The idea of regulating labour at an international level gradually gained favour throughout the 19th century. The First World War marked a watershed in the movement: the Paris Peace Conference that opened on 29 January 1919 established the Commission on International Labour Legislation to draft the constitution of a permanent international organization. The text adopted on 11 and 28 April under the heading “Labour” became Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles, or the « ILO Constitution ». The Peace Conference adopted the Treaty of Versailles in its entirety on 28 June 1919. Articles 387 to 427 deal with the organization of ILO, which comprises
(Photo: ILO Assistant Director Harold Butler and Director Albert Thomas enjoy a moment of rest in front of the first ILO building, La Châtelaine. This building now houses the Headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Pregny, Switzerland, 1920.)
The International Labour Office (ILO), the Organization’s permanent secretariat, was established in London and moved to Geneva on 19 July 1920. It set up shop in the building that is today the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), across from the Pregny entrance to the Palais des Nations. ILO soon realized that the building was ill suited to its activities and so decided not to buy it. The decision to build new premises was taken at the 2nd Assembly of the League of Nations . The foundation stone of the new building was laid at a ceremony at Sécheron, on the shores of Lake Geneva , on 21 October 1923. The building, which was constructed by Swiss architect Georges Epitaux (1873-1957), was inaugurated less than three years later, on 6 June 1926. ILO’s current premises, on the route des Morillons, were inaugurated on 12 November 1974.
(Photo: ILO's first premises (1920-1926), today the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).)
At periodic intervals, ILO convenes a session of the International Labour Conference centred on the maritime sector, to address problems specific to work in that sector.
The 2nd International Labour Conference was held in Genoa, in June 1920. It was entirely devoted to maritime matters. The Conference adopted the Minimum Age (Sea) Convention, which entered into force on 27 September 1921 and was amended by the Minimum Age (Sea) Convention (Revised), 1936 and by the Minimum Age Convention (1973).
(Photo: Albert Thomas, ILO Director (1920-1932) and a group of shipowners, members of the Joint Maritime Commission. 2nd International Labour Conference (Maritime Session), Genoa, June 1920.)
During the first years of ILO’s existence, international labour standards were adopted and regular supervisory activities carried out each year during the plenary meetings of the International Labour Conference (ILC). The rapidly growing number of ratifications soon led, however, to a concomitant rise in the number of annual reports submitted. It became clear before long that the Conference plenary would no longer be able to examine all the reports, adopt new standards and deliberate other key matters. In 1926, the 8th Session of the ILC therefore adopted a resolution establishing an annual Conference committee (subsequently called the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards) and asked the Governing Body to appoint a technical committee (subsequently called the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations).
The two committees would become the pillars of ILO’s supervisory system.
The Committee of Experts is an independent body made up of jurists appointed by ILO’s Governing Body. Its mission is to examine the application of ILO conventions and recommendations by the Member States. The experts come from different geographical regions, legal systems and cultures. The Committee meets each year in November and December. Its task is to indicate to what extent the legislation and practice of each Member State conform to the conventions it has ratified and to what degree the Member State discharges the obligations incumbent on it by virtue of the ILO Constitution. In accomplishing that task, the Committee adheres to the principles of independence, objectivity and impartiality.
The Conference Committee on the Application of Standards is one of the ILC’s standing committees. It is tripartite and as such comprises government, employer and worker representatives. At each session, the Committee elects a bureau made up of a chairperson (a government member), two vice-chairpersons (employer member and worker member) and a rapporteur (government member). The Committee meets ever year during the June session of the ILC. Its deliberations focus on:
“This fundamental convention prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labour […] Exceptions are provided for work required by compulsory military service, normal civic obligations, as a consequence of a conviction in a court of law […], in cases of emergency, and for minor communal services performed by the members of a community in the direct interest of the community. The convention also requires that the illegal extraction of forced or compulsory labour be punishable as a penal offence, and that ratifying states ensure that the relevant penalties imposed by law are adequate and strictly enforced.” (See Rules of the game: a brief introduction to international labour standards, p. 35)
(Photo: Committee on Forced Labour, Geneva, May 1953. From left to right: Dag Hammarskjold (United Nations Secretary-General), Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar (Chairperson), David A. Morse (ILO Director-General) and Enrique Garcia-Sayan (former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Peru))
In addition to discharging its missions relating to international labour law and documentation, ILO developed concrete activities in the member countries. Indeed, the problem of adapting the international labour conventions to local and regional conditions arose as early as 1919. This development, which was defined by the term “regionalization”, saw the gradual establishment of regional conferences and of a network of branch offices and national correspondents.
The first regional conference of Member States was organized in 1936, the aim being to examine problems of particular interest in a given region. The Santiago Conference adopted 26 resolutions relating to social security and working conditions in countries in the Americas. Numerous points were discussed, including:
This first regional conference was an undeniable success and genuinely helped strengthen ILO's universal character.
(Photo: ILO staff at the opening session of the First Labour Conference of American States, 1936.)