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History of the ILO

The International Labour Organization, the first United Nations specialized agency (1946)


At the end of the war, no one questioned the importance of ILO, but its place and role with regard to the newly founded United Nations remained to be defined. The International Labour Conference, meeting in its 27th Session in Paris in October-November 1945, adopted a resolution confirming the desire of ILO to enter into relationship with the United Nations on terms to be determined by agreement. Starting in 1946, negotiations aimed at defining the exact modes of liaison between the two organizations were engaged. The United Nations Economic and Social Council set up a committee to negotiate with the delegations from specialized institutions, with a view to reaching agreements on the modes of liaison. “After rather difficult negotiations the Negotiating Delegation had arrived at an arrangement which it unanimously regarded as extremely satisfactory to the Organisation. […] It found that the Negotiating Committee of the Economic and Social Council was most co-operative and did its best to meet the Delegation on all the points to which the latter attached particular importance.” (See Minutes of the 99th Session of the Governing Body, p. 15)

The Agreement between the United Nations and ILO was signed in New York on 30 May 1946 by A. Ramaswami Mudaliar, President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council and Chairman of the Council Committee in charge of negotiating with the specialized institutions, and G. Myrddin-Evans, Chairman of the ILO Governing Body and of the ILO Negotiating Delegation: “The United Nations recognises the International Labour Organisation as a specialised agency responsible for taking such action as may be appropriate under its basic instrument for the accomplishment of the purposes set forth therein” (see Agreement between the United Nations and International Labour Organisationarticle 1). The Agreement made ILO the first specialized agency under the terms of article 57 of the United Nations Charter (Chapter IX).


ILO Preparatory Asian Regional Conference, New Delhi, 27 October – 8 November 1947

The first Asian Regional Conference brought together delegations from the ILO Governing Body and from 18 countries and territories. The Conference adopted 23 resolutions on subjects such as:
  • social security and social policy/protection of children and young workers;
  • employment of women and protection of maternity;
  • labour inspection;
  • cooperation between employers and workers;
  • the elimination of forced labour and improved living conditions for aboriginal tribes and untouchable castes.
The scope of the agenda, the number and size of the delegations and the range of conclusions are indicative of the importance of the Conference, which was held at a time of transition for Asia. The Conference also gave renewed impetus to ILO’s activities in the region and thereby strengthened its universality.

Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87)

“This fundamental convention sets forth the right for workers and employers to establish and join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization. Workers' and employers' organizations shall organize freely and not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority, and they shall have the right to establish and join federations and confederations, which may in turn affiliate with international organizations of workers and employers.” (See Rules of the game: a brief introduction to international labour standardsp. 33).

Launch of the ILO Manpower Programme (1948)

Pursuant to the decisions taken at the 104th (March 1948), 107th (December 1948) and 108th (March 1949) Sessions of its Governing Body, ILO started implementing the Manpower Programme. The objective of the Programme, the most far-reaching ever undertaken by the Organization, was to conduct activities with a view to helping governments and organizations of employers and workers to cope rapidly and effectively with immediate manpower problems. In December 1948, nine months after its launch in Europe, the Programme was expanded to Latin America and Asia.

Although it was based on ILO’s work of the past, the Programme nevertheless took a new tack. Before the Second World War, ILO manpower action consisted above all in establishing standards, doing research and providing information. From its inception, the Programme endeavoured to give greatly expanded scope to technical advisory missions. It worked along three main lines:
  • employment organization;
  • vocational training;
  • migration.

ILO Technical cooperation programmes are expanded (1949)

Technical cooperation, like international labour standards and research activities, is a fundamental ILO mission under the Organization’s Constitution.

In the 1930s, ILO technical assistance consisted in sending advisory missions to countries wishing to receive advice on the application of standards. As of 1949, however, under the United Nations Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA), technical assistance became more systematic and was organized in project cycles comprising five main stages: identification, preparation, preliminary study, implementation and evaluation. In concrete terms, the technical assistance ILO provided to the Member States consisted in making available experts and equipment and in putting together vocational training programmes. In 1960, at the first African Regional Conference, the concept of assistance was officially replaced by that of technical cooperation.

Technical cooperation has played a key part in ILO’s history and cannot be considered separately from the Organization’s international labour standardsIt is the genuine synergy between the two that lends coherence to ILO action: “The true nature of the link between technical cooperation and standards is therefore naturally brought out by an examination of these reciprocal obligations: member States help the Organisation to promote its objects by participating actively and in good faith in its standard-setting activities; while the Organisation ‘furthers’, through its operational programmes, the efforts of the member States to attain the same objectives […] To achieve that synergy, the ILO must work in partnership with its member States. Such a partnership requires a joint determination of specific objectives and a mutual commitment on the principles to be observed. It requires, above all, a constant dialogue among the ILO and its tripartite constituents” (see International labour standards and technical cooperation, pp. 4-15).

