectors.

Research and information

     33. ILO research is intended to throw new light on labour
problems, to suggest ways of solving them and to indicate means
by which these solutions can be put into effect. Research of this
kind is undertaken in the preparation of reports for
consideration by the International Labour Conference and for
other meetings.

     34. The ILO is both a storehouse and a clearing house for
information on social and economic policy. Its fully automated
library contains more than one million books and receives
regularly over 8,000 periodicals and items of legislation from
most member States, and the Office publishes a great deal of
original work. Its publications include the periodical
International Labour Review; the quarterly Official Bulletin,
which reports on all meetings held by the ILO; Labour Law
Documents, a selection from labour legislation and regulations
of various countries, appearing three times a year; the Year Book
of Labour Statistics, a basic reference work which is brought up
to date periodically by the Bulletin of Labour Statistics; and
World Labour Report, an annual survey of major labour issues.
Manuals, codes of practice and the results of research are
published and sold all over the world. The progressive
installation of an international integrated system of labour
information (known as ILIS) aimed at harmonizing the data stored
in Geneva and in the field and at integrating these data into
computer-based information banks, is taking place.

     35. The exchange of ideas takes place at a large number of
meetings. Regional conferences concentrate on labour and social
matters of particular interest to a given group of countries;
industrial committees and tripartite technical meetings review
developments in specific sectors of the world economy. Other
bodies are concerned with such matters as the conditions of
seafarers and the improvement of labour statistics; sometimes
these are held in conjunction with other UN agencies such as the
World Health Organization, the United Nations Educational
Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Food and Agriculture

     36. The International Institute for Labour Studies, created
by the ILO in Geneva in 1960, specializes in higher education and
research in the fields of social and labour policy. The
International Training Centre of the ILO, in,Turin, was set up
to try out and lead the training programmes implemented by the
ILO as part of its technical cooperation activities. Member
States and the United Nations system also call on its resources
and experience to assist their own programmes.

     37. Standard-setting, technical cooperation, research: the
three operational arms of the ILO and mutually supportive and
interdependent. In active partnership with the Organization's
tripartite membership they combine to create the instrument
whereby the goal of social justice can he attained universally.
Great advances toward this goal have been made over the past
three-quarters of a century. Today, profound changes in the world
of work demand new approaches to new challenges. As the ILO marks
its 75th anniversary in 1994, its internal reforms and
redefinition of operational methods take it forward toward the
21st century, in the words of Director-General Michel Hansenne,
"with all the moral authority, all the professional competence
and all the administrative efficiency which the Organization has
exercised during its first 75 years of existence."

     38. ILO Directors-General

Albert Thomas (France) 1919-32
Harold B. Butler (United Kingdom) 1932- 38
John G. Winant (United States) 1939-41
Edward J. Phelan (Ireland) 1941-48
David A. Morse (United States) 1948-70
Wilfred Jenks (United Kingdom) 1970-73
Francis Blanchard (France) 1974-1989
Michel Hansenne (Belgium) 1989 -

(Further information may be obtained from the Bureau of Public
Information, International Labour Office, CH-1211 Geneva 22,

Member states of the ILO (170):

Antigua and Barbuda
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central African Republic
Costa Rica
Cote d'Ivoire
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Equatorial Guinea
Iran, Islamic Republic of
Korea, Republic of
Lao People's Democratic Republic
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Moldova, Republic of
New Zealand
Papua New Guinea
Russian Federation
Saint Lucia
San Marino
Sao Tome and Principe
Saudi Arabia
Sierra Leone
Solomon Islands
Sri Lanka
Syrian Arab Republic
Tanzania, United Republic of
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States
Viet Nam