History of the ILO

As the ILO celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019, it is timely to reflect on the many life-changing events which are linked to the ten decades of ILO history.

The Organization has played a role at key historical junctures – the Great Depression, decolonization, the creation of Solidarność in Poland, the victory over apartheid in South Africa – and today in the building of an ethical and productive framework for a fair globalization.

It was created in 1919, as part of theTreaty of Versailles [PDF 837KB] that ended World War I, to reflect the belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice.

The Constitution of the ILO was drafted in early 1919 by the Labour Commission, chaired by Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) in the United States. It was composed of representatives from nine countries: Belgium, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Members of the Commission on International Labour Legislation to the Paris Peace Conference. Samuel Gompers in the first row, third from the left.

The process resulted in a tripartite organization, the only one of its kind, bringing together representatives of governments, employers and workers in its executive bodies.

The driving forces for the ILO's creation arose from security, humanitarian, political and economic considerations. The founders of the ILO recognized the importance of social justice in securing peace, against a background of the exploitation of workers in the industrializing nations of that time. There was also increasing understanding of the world's economic interdependence and the need for cooperation to obtain similarity of working conditions in countries competing for markets.

Reflecting these ideas, the Preamble of the ILO Constitution states:

  • Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice;
  • And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required;
  • Whereas also the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.

The areas of improvement listed in the Preamble remain relevant today, including the regulation of working time and labour supply, the prevention of unemployment and the provision of an adequate living wage, social protection of workers, children, young persons and women. The Preamble also recognizes a number of key principles, for example equal remuneration for work of equal value and freedom of association, and highlights, among others, the importance of vocational and technical education.

Early years

The ILO moved to Geneva in the summer of 1920, with France's Albert Thomas as its first Director. Nine International Labour Conventions and 10 Recommendations were adopted in less than two years. These standards covered key issues, including:

1920, ILO Assistant Director Harold Butler and Director Albert Thomas enjoy a moment of rest in front of the first ILO building, La Châtelaine (Pregny). This building now houses the Headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

A Committee of Experts was set up in 1926 to supervise the application of ILO standards. The Committee, which still exists today, is composed of independent jurists responsible for examining government reports and presenting each year to the Conference its own report on the implementation of ILO Conventions and Recommendations.

The Great Depression, with its resulting massive unemployment, soon confronted Britain's Harold Butler, who succeeded Albert Thomas as Director in 1932. Realizing that handling labour issues also requires international cooperation, the United States became a Member of the ILO in 1934, although it continued to stay out of the League of Nations.

ILO staff at the port in Portugal. They took this boat to the U.S. to go to Canada.

The American, John Winant, took over as head of the ILO in 1939 - just as the Second World War was imminent. He moved the ILO's headquarters temporarily to Montreal, Canada, in May 1940 for reasons of safety.

Morrice Hall, McGill University, where ILO set up its temporary headquarters from 1940-1948.

His successor, Ireland's Edward Phelan, had helped to write the 1919 Constitution and played an important role once again during the Philadelphia meeting of the International Labour Conference, in the midst of the Second World War.

1944-05-17, Edward J. Phelan signing the Declaration of Philadelphia at the White House in the presence of (left to right) President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cordell Hull (US Secretary of State), Walter Nash (President of the 26th Session of the ILC), Frances Perkins (US Secretary of Labor) and Lindsay Rogers (ILO Assistant Director), Washington DC.

Government delegates, employers and workers from 41 countries adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia as an annex to the ILO Constitution. The Declaration still constitutes the Charter of the aims and objectives of the ILO. The Declaration sets out the key principles for the ILO’s work after the end of World War II. These include that “labour is not a commodity”, and that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity“.

Going global

In 1946, the ILO became a specialized agency of the newly formed United Nations.

1946-12, signing of the United Nation agreement whereby the ILO became the first United Nations specialized agency. From left to right: Edward Phelan, ILO Director-General, and Trygve Lie, United Nations Secretary-General.

America's David Morse was Director-General from 1948-1970, when the number of Member States doubled and the Organization took on its universal character. Industrialized countries became a minority among developing countries, the budget grew five-fold and the number of officials quadrupled.

The ILO established the Geneva-based International Institute for Labour Studies in 1960 and the International Training Centre in Turin in 1965. The Organization won the Nobel Peace Prize on its 50th anniversary in 1969.

Under Britain's Wilfred Jenks, Director-General from 1970-73, the ILO advanced further in the development of standards and mechanisms for supervising their application, particularly the promotion of freedom of association and the right to organize.

1969-10-10, ILO Director-General David A. Morse receives the 1969 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the ILO from Aase Lionaes, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament, in the Aula of the University of Oslo.

His successor, Francis Blanchard of France, expanded ILO's technical cooperation with developing countries. The ILO played a major role in the emancipation of Poland from dictatorship by giving its full support to the legitimacy of the Solidarnosc Union, based on respect for Convention No. 87 on freedom of association, which Poland had ratified in 1957.

1981-06, ILC 67th Session - Mr. Lech Walesa, Chairman of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc (Workers' representative, Poland). ILO historical archives.

Belgium's Michel Hansenne succeeded him in 1989 and guided the ILO into the post-Cold War period, emphasizing the importance of placing social justice at the heart of international economic and social policies. He also set the ILO on a course of decentralization of activities and resources away from the Geneva headquarters.

In March 1999, Juan Somavia of Chile took over as Director-General. He emphasized the importance of making decent work a strategic international goal and promoting a fair globalization. He also underlined work as an instrument of poverty alleviation and the ILO's role in helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, including cutting world poverty in half by 2015.

Under Somavia, the ILO established the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, which published a major report responding to the needs of people as they cope with the unprecedented changes that globalization has brought to societies.

In May 2012, Guy Ryder (UK) was elected as the tenth Director-General of the ILO. He was re-elected to his second five-year term in November 2016. Ryder has emphasised that the future of work is not predetermined: Decent work for all is possible but societies have to make it happen. It is precisely with this imperative that the ILO established its Global Commission on the Future of Work as part of its initiative to mark its centenary in 2019.