ILO Centenary: how the organisation was founded

Chris Simoens
07 May 2019
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was established in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles following the First World War. The leaders of the time had understood that universal and lasting peace is impossible without social justice.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was the very first specialised agency of the United Nations (UN), still called the 'League of Nations' back then. Up until this day, the ILO is committed to making decent work a reality for everyone worldwide. As such, the organisation is an important partner of the Belgian Development Cooperation. For a general overview, we refer to our article The International Labour Organisation in a nutshell.

Both the ILO and the League of Nations emerged from the Treaty of Versailles, which aimed to  redesign a Europe ravaged by the devastating First World War and imposed crushing reparations on Germany to compensate for the damage caused by the war. According to critics, the treaty planted the seeds for the Second World War.


Tripartite formula

The Versailles Treaty nonetheless expressed a vision calling for more international cooperation by establishing the League of Nations. Labour was considered the world’s most urgent priority. In 1919, the newly established International Labour Organisation’s task was to strive for 'social justice': respect for workers, fairer wages, … Employees (trade unions), employers and governments would cooperate within the framework of the ILO.


The 3 keys represent the ILO's unique 'tripartite' formula: employees (trade unions), employers and governments working together.

Access gate to the ILO buildings with a lock with 3 keys.

This so-called 'tripartite' formula was quite revolutionary at the time. When his country joined the ILO in 1934, the then American president Roosevelt put it as follows: "I well remember that in those days the ILO was still a dream. To many it was a wild dream. Who had ever heard of governments getting together to raise the standards of labour on an international plane? Wilder still was the idea that the people themselves who were directly affected – the workers and the employers of the various countries – should have a hand with government in determining these labour standards."


Horrible labour conditions

The need for an international labour organisation was pressing: the establishment of the ILO was not only preceded by the bloody First World War, but also by a century of shameless exploitation of workers during the Industrial Revolutions. The First Revolution (late 18th century until the first half of the 19th century) included mechanisation, steam power, steelmaking, coal mining and textile industry, while the Second Revolution (1870-1914) introduced mass production and assembly line manufacturing, in addition to electricity, telegraphy, better machines, cars, bicycles...

Workers worked long hours in unhealthy conditions and could not even live on their wages. For example, the working week in New York’s Triangle Shortwaist Factory, which made women’s blouses, amounted to 52 hours in 1911. That same year, 146 people, including 123 women, were killed in a fire.

Indeed, women did heavy and dirty work as well, mainly in underpaid sectors such as the textile industry and agriculture, and as seamstresses or maids. And then we have not even mentioned child labour: in 1885, five-year-old children were working in the US coal mines! In 1910, an estimated two million children were working in the US, often doing life-threatening work, such as in the cotton mills.

Work accidents and disasters were not uncommon. In 1906, a mine explosion in Courrières, France, killed 1099 people, while 439 miners lost their lives in the Senghenydd explosion in Wales in 1913. The owner of the mine only paid a 10 pounds fine.

19th century engraving of the Dry Goods Store in Broadway: hundreds of women sew under supervision.
© Shutterstock

Trade unions

Protests were unavoidable. Trade unions began to emerge as early as the beginning of the 18th century, although strikes were initially prohibited. A little later, the socialist movement was born. On the very first International Labour Day in 1886, 350,000 workers went on strike to demand an 8-hour working day.

But strikers were sometimes subjected to rough treatment. For example, 21 coal-miners were shot after a seven-month strike in Colorado, US, in 1914, in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre.

During the First World War, working conditions got even worse. The limited existing labour legislation was often abolished in order not to stand in the way of the war efforts. In 1916, an international trade union congress in Leeds (UK) therefore called for the establishment of an international labour organisation.

On top of this came the bloody Russian revolution of 1917, when the communist Bolsheviks seized power in Russia by exploiting the dissatisfaction that reigned among 'proletarians', the working class that lived in extreme poverty and had to work in miserable conditions.


Not only politicians, but also employers and trade unionists feared that a global proletarian revolution would break out.


As the massive inequality became unbearable, workers’ demands became increasingly strident after the First World War. They asked for a peace agreement with attention for fairer working conditions supported by international labour legislation and trade union rights.

The situation could even be called explosive. Not only politicians, but also employers and trade unionists feared that a global proletarian revolution would break out. The unrest was such that world peace and harmony was in jeopardy, reports the peace treaty.

At the same time, leaders became more and more aware that national economies were highly interdependent and that global cooperation was needed to create similar working conditions in countries competing with each other on the world market.


Belgium at the forefront

During the Paris Peace Conference, a Labour Commission was established with representatives from nine countries: Belgium, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Between January and April 1919, this committee worked out the constitution of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which contained a number of key principles such as equal pay for equal work and freedom of association.

In October-November 1919, the first International Labour Congress was held in Washington, with delegations from 40 different countries participating. During the summer of 1920, the ILO's headquarters opened in Geneva (Switzerland). The first director was Frenchman Albert Thomas.


In less than two years’ time, nine conventions and ten recommendations were adopted.

In less than two years’ time, nine conventions and ten recommendations were adopted, including the convention on working time (8 hours/day, 48 hours/week), maternity protection (6 weeks' leave before and after childbirth), minimum age (14 years in mines, construction and transport), unemployment, night work for women (prohibited between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.) and night work for young people (prohibited under 16 years).

To this day, the ILO continues to strive for 'decent work', which includes fair pay, safety, the freedom to organise and express one's concerns, and equal opportunities and treatment for men and women.

Belgium's pioneering role has contributed to several EU Member States ratifying important ILO conventions. The Europe-Central Asia region is the only region so far where all eight fundamental ILO conventions have been ratified by all countries. Another noteworthy fact is that Belgian Michel Hansenne was at the head of the ILO for ten years, from 1989 to 1999.


Read also:

ILO In a nutshell

ILO centenary: milestones

ILO Decent work
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