In most textbooks, all you are told about the ILO is that it failed to implement a 48-hour week. This is unfair; the ILO did much, much more than that. This detailed analysis will tell you what the ILO tried to do, and will help you decide whether you think it was a success or a failure.


Like the PCIJ, the ILO was a new, radical idea – the idea of an international forum for regulating the conditions of labour had only been mooted (by the Swiss government) in 1885.

Nevertheless, the idea of an ILO was warmly supported by President Wilson, so on 11 April 1919 the Paris Peace Conference created an ‘International Labour Organisation’, and instructed it ‘to proceed at once with its work’.



At first, the membership of the ILO was identical to that of the League, but when Brazil left the League in 1926 it did NOT leave the ILO, and in 1934 the USA joined the ILO but not the League. This was a critical event in the history of the ILO, because the Depression was at its height, and the political situation was becoming increasingly difficult; unlike the League, the entry of the USA saved the ILO. It survived the war and in 1944, at Philadelphia, the ILO restated its founding principles, and it has continued it work ever since under the aegis of the United Nations.



In 1921, the ILO had 250 officials to do its work; by 1930 this had risen to 400 (the figure in 1969 was 2800), so it was permanently understaffed (and it is amazing that it achieved what it achieved with so few officials). Throughout its life, also, it depended on the donations of member-countries, so it struggled for money.

The ILO met once a year, in July in Geneva. Each country sent a delegation comprised of two members of the government, a representative of the employers, and a representative of the workers/unions (2+1+1). Delegates were frequently challenged as being ‘unrepresentative’, and one case even got as far as being taken to the PCIJ.


Actions of the ILO – was it a success?


1. Direct intervention

The ILO made only one attempt at direct intervention, when it tried after 1924 to find employment for Armenian refugees displaced by persecution; by 1929, it had found jobs for only 50,000, and was obliged to pass the task back to the League of Nations. In this, the ILO failed, and it never tried again.


2. Research and Technical Assistance

The ILO got a reputation for expertise in labour matters, which caused many governments to seek its advice; in this, it was a success.


a. Information and statistics

In this area of its work, the ILO has been very successful, since it has ‘spread the message’ of good practice, and helped countries which wished to improve to do so:

  • The ILO keeps a comprehensive library of every publication about labour matters.

  • The 1919 Washington Convention on Unemployment required states to send data on unemployment to the ILO, which gave it an overview of world unemployment figures. The ILO also started to collect migration figures (1922-) and statistics of real wages (1924-).

  • Its first research project – about production, 1920 – although it was very controversial, formed the basis of the 1927 League of Nations World Economic Conference. In 1921, the ILO conducted an enquiry into what caused unemployment, and in 1923, another enquiry investigated what caused Economic Crises.

  • After 1924, the ILO collected information about trade unions, and in 1928 (after its failure to adopt a Convention on freedom of association), it instead started publishing examples of good labour relations, which became best-sellers, forming a body of ‘good practice’ which many countries have copied.

  • From 1925, the ILO began to issue the Industrial Safety Survey, on safety legislation and the prevention of accidents.

  • In 1930, the South African government asked the ILO to conduct an investigation into silicosis; it agreed a terminology and standard practices, and began drafting a Standard Code of Industrial Hygiene (published 1933).

b. Advisory Missions

After 1930, the ILO started to carry out ‘advisory missions’, helping governments to set up labour systems – e.g. helping Greece and Romania set up systems of social insurance (1930), helping China introduce factory inspection (1931), helping Egypt (1932) and Cuba (1934) to set up Labour departments, helping the USA to set up its system of social security (1936) etc.

In this area of its work, again, the ILO has been very successful, since it has ‘spread the message’ of good practice, and helped countries which wished to improve to do so.


3. Decisions

The ILO produced two kinds of decisions:

1. Conventions – these are intended to have the authority of international ‘laws’;

2. Recommendations – these are a kind of ‘model code’ which are meant to stand as an example which countries are encouraged to try to copy.

When a Convention has been formulated and passed by the ILO, those countries who are prepared to obey the Convention ‘ratify’ it; this does not mean that they do obey it, only that they promise to do so. Thus, the Conventions adopted by the ILO are only binding on the countries which ratify them, and even they may not obey them.


a. The Conventions

At its first meeting, at Washington, the ILO passed twelve detailed Conventions.