Technical cooperation is thus a key means of ensuring the fundamental principles and rights at work are applied on the ground.

In 1966, the founding of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), replacing EPTA and the Special United Nations Fund for Economic Development (SUNFED, established in 1958), gave fresh impetus to technical cooperation activities. From the outset, the UN’s specialized agencies were tasked with implementing the various projects forming part of this global development network. Under this division of tasks, ILO was quite logically put in charge of labour.

Launch of the Special Migration Programme (1950)

Under its Constitution, one aspect of ILO’s mission is to protect migrant workers: “to further among the nations of the world programmes which will achieve […] the provision, […] under adequate guarantees for all concerned, of facilities for training and the transfer of labour, including migration for employment and settlement” (Annex to the Constitution: Declaration concerning the aims and purposes of the International Labour Organization).


The Preliminary Conference on Migration was held in Geneva from 25 April to 9 May 1950 pursuant to the decision taken at the 110th Session  (January 1950) of the ILO Governing Body. The Conference constituted a starting point for international activities in this field (see Key documents, “International Migration 1945-1957”, p. 291). Indeed, the Member States of the Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) and ILO, expressing their satisfaction at the work accomplished by the Preliminary Conference, decided to make available to ILO a fund amounting to nearly one million dollars so as to enable it to develop practical activities and furnish advice and opinions on migration issues to the governments requesting them (see Key documents, “Migration and Economic Development”, pp. 114-115). The Special Migration Programme was launched in June 1950, its aim being to facilitate and organize the flow of migrants between European countries with excess manpower and countries overseas seeking manpower with a view to their economic development. 

Thus, as of the 1950s ILO action was expanded to encompass all aspects pertaining to migrant workers and their families, for whom it defined international standards, spread information and dispensed technical assistance. The Organization dealt with emigration, immigration, organization of the employment market and the vocational training of candidates for emigration. It provided assistance through the expert missions set up in Bonn, Rome and Vienna and through a group of experts established within the Action Centre opened in Latin America.


Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100)

Launch of the Andean Programme (1953)

In 1952, the United Nations Technical Assistance Board (TAB) sent a mission comprising labour specialists, doctors and anthropologists to the  Andes . The mission, which went by the name “Beaglehole”, was tasked with studying the living and working conditions of the “indigenous” peoples. On its return four months later, the mission formulated a series of recommendations that would give rise to the Andean Programme.

ILO was put in charge of a special committee set up within TAB and made up of representatives of the participating organizations:

  • the United Nations;
  • the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) ;
  • the World Health Organization (WHO);
  • the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The committee conducted its activities within the framework of the United Nations Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA), established in 1949.

Starting in 1953, teams of specialists were sent to various countries (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and later Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Venezuela) to spread knowledge of modern techniques liable to improve the crops and living conditions of the “indigenous” populations. A second, teaching and training phase was launched later and ran concomitantly with the first phase of demonstration. The aim of the second phase was to set up vocational workshops, a teacher training institute (Peru), a social worker training centre (Bolivia), and a centre to train community workers and senior administrative staff (Ecuador).

First ILO European Regional Conference, Geneva, 24 January - 5 February 1955

The first European Regional Conference, convened by the ILO Governing Body at its 127th Session (November 1954), was held in Geneva from 24 January to 5 February 1955. The Conference adopted resolutions and conclusions on the following subjects:
  • the role of employers and workers in programmes to raise productivity;
  • the age of retirement;
  • an international comparison of the cost of social security and other social advantages;
  • the financing of social security.
In a statement to the press at the start of the Governing Body’s deliberations, the ILO Director-General, David A. Morse, recalled the Conference’s importance: “The items on the agenda are certainly important, but in my view, this conference’s significance lies chiefly in the fact that it shows that the countries of Europe now declare themselves ready to look for solutions to the social problems posed by the more complete economic integration of the continent”. He thus strongly reasserted the important role ILO played in European social affairs, seven years after the launch of the Manpower Programme.

Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)

“This fundamental convention prohibits forced or compulsory labour as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social or economic system; as a method of mobilizing and using labour for purposes of economic development; as a means of labour discipline; as a punishment for having participated in strikes; and as a means of racial, social, national or religious discrimination” (See Rules of the game: a brief introduction to international labour standards, p. 40).

Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111)

“This fundamental convention defines discrimination as any distinction, exclusion or preference made on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin, which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation. [...] It requires ratifying states to declare and pursue a national policy designed to promote, by methods appropriate to national conditions and practice, equality of opportunity and treatment in respect of employment and occupation, with a view to eliminating any discrimination in these fields. The Convention covers discrimination in relation to access to education and vocational training, access to employment and to particular occupations, as well as terms and conditions of employment.” (See Rules of the game: a brief introduction to international labour standards, p. 47).