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100 years of ILO History

A house for social justice - past, present and future

The vision and rich history of the International Labour Organization has been closely bound up with the buildings that have housed its headquarters. In the first of a series looking at 100 years of ILO history, we chart key moments of the ILO story through the main buildings that have been its home.

News | 09 November 2018
GENEVA (ILO News) –The ILO was created as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War 1, in the belief that social justice is essential to universal and lasting peace.

Founded in 1919, the first few months of the new organization were based in London. However, with Geneva planned as the seat of the newly-formed League of Nations, the ILO moved its offices there in the summer of 1920.

Its first home in Geneva was in an elegant building that was formerly a boarding school and which now houses the International Committee of the Red Cross. From these headquarters, and against the backdrop of continuing social unrest in Europe, a raft of international Conventions and Recommendations were adopted by the fledgling organization.

Soon it became clear that the building was too small for the expanding ILO staff and its ever-more relevant and pressing mandate.

A ‘house’ by the lake

Georges Epitaux, the architect who designed the new headquarters, envisioned a building that would reflect the mandate and structure of the ILO.

The location could not have been more appropriate. Situated on the shores of Lake Geneva, it embodied peace and stability. The Latin words chiselled on the foundation stone Si vis pacem, cole justiciam (If you desire peace, cultivate justice), reflected the vision of the ILO’s founders. The three keys that opened the ornate gates at its inauguration in 1926, symbolised the three constituent groups of the ILO; governments, employers and workers.

“We enter this house with a feeling of joyful hope and certainty,” said ILO Director-General Albert Thomas in his inaugural speech.

“Despite all the misery of a world that is still divided and in turmoil…we believe that, through the efforts of the ILO, social justice will be established in the world.”

By the end of the 1930s the work of the ILO was threatened by the outbreak of war in Europe. In May 1940, with tank barricades around the Swiss frontier, the ILO moved to a temporary home at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

For the next few years, the ILO continued its work as the only international organization still in operation,

While the conflict raged a special session of the International Labour Conference took place in New York and Washington D.C. to discuss post-war economic and social reconstruction. The role played by the ILO during this time was key to its survival and foreshadowed the establishment of the United Nations.

It was during this critical phase of the ILO’s history that the organization adopted in 1944 its historic Philadelphia Declaration. This reaffirmed the ILO’s vision and defined a set of principles, with human rights at their centre, to meet the “aspirations aroused by hopes for a better world”.

The move back to Geneva after the end of the war was followed by an expansion of ILO membership. Alongside this, operations at headquarters became more complex and required more staff.

The largest administrative building in Switzerland

By the time the ILO Governing Body discussed the idea of building a new headquarters, in 1966, the ILO was spread between four locations in the city.

The Swiss government offered to move the ILO to a new, much larger, site on the hillside overlooking the lake. The cornerstone for the new building was laid in May 1970, consisting of three blocks symbolizing the government, worker and employer groups of the ILO.

When the new ILO headquarters was inaugurated in 1974, it was the largest administrative building in Switzerland, and immediately became one of the landmarks of the city. A biconcave rectangular block, it stands 11 floors and 50 metres high, 190 metres long, and is 32 metres wide at its widest point. The project used 11,700 tons of steel, 4,000 times more than the Eiffel Tower.

The new ILO headquarters was a symbol of its time, a firm commitment to modernity and expressed optimism in the future. According to the then Director-General, Francis Blanchard, it represented the role the ILO would play in the future and the scale of the task ahead.

Ready for the next hundred years

As the ILO approaches its Centenary, amid a time of rapid change in the world of work, the building is also undergoing its own transformation – a renovation that will make the entire complex greener, more energy efficient, technologically up-to-date and ready for the next century.