International Labor Organization Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The International Labor Organization was established to protect the rights of workers, improve working conditions, and promote social justice throughout the world.

Summary of Event

The Industrial Revolution, combined with the drive for profits, caused profound social changes. Throughout the nineteenth century, industrialization was accompanied by dangerous working conditions, minimal wages, exhausting hours, and child labor. It spawned destitution, squalid urban settlements, and the kind of human suffering so vividly portrayed by author Charles Dickens in such novels as Bleak House (1852-1853) and Hard Times (1854). Workers were sometimes viewed as expendable. The social consequences of the system were disastrous for the working class. International Labor Organization Versailles, Treaty of (1919);International Labor Organization Labor organizations;international Paris Peace Conference (1919);International Labor Organization [kw]International Labor Organization Is Established (June 28, 1919) [kw]Labor Organization Is Established, International (June 28, 1919) International Labor Organization Versailles, Treaty of (1919);International Labor Organization Labor organizations;international Paris Peace Conference (1919);International Labor Organization [g]France;June 28, 1919: International Labor Organization Is Established[04780] [c]Business and labor;June 28, 1919: International Labor Organization Is Established[04780] [c]Organizations and institutions;June 28, 1919: International Labor Organization Is Established[04780] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 28, 1919: International Labor Organization Is Established[04780] Butler, Harold B. Phelan, Edward J. Gompers, Samuel Thomas, Albert

Given these conditions, social reformers, clerics, academics, and philosophers (among them Karl Marx) pressed for change. Trade unions were organized. Between 1871 and 1900, socialist parties were formed in more than twenty countries, and some labor legislation was enacted to begin protecting the human rights of the working class. Change was slow and piecemeal, however, and activists increasingly recognized that international action was needed. The First International (1864) and the Second International (1889) represented efforts by labor unionists and socialists to organize on a worldwide level.

Switzerland was anxious to bring governments together to generate some form of international regulation to protect workers and, in 1889, suggested setting up an international organization for labor legislation. An international meeting resulted, but the participating governments were against adopting any labor convention, opposed the creation of any international machinery, and even turned down recommendations to hold periodic international meetings on labor issues. Trade unions tried to establish international links. The first international conference of trade union organizations was held in 1901; subsequent meetings defined tasks to be performed, such as exchanging information and providing assistance in industrial disputes. In 1913, the resulting organization became known as the International Federation of Trade Unions. International Federation of Trade Unions

World War I created profound changes in industry, including vastly increased production, expanded mechanization, and enlarged numbers of women in the workforce. Members of the working class contributed greatly to the war effort, and they wanted to be remembered in the creation of the new order that would result from the peace settlement. In 1916, an international trade union congress met in Great Britain and drew up a detailed program of labor rights to be recognized by the peace treaty. It called for the creation of an international commission to ensure that these provisions would be implemented and advocated the establishment of an international labor office to study the development of labor legislation. Labor representatives of the Central Powers held a conference of their own in 1917 to elaborate a set of counterproposals for inclusion in the peace treaty.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was another important factor leading the Paris Peace Conference to address labor concerns. The Russian upheaval helped to dispel complacency elsewhere. As World War I drew to an end, the British Ministry of Labour began to work on a detailed plan for an international labor organization. The Allies were committed to creating a world organization to achieve collective security, and it was considered inevitable that one of its organs would be concerned with labor issues. The Labour Ministry therefore began exploring, with the support of the British cabinet, what this structure should be. The peace conference would make that decision, but the Ministry of Labour wanted to propose a practical blueprint. Harold B. Butler, the assistant secretary of the ministry, and Edward J. Phelan, an expert on foreign questions in the ministry’s Intelligence Department, were the main architects of this document.

The 1919 Paris Peace Conference established a fifteen-member commission to draft provisions concerning labor to be incorporated into the peace treaty. This body was headed by Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. As it turned out, none of the other national delegations had prepared any proposal as detailed and comprehensive as that drawn up by the British. The commission therefore decided to use that draft proposal for an international labor organization as the basis for discussion. The structure and organization developed by the commission and accepted by the peace conference became Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles. This international organization was unprecedented but was seen as indispensable if grave labor disorders were to be avoided after the war. It did not meet all the objectives sought by workers’ organizations, but it was capable of achieving progressive improvement in the condition of workers, human rights protection, and greater social justice.