By 1946, the ILO had adopted 67 Conventions, which had together received 902 ratifications from a total of 50 countries.

Not every area that the ILO has made rulings has been a success; click on the headings to see what you think:

  • Unemployment – failure?

    • The 1919 Washington Convention on Unemployment required all states to set up free job centres, and to establish a system of unemployment insurance; this Convention has been ratified by 46 countries. But the ILO was powerless to stop the mass-unemployment of the 1930s.

  • Migration – failure?

    • The 1919 Washington Conference set up a commission on migrants, which suggested measures to protect them, find them work and make sure they were treated fairly. However, rather than adopt the Convention, first the USA, then other countries, adopted measures of their own to prevent immigration, so the ILO made no progress in this area.

  • Trade Unions – failure?

    • The 1919 Constitution of the ILO set it to defend workers’ freedom of association, but there was so much opposition to this that in 1927 the ILO failed to pass a Convention guaranteeing workers’ rights to join a trade union (after which the unions judged that the times were not right for another attempt).

  • Hours of Work – failure?

    • The Constitution of the ILO stated the need for an 8-hour day, and the 1919 Washington Convention almost unanimously agreed a Convention requiring an 8-hour maximum day of work (in 1935, the Conference adopted a 40-hour week). However, in this the ILO was way ahead of the times – the measures were widely attacked, and countries were slow to ratify the Conventions (the 1935 Convention received only FOUR ratifications). Countries were unenthusiastic about Conventions banning night-work, and one delegate said that to ask his country to support a Convention on holidays with pay would be ‘to ask my country to commit industrial suicide’.

  • Minimum Wages – success?

    • In 1928, the ILO adopted a Convention on setting a Minimum Wage which was ratified by 77 countries.

  • Social Insurance – success?

    • In 1919 no country in the world had a welfare state. The ILO started by passing Conventions guaranteeing compensation for industrial accidents and industrial diseases (1925). It passed a Convention on sickness insurance in 1927, and Conventions on old age and disability in 1933, and on unemployment provision in 1934. By the end of the 1920s, social security schemes were common in Europe, and they spread to North America in the 1930s, Latin America in the 1940s, and the rest of the world in the 1950s and 1960s.

  • Women and Children – failure?

    • The Washington Conference of 1919 passed a Convention fixing a minimum age of 14. This was opposed, especially for agriculture (where it was entirely unworkable), and there were a number of Conventions passed trying to limit its effects; in 1937, the Minimum Age (Industry) was raised to 15.

    • The principle of equal pay for equal work had been written into the Treaty of Versailles, and the ILO passed Conventions reaffirming the principle in 1928; but women STILL do not have equal pay, even in the most advanced countries Similarly, attempts to ban women from harmful work, and to safeguard women’s rights and pay during maternity, had only limited success.

b. Monitoring and Effect

The system by which the ILO sought to enforce its Conventions was called ‘mutual supervision’ – every year, member states were supposed to submit a report to the ILO stating how successfully the Conventions it had ratified had been implemented.

Until 1926, the ILO had no process to scrutinise these reports, so it just accepted them without comment. From 1927, however, a special committee was appointed to analyse the submissions and produce a report, but the ILO has no means by which to force countries to implement Conventions if they do not wish to.

However, there is an argument just agreeing and publicising international labour ‘laws’ and their implementation has a massive effect; it carried an immense moral weight pressurising governments and employers to adhere to international standards. So, although a number of individual Conventions failed, it can be argued that the ILO’s work was a great success.



Source A

While the value of the ILO's mission to work for peace through social justice has been recognised in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, it is only too obvious that social justice has not yet been realised...  Must the conclusion follow that the ILO has so far been a failure?  if the 'Big Three' at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, who gave their blessing to the ILO at its birth, could have met to ask themselves whether their hopes for it had been justified, Clemenceau the realist might have said 'Yes', Woodrow Wilson the idealist certainly 'No', while Lloyd George, the master of compromise, might have said: 'Failure or success, the ILO has never stopped trying'.

GA Johnston, The International Labour Organisation (1970)

GA Johnston was British.  he worked for the ILO from its start, rising to become Assistant-Director in 1948-53.