No matter where we work and what we do, “working time” is an issue that affects us all. Yet few people realize that the fact that we have limits on the hours we work traces its roots to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) first International Labour Standard – the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 (No.1).
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 limits on working time – most prominently the eight hour working day – had been one of the principal demands of the international trade union movement.
Once the war was over, and with the creation of the ILO as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the issue resurfaced, as large-scale labour unrest threatened to spread in several countries.
The ILO Constitution, contained in Article 427 of the Treaty, included the declaration that “the adoption of an 8-hours day or a 48-hours week as the standard to be aimed at where it has not already been attained” was of “special and urgent importance”.
Only a few months later the subject was put on the agenda of the First Session of the International Labour Conference (ILC), which met in Washington in October-November 1919. By the end of the conference the principle of the eight hour working day had been embodied in the first Convention adopted, the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919.
Considering that the eight hour working day had been dismissed five years earlier as impracticable and unachievable due to international competition, the adoption of Convention No.1 was a remarkable achievement — the trade union movement had succeeded in getting international recognition of its foremost goal.
However, ratification of Convention No.1 by ILO member States was not as widespread as the first ILO Director, Albert Thomas, had hoped. The Great Depression brought with it a reluctance by employers to face higher labour costs. Moreover, some member States and even some in the labour movement, especially in Germany and the United Kingdom, considered that hours of work could best be reduced through trade union action and collective bargaining rather than by legislation. Even today, only 46 out of the 187 member States of the ILO have ratified this convention.
Nonetheless, in spite of the low number of ratifications, Convention No. 1 has had a considerable impact in expanding use of the eight hour working day.
Only four countries had passed eight hour laws before 1919: Cuba in 1909, Panama in 1914, Uruguay in 1915 and Ecuador in 1916. Between the Armistice of November 1918 and the drafting of the preparatory report for the Washington ILC, eight hour day laws of varying scope had been enacted by Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
The eight hour workday also became more widespread in the UK and the United States; more than four million of the 12 million members of the British workforce had their working day reduced to eight hours In the USA, the number of workers covered by an eight hour day agreement rose from 172,000 in 1915 to 1.14 million in 1918.
Albert Thomas reported that, “during the years 1918-19 the eight hour day has, either by collective agreements or by law, become a reality in the majority of industrial countries”.
By 1922, the 48-hour week was the general practice, especially in industry, throughout Europe and in Australia, New Zealand and many countries in Latin America. There had even been significant reductions in working hours in Japan and India.
As we look back to these early years, it is clear that the ILO and its Convention No. 1 have been key drivers of the eight hour working day. They standardized and promoted this labour policy, leading to its widespread implementation and today the eight hour working day is the norm in countries all over the world.
The ILO will celebrate the Centenary of Convention No.1 at an event at its headquarters in Geneva on 14 November, 2019.