The International Labor Organization (abbreviated as ILO by Abbreviationfinder) was founded in 1919 with the aim of improving the conditions for workers worldwide and thereby contributing to a higher standard of living and social justice. Its current issues include efforts against child labor, the consequences of globalization and social justice. Director-General Guy Ryder took office in 2012. The ILO has 183 member countries.


The main goal of the United Nations Labor Organization (ILO) is to improve conditions for workers around the world, thereby contributing to a higher standard of living and social justice. The goals also include working to increase the number of jobs and to strengthen human rights.

The ILO works mainly by establishing special international rules, so-called conventions and recommendations. The organization then tries to monitor that the regulations are complied with by the states. The conventions cover a wide range of issues, such as the right to equal pay and equality in working life, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the prohibition of forced labor and child labor.

The ILO also operates through aid projects, mainly in the third world.

One difference from the other UN specialized agencies is that the member states are not only represented by government delegates. Representatives of employees and employers also participate and have the right to vote. In 2007, the number of Member States was 179.

Some observers believe that the ILO’s regulations have already grown well and should not be expanded further. A more extreme attitude is that the existing regulations should be significantly reduced because labor law norms upset economic conditions for growth. Another issue for the future is how the ILO will face competition from other international organizations that have increasingly begun to deal with traditional ILO issues.

The emergence

The ILO was founded in 1919 within the framework of the League of Nations (NF) as part of the efforts for peace and reconstruction after the First World War. A basic idea was that decent working conditions as well as social and economic prosperity are prerequisites for lasting peace. Initially, the ILO had 42 member states.

The organization’s basic document was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles (peace treaty after the First World War) and still constitutes, with some additions, the ILO Charter.

An important reason for the creation of the ILO was the workers’ revolts in a number of states. The capitalist economies were challenged by an increasingly organized working class. Many liberals and reformists in the labor movement argued that increased social welfare was both a goal in itself and a way to prevent class conflicts and revolts.

During the interwar period, the organization was an independent part of the NF. When Sweden joined the NF in 1920, the country also became a member of the ILO.

Issues that engaged the ILO at an early stage concerned an eight-hour working day, reduced unemployment, maternity protection and better working conditions for women and young people.

After a hiatus during World War II, the ILO’s main decision-making body, the International Labor Conference, met again in Philadelphia, USA in 1944. An amendment to the Charter, the so-called Philadelphia Declaration, was adopted, consolidating the ILO’s objectives. The declaration stated that work is not a commodity and that “poverty, wherever it occurs, poses a threat to prosperity throughout the world.”

In 1946, the ILO became a specialist body within the United Nations (UN), replacing the NF after the war. In connection with the ILO’s 50th anniversary in 1969, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work for social justice.

The ILO, like many other international organizations, was affected by the Cold War, that is, the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the West, many argued that the governments of the eastern states in effect controlled both trade unions and trade unions in their countries, and that the point of the ILO’s tripartite structure was thus lost. The ILO was also accused of turning a blind eye to the violations of the right to organize freely that occurred in communist countries. Among other things, the ILO was criticized for not protesting against the Polish regime’s treatment of the banned trade union Solidarity.

Criticism of the ILO’s attitude towards communist countries led the United States to opt out of the ILO between 1977 and 1981. The Middle East conflict also contributed: the ILO had condemned Israel’s actions against Palestinian workers in the occupied territories, to which the United States was partly opposed. When the Palestinian Liberation Movement (PLO) gained observer status in the ILO in 1975, the cup overflowed. The American initiative to leave the organization came from the workers.

The end of the Cold War in 1989–1991 meant changes in the political climate within the ILO. There were expectations that globalization, with a more unified world market and increased information flow, would lead to increased prosperity for the vast majority of the world. But despite strong growth, the distribution within and between countries remained very uneven. The ILO took hold of old ideas of social justice as a precondition for development. This led to the ILO identifying a basis for universal rights, expressed in 1998 in the Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

The declaration defines four categories concerning the right of association and the right to collective bargaining, as well as the prohibition of forced labor, child labor and discrimination in working life. Seven conventions – the oldest from 1930 – were found to be a special guardian of these rights. They were designated as core conventions, ie particularly important for all Member States to accede to. A ban on the worst kind of child labor, such as slavery and prostitution, was introduced in 1999 and became an eighth nuclear convention.

In the same year, the ILO formulated an objective of “decent work for all” as the basis for the entire operation. In 2002, a World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization was established. In the same year, the Commission presented the report “A fair globalization”, which requires decision-makers to consider social justice and the effects on working life when setting economic policies. The report has had a major impact on the UN system.