Since its founding in 1919 the International Labor Organization (ILO) has worked to improve the working and living conditions of people worldwide by promoting standards that reduce social injustice in the areas of employment, pay, health, and working conditions. The ILO also believes that workers have the right to freedom of association. Central to the ILO's philosophy is the belief that the promotion and implementation of these standards on a global scale will greatly reduce if not eliminate the injustice and unrest that leads to conflict, social upheaval, and war. Since 1946 the ILO has been a specialized agency of the United Nations. In keeping with its global operations the ILO is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and has regional offices in Africa, the Arab states, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, North America, and Latin America that are responsible for reporting, regional analysis, and policy implementation.

During the 1800s there were numerous but largely unsuccessful efforts to establish an international labor movement in Europe. The short-lived and unaligned endeavors began as early as the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna and continued through the end of the century with international labor conferences in Berlin in 1890, London in 1896, and Zurich and Brussels in 1897. In 1900 the establishment of the International Association for Labor Legislation brought together a loose coalition of government representatives, labor organizations, and private citizens interested in labor affairs. Although it lacked the wherewithal to institute sweeping labor reforms, it had limited success in promoting better working conditions for women in select industries. Headquartered at the University of Basel in Switzerland, the International Association for Labor Legislation served largely as a center for labor research and a clearinghouse for labor information before growing in influence and prestige. By 1912 its conference in Zurich attracted 22 government delegations and private delegates from 24 countries. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, however, brought a sudden end to its activities.

After World War I delegates to the Paris Peace Conference were mindful of agitation throughout Europe for an international labor organization. The Paris conference organized a commission headed by Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), then president of the American Federation of Labor, to study the issue. Rather than favoring an organization with legislative authority, the commission proposed an organization administered by representatives of government, labor, and industry that would make recommendations to national governments on issues of labor reform. The ILO was thus created pursuant to the Treaty of Versailles. In many respects the ILO was modeled after the now-defunct International Association for Labor Legislation and was designated soon thereafter as an affiliated agency of the now defunct League of Nations.

From its inception to the end of World War II, the ILO was involved in numerous legislative and research projects related to labor reform. During the 1930s it dealt with problems arising from the worldwide economic depression and subsequent unemployment. With the end of World War II the ILO became the first specialized agency of the United Nations after overcoming initial objections from the United States and the Soviet Union. Under an agreement with the United Nations, the ILO—although affiliated with that body—retained policy-making and budgetary autonomy. In 1997 174 member countries were represented in the ILO by their respective workers, employers, and governments.

The ILO sets forth its labor standards in its "conventions." There are seven core conventions that go to the heart of the ILO's philosophy of an economically and socially stabilized world through the promotion of human rights in the workplace, employment and job creation, and fair trade among nations. These seven core conventions are: the Forced Labor Convention, which, excepting for compulsory military service and humane convict labor, denies forced compulsory labor in all of its forms; the Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize Convention, which protects the rights of workers to organize and form beneficial labor associations without prior authorization; the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, which recognizes the right of labor to engage in the collective bargaining process; the Equal Remuneration Convention, which calls for equal pay for men and women for equal work; the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, which prohibits forced or compulsory labor for political or educational purposes or for punishment for political reasons or for participation in a strike; the Discrimination Convention, which seeks national policies to prevent discrimination in the workplace; and the Minimum Age Convention, which seeks to abolish child labor, defined as an age not less than the final age of compulsory schooling.

ILO policy is set by its executive council which meets three times a year at the Geneva headquarters. The council is composed of 28 government members, 14 employers' members, and 14 workers' members. Ten of these seats go to Brazil, the People's Republic of China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all members regarded as "states of chief industrial importance." The remaining 18 seats are elected from other member countries every three years. The International Labour Office in Geneva is regarded as the ILO's secretariat, headquarters, and publishing house. The ILO is staffed by about 1,700 employees with regional, area, and branch offices in 40 countries. ILO's budget for the two years 1998 and 1999 is a projected $481 million.

The ILO maintains relations with such international economic institutions as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization in an effort to keep current with labor-related issues and world trade. In a 1997 interview published in HR Magazine, Anthony Freeman, director of the Washington office of the ILO, said that world trade has greatly increased with the fall of international communism and the move of many Eastern European countries toward a free market economy. As a result the ILO has found itself preoccupied with establishing international labor standards for this new and emerging world economy based on global trade. To meet these new needs and demands the ILO has restructured many of its operations in order to offer better service to clients, members, and developing economies. Part of this restructuring is strategically located multidisciplinary teams consisting of a standards person and an education or labor market specialist. In cooperation with members representing the private sector, the ILO has launched debates, examinations, and annual studies dealing with issues related to employment creation on a global scale. Concurrent is an effort to move worker members away from a protectionist philosophy and toward a way of thinking that parallels the trade liberalization. Freeman also urges employers to offer up-to-date technical training to their employees in an effort to make them more employable and more productive.

[ Michael Knes ]


Ekstrom Library. "International Labor Organization (ILO)." Louisville, KY: University of Louisville, 1997. Available from .

International Labor Organization. "International Labor Organization." Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1998. Available from .

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Leonard, Bill. "An Interview with Anthony Freeman of the ILO." HR Magazine, August 1997, 104-9.

Morse, David A. The Origin and Evolution of the ILO and Its Role in the World Community. Ithaca, NY: New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, 1969.

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