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History of the ILO

Launch of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) (1992)

IPEC originated at a meeting in Bonn, in September 1990, between the ILO Director-General, Michel Hansenneand the German Labour Minister. The preparatory work carried out during 1991 led to the establishment of an initial programme. In December 1991, ILO and the German Government signed an agreement on a contribution amounting to 50 million Deutsch marks over five years. The Programme was officially launched in 1992.

IPEC's overall objective is to gradually eliminate child labour by bolstering national capacities to tackle the problem and to promote a global anti-child labour movement. At present, IPEC acts through technical cooperation in 88 countries. It is the most far-reaching programme of its kind worldwide and ILO’s largest operational programme.

Although IPEC’s initial objective was the gradual elimination of child labour, it has since set as a priority the struggle against the worst forms of child labour, as defined in the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182).

ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998)

The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998), a promotional instrument drawn up specifically to strengthen application of the fundamental legal principles for social justice, provided a considerable boost to the ratification campaign. 
In June 1994, at the 81st Session of the International Labour Conference, a clear consensus emerged among ILO’s constituents to step up promotion of fundamental social rights. The World Summit for Social Developmentheld in Copenhagen in March 1995, bolstered ILO’s efforts by inviting the governments to protect and promote “respect for the fundamental rights of workers”. It was in this favourable international context that ILO defined as “fundamental” the conventions dealing with matters considered to be fundamental principles and rights at work. On 25 May 1995, ILO Director-General Michel Hansenne, sent a letter to the Member States with a view to obtaining universal ratification of these fundamental conventions, of which there were seven at the time.

In June 1998, the 86th Session of the International Labour Conference adopted the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The Declaration, which asked the States party to the corresponding ILO conventions to give full effect to them and all others, made a decisive contribution to the objectives defined at the Copenhagen Summit. It reasserted the commitment of ILO′s Member States to respect, promote and universally fulfill the principles relating to four fundamental rights at work:
  • freedom of association and effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • elimination of all forms of forced or obligatory labour;
  • effective abolition of child labour;
  • elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation.
“By adopting this Declaration, the ILO has taken up the challenge presented to it by the international community. It has established a social minimum at the global level to respond to the realities of globalization and can now look ahead to the new century with renewed optimism.” (Presentation of the Declaration by ILO Director-General, p. 3, Michel Hansenne). The InFocus Programme on Promoting the Declaration, launched in 1999, generated a new category of technical cooperation projects conceived and funded by ILO.
In 2008, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, drew attention to the importance of accelerated ratification of the fundamental conventions and proposed the goal of universal ratification by 2015. (See Ratification and promotion of fundamental ILO conventions, p. 1)

Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182)

“This fundamental Convention defines as a “child” a person under 18 years of age. It requires ratifying states to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, including: all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict; child prostitution and pornography; using children for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs; and work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children. The Convention requires ratifying states to provide the necessary and appropriate direct assistance for the removal of children from the worst forms of child labour and for their rehabilitation and social integration. It also requires states to ensure access to free basic education and, wherever possible and appropriate, vocational training for children removed from the worst forms of child labour.” (See Rules of the game: a brief introduction to international labour standards, p. 42).

Inception of the Decent Work Agenda (1999)

“The primary goal of the ILO today is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity” (Juan Somavia, ILO Director-General).

Initiated in 1999 by ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, the Decent Work Agenda promotes a development strategy that recognizes the central role of work in everyone′s life. The Organization provides support in the form of integrated decent work programmes developed at country level with ILO′s constituents. These programmes set priorities and targets within national development frameworks and aim to tackle major decent work shortcomings through effective programmes that meet each of ILO′s four strategic objectives: 

  • to promote and implement the standards and fundamental principles and rights at work;
  • to enhance the opportunities for men and women to obtain decent employment and wages;
  • to expand the scope and heighten the effectiveness of social protection for all;
  • to strengthen tripartism and social dialogue.

In his report to the 87th Session of the International Labour Conference, the Director-General recalled the issues inherent in the concept of decent work: “The ILO is concerned with decent work. The goal is not just the creation of jobs, but the creation of jobs of acceptable quality. The quantity of employment cannot be divorced from its quality. All societies have a notion of decent work, but the quality of employment can mean many things. It could relate to different forms of work, and also to different conditions of work, as well as feelings of value and satisfaction. The need today is to devise social and economic systems which ensure basic security and employment while remaining capable of adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances in a highly competitive global market.” (p. 4)

On 10 June 2008, at its 97th Session, the International Labour Conference adopted the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalizationwhich is to be implemented in the context of the Decent Work Agenda and its four strategic objectives.

