The complaint procedure is governed by articles 26 to 34 of the ILO Constitution. Under these provisions, a complaint may be filed against a member state for not complying with a ratified convention by another member state which ratified the same convention, a delegate to the International Labour Conference or the Governing Body in its own capacity. Upon receipt of a complaint, the Governing Body may form a Commission of Inquiry, consisting of three independent members, which is responsible for carrying out a full investigation of the complaint, ascertaining all the facts of the case and making recommendations on measures to be taken to address the problems raised by the complaint. A Commission of Inquiry is the ILO's highest-level investigative procedure; it is generally set up when a member state is accused of committing persistent and serious violations and has repeatedly refused to address them. To date, 12 Commissions of Inquiry have been established, the latest one following an article 26 complaint filed against the Government of Zimbabwe in November 2008.

When a country refuses to fulfil the recommendations of a Commission of Inquiry, the Governing Body can take action under article 33 of the ILO Constitution. This provision states that "[i]n the event of any Member failing to carry out within the time specified the recommendations, if any, contained in the report of the Commission of Inquiry, or in the decision of the International Court of Justice, as the case may be, the Governing Body may recommend to the Conference such action as it may deem wise and expedient to secure compliance therewith." Article 33 was invoked for the first time in ILO history in 2000, when the Governing Body asked the International Labour Conference to take measures to lead Myanmar to end the use of forced labour. An article 26 complaint had been filed against Myanmar in 1996 for violations of the Forced Labour Convention (No. 29), 1930, and the resulting Commission of Inquiry found "widespread and systematic use" of forced labour in the country.

Complaints in practice

Poland ratified both the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98) in 1957. When martial law was declared in the country in 1981, the government suspended the activities of the Solidarnosc trade union and detained or dismissed many of its leaders and members. After the case had been examined by the Committee on Freedom of Association, delegates at the 1982 International Labour Conference filed a complaint under article 26 against Poland. The resulting Commission of Inquiry found grave violations of both conventions. Based on the Commission's conclusions, the ILO and numerous countries and organizations put pressure on Poland to redress the situation, and in 1989 the Polish government gave Solidarnosc legal status. Lech Walesa, Solidarnosc leader and later President of Poland, noted that "the Commission of Inquiry created by the ILO after the imposition of martial law in my country made significant contributions to the changes which brought democracy to Poland." (Note 1)

Note 1 - ILO: Promoting better working conditions: a guide to the international labor standards system (Washington, DC, Washington Branch Office, 2003), p. 29.