ILO Celebrates 100 Years of Revolutionary Action
Imagine a world with no weekends, no eight-hour working day, no minimum working age and no protection for pregnant or vulnerable workers. That’s the workplace that might exist now if the International Labour Organization (ILO) did not exist.
Created in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, the ILO is celebrating 100 years of working for social justice with a new multimedia, interactive website.
The radical the idea behind the ILO’s mandate was, as summed up in the Preamble to its Constitution: “Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.” Just as revolutionary was its structure, bringing together governments, workers and employers to determine labor standards. This was described later by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a “wild dream.”
At the time of the ILO’s founding, there was increasing understanding of the world's economic interdependence and the need for cooperation to ensure that growing international competition did not drive down working conditions. As the Constitution put it “…the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labor is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.”
These sentiments went on to be enshrined in the foundations of the ILO – literally. When, in 1926, the ILO moved into its first purpose-built offices on the shore of Lake Geneva, the foundation stone was engraved with the Latin phrase, Si vis pacem, cole justiciam (If you desire peace, cultivate justice). The formal gates of the building also reflected the uniqueness of the ILO. They require three keys to open, symbolizing the equal contributions of the three constituent groups.
But, even before the move, the ILO had already made a mark on the working lives of millions of people. In 1919, the first International Labour Conference – the meeting of the constituents – held in Washington DC, adopted six International Labour Conventions dealing with labor issues including hours of work, unemployment, maternity protection, night work for women, minimum age and night work for young people.
With the outbreak of conflict in Europe at the end of the 1930’s, the ILO moved temporarily to Canada, becoming one of the few international organizations that functioned uninterrupted throughout the Second World War.
In May 1944, as the war was coming to a close, the ILO adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia. This reaffirmed the ILO’s vision and defined a set of principles that placed human rights at its heart, to meet the “aspirations aroused by hopes for a better world.”
The Declaration's emphasis on human rights was advanced with a series of international labor standards – legally-binding Conventions and advisory Recommendations – dealing with labor inspection, freedom of association, the right to organize and collectively bargain, equal pay, forced labor and discrimination.
The end of the fighting opened the way to a new phase of ILO activity. In 1945, the ILO became the first specialized agency of the newly-formed United Nations. Another post-war change for the ILO was the expansion of its membership. Industrialized countries became a minority, outweighed by developing economies, and so the essential ILO characteristic, of tripartism, was combined with a second – universality.
In 1969, on its 50th anniversary, the ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Other important milestones include the International Labour Conference’s unanimously-adopted Declaration condemning Apartheid, in 1964, making the ILO one of the first organizations to impose sanctions on South Africa.
In the 1980’s, 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 independent trade union.
As the 20th Century drew to a close, the ILO’s role continued to evolve to meet changes in the world of work, notably the growing march of globalization. Calls for its help expanded to encompass a more diverse range of issues, including the rights of indigenous peoples, HIV/AIDS in the workplace, migrant and domestic workers.
The organization championed the concept of Decent Work as a strategic international development goal, alongside the promotion of a fair globalization. When the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were formally adopted by the international community, decent work was a crucial component, notably for Goal 8 which aims to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”
To protect the world’s seafarers, the ILO has adopted around 70 instruments (41 Conventions and related Recommendations) through special maritime sessions of the International Labour Conference. In February 2006, International Labour Conference adopted the Maritime Labour Convention. This Convention revised and consolidated 37 existing Conventions and the related Recommendations. It provides, in one instrument, the comprehensive rights of the world’s 1.5 million seafarers to decent conditions of work on almost every aspect of their working and living conditions including minimum requirements for work on a ship (such as minimum age, medical fitness and training) provisions on the conditions of employment such as hours of work and rest, wages, leave, repatriation, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, occupational safety and health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection.