ILO centenary: milestones

Chris Simoens
07 May 2019
In 2019, the International Labour Organisation celebrates its 100th anniversary. reviews some of the milestones in its long history.

1919 – Establishment

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is established under the Versailles Treaty following the First World War to contribute to more social justice in order to achieve sustainable world peace.


1919/1920 – 9 conventions and 10 recommendations

Under the impetus of the ILO’s first director, Frenchman Albert Thomas, 9 conventions and 10 recommendations are approved during the first 2 years, including the convention on working hours, maternity protection, minimum age, unemployment, night work for women and night work for young people.


1920 – Permanent secretariat in Geneva

The ILO moves into a building in Geneva. Although the organisation moves in 1926 and 1974, it always stays in Geneva (except during the Second World War).

The ILO building in 1926

1926 – Slavery Convention

The Slavery Convention is adopted by the League of Nations. Signatory countries must eliminate all forms of slavery and impose heavy fines on people involved in slave trade and slave holding.


1926 – Committee of experts controls conventions

A committee of independent lawyers hold countries accountable to the ILO conventions they have ratified.


1929 – Beginning of the Great Depression

The ILO plays an important role in finding solutions to the Great Depression, a period of over ten years that brought massive unemployment to Europe and the US. Nationalism and isolationism are gaining ground.


1936 – First regional conference in Santiago (Chile)

With the rise of nationalism and anti-democratic regimes in Europe, the ILO is focusing more on America. The conference of American member states reaffirms the idea of universality: the actions of the ILO must correspond to the needs of all peoples throughout the world, whichever social or economic regime their country adheres to.


1939-1945 – Women at the forefront during WW II

During the horrific Second World War, women increasingly carry out jobs that were traditionally intended for men. This changes the perspective on women’s rights and on the capacities of women and their participation in the labour market.


The conference in Philadelphia in 1944

1944 – The Declaration of Philadelphia

The ILO adopts the Declaration of Philadelphia, which reasserts that (1) labour is not a commodity, (2) freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress, and (3) poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.


1946 – The ILO joins the United Nations

The ILO becomes the first specialised agency of the United Nations, established in 1945. This establishes the ILO as one of the central fora for debate throughout the Cold War.


1947 – First Asian regional conference in New Delhi (India)

Delegates from 18 countries and territories meet to strengthen ILO activities in Asia, at a time of great change in the region that sees India and Pakistan gain independence.

First Asian regional conference in New Delhi (India) with primer ministre Nehru

1948 – Fundamental Convention on freedom of association

Convention no. 87 on 'freedom of association and protection of the right to organise' is adopted, setting forth the right for workers to establish and join organisations of their own choosing, without needing authorisation.


1949 – Fundamental Convention on collective bargaining

Convention nr. 98 on the 'right to organise and collective bargaining' states that workers shall be protected against acts of anti-union discrimination, and enshrines the right to collective bargaining.


1952 – The Andean Indian Programme

The first large-scale technical cooperation programme, led by the ILO in cooperation with other UN agencies, is launched. Its aim is to improve the social and economic conditions of indigenous people in the seven Andean countries it covers.


First African regional conference in Lagos (Nigeria)

1960 – First African regional conference in Lagos (Nigeria)

This regional conference – the biggest ever organised by the ILO – takes place in the context of the independence of numerous African countries. In 1960, 16 African countries join the ILO, which significantly changes the organisation’s structure and activities.


1964 – The Declaration against Apartheid

The International Labour Conference unanimously adopts the Declaration against Apartheid, condemning South Africa’s racial segregation policy. In 1990, Nelson Mandela pays tribute to the ILO for its contribution to the struggle against apartheid. Apartheid is officially ended in 1994.


Nelson Mandela pays tribute to the ILO for its contribution to the struggle against apartheid (1992).

1969 – ILO is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on its 50th anniversary

In her speech, Mrs. Aase Lionaes, chair of the Nobel Committee, said: 'Beneath the foundation stone of the ILO's main office in Geneva lies a document on which is written: if you desire peace, cultivate justice. There are few organizations that have succeeded to the extent that the ILO has, in translating into action the fundamental moral idea on which it is based.'

The ILO Charter and Medal of the IlO's Nobel Prize in 1969

1977 - Multinational Enterprises Declaration

The Declaration aims to guide and inspire multinational companies in areas such as employment, training, working conditions, safety and health, and industrial relations.


1982 – ILO promotes trade union freedom in Eastern Europe

In 1981, the Polish government dissolves the trade union Solidarnosc, which had been founded the year before by Lech Walesa. The ILO gives its full support to the legitimacy of Solidarnosc in Poland and opens the door to the eventual return to democracy.

Lech Walesa on an ILO meeting in 1981

1989 – Belgian Michel Hansenne becomes ILO Director-General

Michel Hansenne remains at the head of the ILO until 1999. So far, he is the only Belgian to have been in charge of the ILO.


1992 – New programme to eliminate child labour

The ILO launches the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, which has contributed to saving 86 million children from child labour.


1998 – The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

Member countries commit to respect and promote the rights and principles relating to (1) freedom of association and collective bargaining, (2) the fight against child labour, (3) the abolition of all forms of forced labour, and (4) fundamental principles and rights at work, whether or not they have ratified the relevant conventions.


2008 – The Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation

The declaration promotes dignified work through four objectives that are inseparable, interlinked and mutually supportive: (1) employment creation, (2) social protection, (3) social dialogue, and (4) fundamental principles and rights at work. In addition, it promotes social dialogue and tripartism – cooperation between governments, employers and employees – as the most appropriate methods for translating economic development into social progress, and social progress into economic development. The same year, the global financial crisis takes hold, becoming the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.


2009 – The Global Jobs Pact

The Global Jobs Pact encourages governments to make job creation a priority in their economic recovery policies, but also to extend the social protection of workers and their families.


2015 – Decent work at the centre of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The 4 pillars of decent work become integral elements of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: rights at work, employment creation and enterprise development, social protection and social dialogue. SDG 8 is specifically dedicated to decent work.


2019 – ILO centenary: shaping a future that works for all

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the ILO, an independent report is presented with trends and recommendations on the world of work and its future.


Source: ILO


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