The framework of the International Labor Organization (ILO) was innovative in many respects. International organizations are usually composed of delegates of governments; the ILO had an unprecedented tripartite structure in order to foster communication among labor, management, and government. Each member state was to send four delegates, two representing government and one each representing labor and management. About 150 nations had joined the ILO by 1990, and by 2005 the membership had risen to 178 countries. The ILO remained independent from the United Nations (as it was from the League of Nations) but linked to it by an international agreement.

The ILO has three main organs. The International Labor Conference meets annually at the ILO headquarters in Geneva. All member states are represented. It addresses problems faced by workers, develops labor standards to be applied worldwide, approves the budget, and decides on matters pertaining to the functioning of the organization. In a major departure from nineteenth century practice, decisions are made by majority votes (instead of unanimity); some require two-thirds majorities. Government, labor, and employer representatives vote in separate groups, another innovation of the tripartite system. Appropriate committees are used to share the organization’s workload.

The second organ is the executive Governing Body, which meets three times a year to decide questions of policy and working methods. It is composed of fifty-six members, twenty-eight chosen from the government representatives and fourteen each from the employer and labor groups. The states of chief industrial importance are given the privilege always to be represented on the Governing Body by one government delegate each. The other government seats, as well as the management and labor positions, are filled every three years by elections of peer groups (government, employer, and labor representatives, respectively) attending the International Labor Conference.

The third organ, the International Labor Office, is the administrative infrastructure that permits the smooth functioning of the other organs and committees. It publishes a vast array of materials and employs a staff of about three thousand. Members of more than one hundred nationalities serve at headquarters in Geneva, in forty field offices around the world, and in the countries in which the ILO is implementing projects. The staff is headed by the director-general, who is appointed by the Governing Body for a term of five years and who plays a crucial role in the fulfillment of the organization’s mission. The ILO’s first director-general, Albert Thomas, was a prominent French labor activist passionately involved in the international worker movement; he established a firm precedent of dynamic leadership.

The ILO’s most important task is to develop international labor standards covering all work-related issues, such as hours of work, vacations, and social security. These standards are created by means of conventions and recommendations adopted by the International Labor Conference. Conventions require the ratification of individual member states. A ratifying state undertakes the obligation of enacting whatever legislation may be needed to make the labor standards applicable as domestic law. Recommendations do not require ratification; they serve as guidelines for national labor policy. The ILO has developed procedures to monitor the implementation of its Labor Code and ensure that states fulfill their obligations.

Another important part of the ILO’s program is provision of technical assistance to underdeveloped countries in labor-related matters. The ILO trains workers to increase their productivity and chances of employment. It assists countries in establishing their own training centers, particularly by providing much-needed equipment, such as computers, software, audiovisual materials, and tools. It acts as a clearinghouse for a large amount of information about occupational safety and health, promotes full employment, provides advice to governments, and fosters planning in all these matters. Hundreds of ILO experts are sent annually on temporary assignments around the world. Furthermore, the ILO does research, collects data on a vast variety of work-related issues, and publishes many studies, reports, guides, and manuals.


The ILO has been remarkably successful in improving working conditions, protecting human rights, and fostering social justice in a global environment frequently hostile to social reform. The development of international labor standards implemented by the member states’ own legislation is a major achievement. As of 2004, the ILO had adopted 185 conventions and 195 recommendations covering major labor issues such as length of the workweek, workers’ rights to organize and to engage in collective bargaining, equality of opportunity, just remuneration, employment security, weekly rest, occupational hazards, and social security.

The ILO programs of technical assistance to underdeveloped nations became increasingly more significant as former colonial possessions achieved full sovereignty. The ILO has engaged in various kinds of work and training programs for refugees virtually since its inception. In the early 2000’s, hundreds of ILO experts were working in about 140 countries on projects geared to local needs. Many of the projects were funded in large measure by the United Nations Development Program, with assistance from other U.N. agencies and independent contributors. The projects received an average of $150 million annually from all sources. ILO assistance is especially effective in human resources development, particularly vocational training. This is accomplished by means of fellowships given to trainees from underdeveloped countries as well as through training of local instructors and establishment of training centers. The ILO also provides instruction at its International Center for Advanced Technical and Vocational Training in Turin, Italy.

