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Laying the foundations of social justice

Laying the foundations of social justice

The International Labour Organization is a UN specialized agency dealing with labour issues. Its main aims are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues. In 1969, the Organization received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Explore this InfoStory to learn about how the creation of the ILO laid the foundations of social justice.

Why was the International Labour Organization created?

Several changes at the beginning of the nineteenth century triggered the process of creating the ILO, such as growing industrialization, war and revolutions.

Photo: The Four Races Monument, erected in 1937 at Albert Thomas Square in Geneva, represents workers from different trades and continents

Growing industrialization

At the turn of the twentieth century, the world of work was changing dramatically. The flow of workers from agriculture to industry was accelerating at an unprecedented rate.

Working conditions were often poor, and inequity and exploitation were on the rise. Workplace inspection and employer accountability mechanisms were weak and industrial tragedies were common.

Photo: Ironwork factory in Eiserfeld, Germany, in 1900. Credit: Peter Weller

Working conditions at the turn of the 20th century

2 million

The estimated number of child labourers in the United States in 1910


The number of workers who walked away from their jobs on the first ever International Workers’ Day in 1886, calling for an eight-hour working day


The months of industrial action that preceded the Ludlow Massacre in 1914, which was carried out by local militia and company guards as retaliation against striking coal miners in Colorado

years old

The age of the youngest children working in mines in the United States in 1885


The average number of hours worked a week at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911


The number of recorded boiler explosions in the United States between 1880 and 1890


The number of miners who died in the dust explosion that became known as the Courrières mine disaster in France in 1906


The fine for safety violations paid by the owner of the Senghenydd Colliery in Wales after an explosion killed 439 coal miners in 1913

of working women

In the UK, this was the share of women working in only five low-paid areas: textiles, agriculture, domestic service, retailing and needlework

A global labour agenda

Work played an important role in political agendas worldwide, especially in rapidly industrializing countries.

There was growing understanding of the interconnected nature of labour markets and recognition of a need for global cooperation to protect workers and to keep socially advanced countries competitive in global markets.

Photo: Workers in the port of Hamburg, Germany, in 1900. Credit: Johann Hamann

War and revolution

In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War, but was signed against a backdrop of ongoing revolution and civil war in Russia and spreading social unrest in Europe.

The ILO and the League of Nations were founded together as an integral part of the peace process. This marked the first-ever attempt to foster international cooperation by creating universal organizations to address the political, social and economic problems of the world.

A few of the signatures present in the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919. Credit: Amalgamated Press Ltd.

The ILO Constitution

The ILO's first Constitution was prepared by the Commission on International Labour Legislation of the Peace Conference in 1919. The Constitution's Preamble lays out the founding principles of the Organization.

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

Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice

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

Social justice

Social justice and humane conditions of labour cannot be achieved while workers struggle to make their voices heard.

The ILO was founded on a system that gives governments, employers and worker representatives a seat at the table, where they can openly debate and develop labour standards together. This system is called tripartism and it remains the defining feature of the Organization to this day.

Photo: The three symbolic keys representing tripartism used at the inauguration ceremony of the ILO Building on 6 June 1926

The first labour standards

Setting international labour standards is at the core of the ILO's work. They aim to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity. In the first two years of its existence, the ILO adopted 16 international labour Conventions and 18 Recommendations.

Hours of Work

Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 (No. 1)

The ILO’s very first Convention set limits on working hours in industry to eight hours a day and 48 hours a week. Limits on working time had been one of the principal demands of the international trade union movement for many years. (Photo credit: Lewis Hine)

Maternity Protection

Maternity Protection Convention, 1919 (No. 3)

One of the ILO’s earliest priorities was adopting standards to protect women at work. This Convention aimed to guarantee basic paid maternity leave for women for up to six weeks before their “confinement” and a mandatory six weeks after giving birth.

Minimum age

Minimum Age (Industry) Convention, 1919 (No. 5)

This Convention was the very first international instrument concerning children’s rights. It stated that children under the age of 14 were not to be employed in industries such as mining, manufacturing, construction or transport.


Unemployment Convention, 1919 (No. 2)

This Convention was the ILO’s first attempt to tackle the problem of social protection, in part prompted by the need to reintegrate demobilized soldiers into the workforce. (Photo credit: Dorothea Lange)

Night work for women

Night Work (Women) Convention, 1919 (No. 4)

This Convention forbade the employment of women between 10 pm and 5 am. It was seen as an important protective measure in an era when gender equality was still a very distant goal. (Photo credit: Great Falls Commercial Club)

Night work of young persons

Night Work of Young Persons (Industry) Convention, 1919 (No. 6)

This Convention banned night work for workers under the age of 16 and allowed it only in certain industries for workers under 18. (Photo credit: Lewis Hine)

Albert Thomas and early members

Albert Thomas served as the first director of the ILO from 1919 to 1932. He travelled widely and often, seeking support from workers, employers and politicians for the ILO and its objectives.

He aimed to create a strong global presence for the fledgling organization and in particular to promote free trade unions at a time when many countries did not have democratic regimes. During his mandate, the number of member States grew from 44 to 54, from all five continents.

Photo: The first Director-General of the ILO was the French politician Albert Thomas

Founding principles today

Today, the ILO has 187 member States. Achieving peace through social justice is still at the heart of the Organization's work.

In the face of rapid globalization and severe economic crisis, the ILO is still guided by its founding principles and continues to reaffirm their relevance in the twenty-first century.

Photo: The 86th Session of the International Labour Conference in 1998 at the UN Assembly Hall, in Geneva

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