International Labour Organization

Flag of the International Labour Organization, Denelson83, CC 3.0

Flag of the International Labour Organization, Denelson83, CC 3.0

International Labour Organization

The International Labour Organization is one of the oldest IOs in the world, and is focused on labour rights and workers rights. The ILO has over 1900 officials, and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Furthemore, there are over 600 technical experts also working for the International Labour Organization (Mertus, 2009). In this article, we shall discuss the International Labour Organization, and its functions in international relations. Namely, we shall examine the history of the International Labour Organization, the mandate of the IO, as well as the key issues that the organization has worked out throughout the decades. 

History of the International Labour Organization

The International Labour Organization is one of the oldest specific entities within the United Nations, becoming a part of the UN in 1946. However, the ILO has existed decades before, being first created during the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Furthermore, when one looks at the history of the International Labour Organization, its clear that they have set a strong foundation not only for their own emphasis on human rights, but also for other international actors such as the United Nations, as well as other international and non-governmental organizations. Yet, despite the history of activism on human rights and labour issues, and despite the Nobel Peace Prize that the International Labour Organization won in 1969, they are still not as known (Roy & Kaye, 2002) (as other human rights actors).

International Labour Organization Structure

The International Labour Organization is comprised of three structures which all work together to advance the goals of the ILO. Mertus (2009) explains the three parts of the International Labour Organization:

  • The International Labour Conference, the membership body of the ILO, is composed of two representatives of member states, and one representative each of employers and employees of those member states. Each of these representatives votes votes separately at the annual International Labour Conference held each June in Geneva” (125). It is at this conference that key decisions, resolutions, and voting procedures are carried out. With regards to voting, there is a 2/3 majority needed to pass resolutions or conventions (where, although even with the presence of workers at the ILO conference, states have enough votes to pass actions without NGO or worker involvement)
  • “The Governing Body, the executive council of the ILO, determines ILO policy, including the program and budget. Its decisions are then forwarded to the General Conference for adoption…Composed of 56 titular members and 66 deputy members, the Governing Body retains the tripartite structure of the ILO. Ten permanent members of the body come from states of “chief industrial importance.” The other half of titular members is constituted equally of workers and employers’ representatives” (125-126). The titular members are the voting members, whereas the deputy members do not have voting power. However, except for voting, they have all other powers that the titular members have.
  • There is also the International Labour Office, which is the secretariat of the International Labour Organization. The Director-General, which is elected for a five-year term, operates throughout the International Labour Office. This branch of the International Labour Organization focuses on cooperation and research, and has workers throughout office throughout the world (Mertus, 2009: 126).

NGOs and the ILO

What is important about the International Labour Organization is the role that non-government organizations with regards to the decision-making process of the International Labour Organization. The International Labour Organization–in its charter–allows for states to consult with approved NGOs. In fact, there are three categories for non-governmental organizations. For NGOs who are very active on labour issues, they can be given “general or regional consultative status,” which allows them to be involved in all ILO meetings. However, even if NGOs are not given general status or regional consultative status, they can still be involved through what is called the Special List of NGOs. The Special List is comprised of NGOs, who while not directly focused on labour rights issues, nonetheless want to have a role in the ILO’s meetings on these issues. Lastly, NGOs can be invited to be present at ILO meetings (Mertus, 2009: 126-127).

International Labour Organization Activities

The International Labour Organization is most known for the International Labour Conference, where states, workers, and NGOs set the agenda and discuss worker’s rights, and the activities of the International Labour Organization. The International Labour Organization has continued its role with regards to human rights such as labour rights and human rights of children. However, it is interesting to see the attention that has been given to the ILO in recent years. Mertus (2009) explains that

“Growing concern over the impact of globalization and debates on trade and labor have drawn greater attention to the ILO in recent years. Protests over the launching of a Millennium round of trade talks of the World Trade Organization in 1999 drew significant media attention to a debate that had been brewing for over a century, but which had become especially heated throughout the previous decade. The debate concerned whether or not to more closely regulate the social dimensions of the exponential growth in trade, that is whether to link labor standards to trade. By the end of the decade, the task of harmonizing labor standards was placed squarely in the hands of the ILO” (124).

The International Labour Organization has been able to advocate for labour rights through a number of different ways. For example, in the past, they have worked to tie labour rights to issues of free trade. And while countries have talked about setting up a core foundation with regards to minimum work standards needed within the context of key international organizations such as the World Trade Organization, nothing concrete has materialized. In fact, many states were opposed to the idea of social clauses, even though the ILO itself has stated that labour rights protections should not be an excuse for protectionism against foreign trade (Mertus, 2009). However, despite these limitations to include social clauses in the WTO agreements, there have been “social clauses” that have been attached to regional trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as the European Union trade agreements (Mertus, 2009).

Here is a video that the ILO has put out with regards to the issue of forced labor. This is part of their 50 for Freedom campaign in which they are working to end forced labor and human trafficking.


Here is another video from the ILO also depicting the issue of forced labor.


The ILO and Standard Setting

Along with pressing for labour rights to be included into international trade agreements, the International Labour Organization has also been quite active on the issue of standard setting. Standard setting can be done a number of ways. The ILO can push for labour rights to be implemented into human rights declarations and conventions, which they have been doing for decades. For the ILO, they approach states through optional conventions, but conventions that once are signed and ratified, are legally binding.  



Mertus, J. (2009). The United Nations and Human Rights: A Guide For A New Era. New York, New York. Routledge.

Roy, Kaye (2002): The International Labour Organization: A Handbook for Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. Minority Rights Group International & Anti-Slavery International, pages 1-52. Available Online:

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