In addition, the ILO offers assistance for the purpose of improving management performance in many fields, such as water supply, manufacturing, and transportation. This assistance is often aimed at broadening the social role of managers, for example, by leading them to be more concerned about environmental protection. The ILO’s World Employment Program works to increase employment opportunity in member states and consequently to reduce poverty.

The rapidly expanding use of highly complex technology and of dangerous materials in industrial production has led to large numbers of industrial accidents, including those causing permanent disability of workers. To remedy this problem, the ILO has established an international information center along with an occupational hazard alert system. This system is responsible for examining and analyzing all the information on occupational safety appearing around the world for the purpose of making it available to all ILO members.

Among the ILO’s many accomplishments, its extensive research and data-gathering efforts stand out, together with its publication and information programs. Detailed analyses of labor problems and review of specific remedies actually developed in various parts of the world have been of enormous assistance to government and other agencies. As of 2005, thousands of ILO publications were in print and had been distributed worldwide.

In 1969, the ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Nobel Prize recipients;International Labor Organization fitting recognition of its remarkable accomplishments and a just reward for its ceaseless effort to improve the condition of workers everywhere, protect human rights, and promote social justice. International Labor Organization Versailles, Treaty of (1919);International Labor Organization Labor organizations;international Paris Peace Conference (1919);International Labor Organization

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alcock, Anthony. History of the International Labor Organization. New York: Octagon Books, 1971. The ILO commissioned this official history as a fiftieth anniversary project. Thorough and well documented, it clearly shows the diplomacy of ILO activities and the difficulty involved in working with governments whose policies frequently clash. Includes a comprehensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartolomei de la Cruz, Héctor, Geraldo von Potobsky, and Lee Swepston. The International Labor Organization: The International Standards System and Basic Human Rights. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Comprehensive volume on the ILO (an update of an earlier work published in Spanish) provides information on all aspects of the organization. Chapter 1 specifically addresses the ILO’s history. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Compa, Lance A., and Stephen F. Diamond, eds. Human Rights, Labor Rights, and International Trade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Proceedings of a conference held at Yale Law School in 1992, with updates through 1994. Contributors address the issue of international workers’ and union rights from an American legal perspective. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galenson, Walter. The International Labor Organization: An American View. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981. A well-documented analysis, from an American perspective, of the work of the ILO: what it does, the problems confronting it, and the issues leading to clashes between states. Discusses the problems the United States has experienced within the organization, dissent over structure and operations, and the U.S. decision to withdraw from and subsequently to return to the ILO.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnston, George Alexander. The International Labor Organization: Its Work for Social and Economic Progress. London: Europa, 1970. Part 1 provides an overview of the origins of the ILO and its structure; part 2 reviews the major problems facing the organization and the programs developed to address them. A substantial reference section supplies much useful information, including the full text of the ILO constitution, a chronology of major ILO events, and a short bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landy, E. A. The Effectiveness of International Supervision: Thirty Years of ILO Experience. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1966. Examines the procedures used by the ILO to ensure compliance with the International Labor Code and analyzes the results. Reviews the strengths and weaknesses of the system, the reasons for noncompliance, and the problems involved in effective supervision. Useful although somewhat dated. Includes a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morse, David A. The Origin and Evolution of the ILO and Its Role in the World Community. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969. A concise historical overview of the organization by one of its former directors. Discusses the ILO’s origins, structure, and evolution. Reviews the changing needs of international society, examines the organization’s program, and summarizes the ILO’s contribution to social justice. Includes a brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shotwell, James T., ed. The Origins of the International Labor Organization. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934. Volume 1 gives a complete history of the pre-World War I background of the ILO’s establishment and a detailed account of the work done during the Paris Peace Conference. Volume 2 provides documents, fifty-four of which concern pre-World War I activities and negotiations at the peace conference.

Founding of Industrial Workers of the World

Establishment of the British Labour Party

Massachusetts Adopts the First Minimum Wage Law in the United States

Labor Unions Win Exemption from Antitrust Laws

Steelworkers Strike for Improved Working Conditions

British Workers Launch General Strike

Congress of Industrial Organizations Is Founded

Categories: History