The roots of an enduring principle

Nearly 90 years after their first expression in the ILO Constitution, the words “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice” still ring true. The concept that “conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest” is as relevant today as it was then.

Central to these novel ideas was the principle that “the labour of a human being should not be treated as merchandise or an article of commerce”. This and several other “labour clauses” had indeed been proposed for insertion in the Treaty of Peace that formally put an end to the First World War as a foundation for the new Organization’s programme of work. They included the regulation of hours of work, an adequate living wage, social security, protection of children, equal pay and freedom of association. Most of these principles found their way into the Preamble to the Constitution – with one basic, but crucial exception.

The 1944 International Labour Conference, meeting in Philadelphia, sought to remedy this, reaffirming the fundamental principles on which the ILO was based. This time, the principle that “labour is not a commodity” was a priority, followed by ideas like freedom of association and the concept that “poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”. The eponymous Declaration of Philadelphia concerning the Aims and Purposes of the International Labour Organization was annexed to the Constitution as a reminder of the timeless relevance of the principles it enshrined. That allowed the ILO to survive the collapse of the League of Nations and become a specialized agency of the United Nations.

Today, the ILO continues to embrace the vision of Philadelphia. Decent work has become not only the organizing framework for the ILO’s activities in today’s age of globalization – it embodies the principle 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; … the attainment of the conditions in which this shall be possible must constitute the central aim of national and international policy”. Thus, from its roots in the ILO’s past, decent work has flourished into the Organization’s future, becoming a global goal to be pursued by every country today and tomorrow.