By the beginning of the 1990s, it was clear that the world had changed. Globalization, the information technology revolution, the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a universal market economy for the first time since 1914 provided the impetus for a global debate on core labour standards — both within and beyond the International Labour Organization.

Debate intensified as it became apparent that economic growth alone was not enough. When the processes commonly called globalization first emerged, it was widely assumed that internationalization, technological change, the market economy and democratization would provide the essential ingredients for growth, employment and well being. This proved not to be the case everywhere.

Indicator after indicator revealed that growth was uneven, both within countries and between them. Poverty was not banished, social injustice remained, and inequality was rising. In 1960, GDP per capita of the richest 20 countries was 18 times higher than GDP in the poorest 20. By 1995, it was 37 times higher. Although developing countries' overall share of global exports was rising, this growth was confined to a small number of those countries. Worldwide, the number of people living on less than $1 a day hardly changed in the 1990s.

The rising concern produced vigorous debate on trade and labour standards (often called the "social clause debate") when the World Trade Organisation was set up in 1994. At around the same time, the International Labour Conference began a major review of standards related issues.

In 1995, the United Nations World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen agreed on a set of commitments that mapped out new territory. Significantly, the Special Representative of the Secretary—General for the Summit, Juan Somavia, was later to become Director—General of the ILO. Mr. Somavia told the delegates at the summit — among them some 153 heads of State and government — that it offered an opportunity to build "the social consensus which gives sustainability to the political and economic consensus and introduces fraternity and solidarity as a central component of human relations".

The Summit's third commitment established full employment as a basic priority of social and economic policies. Delegates also agreed to safeguard the basic rights of workers, "and to this end, freely promote respect for relevant International Labour Organization conventions, including those on the prohibition of forced and child labour, freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively and the principle of non-discrimination."

Those words paved the way for the development of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The process was further supported by the first Ministerial Conference of the newly—established World Trade Organization, held in 1996, in Singapore. Trade Ministers avowed respect for core labour standards, and noted that these were in the provenance of the ILO. In the same year, a landmark OECD study on labour standards helped the development case.

In June of 1998, the government, employer and worker representatives meeting at the International Labour Conference took an historic step — and adopted the Declaration. The ILO Director—General of the time, Michel Hansenne, said the ILO had "taken up the challenge presented to it by the international community. It has established a social minimum at the global level to respond to the realities of globalization and can now look ahead to the new century with renewed optimism."