Launch of the Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work (2000)

In the 1980s, ILO worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) to stem the spread of the AIDS virus. As such, it took part in the WHO Global Programme on AIDS, headed at the time by Dr. Jonathan Mann. In November 1988, at its 241st Session, the ILO Governing Body discussed ongoing partnership projects with WHO, specifically consultations on AIDS and the workplace, and the protection of workers from discrimination.
Today, ILO is determined to continue fighting HIV/AIDS. In November 2000, in cooperation with UNAIDS and pursuant to the resolution adopted at the 88th Session of the International Labour Conference (June 2000), it launched the Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work - ILO/AIDS. The programme′s objective is to take advantage of ILO′s resources and specific structure to promote prevention in the workplace, fight discrimination against infected workers and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, together with ILO′s constituents. It includes awareness-raising and promotion activities, the preparation of directives and standards, and capacity-building for the social partners through technical cooperation. ILO contributes to international action by making available:
  • a tripartite structure that serves to mobilize and support government, employer and worker efforts to fight HIV/AIDS;
  • nearly a century of experience in helping governments draft labour legislation and standards to protect worker rights and improve their working conditions;
  • Ua global network of external offices that provide optimal conditions for the implementation and management of technical cooperation projects;
  • vast expertise in various areas related to HIV/AIDS, such as employment, occupational health and security and social security;
  • solid foundations for research, education and training, knowledge management and communication.

Establishment of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization (2002)

The World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization is an independent body set up by ILO in February 2002. 

At the time of the Commission′s creation, there was no place within the multilateral system for appropriate in-depth coverage of the social dimension of various aspects of globalization. The Commission′s report, A Fair Globalization. Creating Opportunities for All, was the first step towards establishing a structured dialogue between players with different and divergent opinions on the social dimension of globalization.

Hamish Jenkins, Eddy Lee and Gerry Rodgers recall that the Commission was established “at a time of persistent disquiet over the uneven impact of globalization on people, the exclusion of many from its benefits and the failure to adequately realize its potential for good. Much had already been written and said about globalization, but the World Commission was different, an attempt to build consensus […] on the key issues to be addressed and a feasible way forward” (see The quest for a fair globalization three years on, p. 6).

Inception of the Global Employment Agenda (2003)

At its 24th special session (26 June – 1 July 2000), the United Nations General Assembly recognized “the need to elaborate a coherent and coordinated international strategy on employment to increase opportunities for people to achieve sustainable livelihoods and gain access to employment” (p. 1). The Millennium Declarationadopted in September 2000 by the United Nations General Assembly, highlighted a number of global goals to be met by 2015, in particular to reduce by half the number of people earning less than one dollar a day worldwide.

The Global Employment Agenda is ILO′s response to both the United Nations General Assembly resolution and the goals set out in the Millennium Declaration. In November 2001, ILO organized the Global Employment Forum in  Geneva ; the Forum ended with the launch of a 10-point programme to curb the mounting unemployment and impoverishment caused by global recession and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The programme gave rise to the Global Employment Agenda, which was adopted in March 2003 by the ILO Governing Body by a broad tripartite consensus and whose aim is to place employment at the core of the economic and social policies implemented by governments.

The Global Employment Agenda thus constitutes a frame within which ILO can establish partnerships within the multilateral system and approach governments and the social partners, at both national and regional level, with a view to promoting the creation of productive jobs.

Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187)

Adoption of the Maritime Labour Convention (2006)

The 94th Session of the International Labour Conference, which took place in Geneva from 7 to 23 February 2006, dealt exclusively with the maritime sector.  The Conference set an objective of unprecedented ambition, namely the adoption of a global international convention encompassing almost all the conventions and recommendations on maritime labour currently in force (more than 60 texts) with a view to ensuring decent working conditions in an increasingly globalized sector. The convention has not yet entered into force.

ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (2008)

On 10 June 2008, the 97th Session of the International Labour Conference adopted the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, which will be implemented in the framework of the Decent Work Agenda and its four strategic objectives.

“Following the ILO Constitution of 1919, this is the third major statement of principles and policies adopted by the International Labour Conference in the ILO’s history. It follows the Philadelphia Declaration of 1944 and the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work of 1998”.

“The Declaration is a strong reaffirmation of ILO values. It:
  • recalls that the ILO has the constitutional mandate to pursue the universal aspiration for social justice through its activities in the world of today;
  • acknowledges the ILO’s particular responsibility to promote a fair globalization in order to better reach the goals the constituents have set in creating the ILO;
  • institutionalizes the Decent Work Agenda as the key policy and operational concept to attain the ILO’s constitutional objectives and service efficiently and effectively its constituents”.

(Source: ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, Director-General's announcement, p. 1)