The first moves toward international labour conventions date back to the beginning of the 19th century. Robert Owen in England, J.A. Blanqui and Villerme in France, and Ducepetiaux in Belgium are considered precursors to the idea of international regulation of labour matters. However, David Legrand, an industrialist from Alsace, put forward this idea most systematically, defending it and developing it in repeated appeals addressed to the governments of the main European countries from 1840 to 1855.
In the second half of the 19th century, the idea was first taken up by private associations. Thereafter, a number of proposals to promote international regulation of labour matters were made in the French and German parliaments. The first official initiative came from Switzerland – where, following proposals made in 1876 and 1881 and in consultation with other European countries, the Swiss government suggested convening a Conference on the matter in Bern in May 1890.
The establishment of an International Association for the Legal Protection of Workers, the seat of which was in Basle, was followed by a congress held in Brussels in 1897. The activity of this private organization led the Swiss government to convene international conferences in 1905 and 1906 in Bern, where the first two international labour conventions were adopted. One of these related to the prohibition of night work for women in industrial employment, and the other to the prohibition of the use of white phosphorus in the manufacture of matches.
During World War I, the trade union organizations of both sides, as well as those of neutral countries, insisted that their voice be heard at the time of the settlement of peace, and that the peace treaties contain clauses for improving the condition of workers. The peace conference entrusted the examination of this question to a special commission known as the Commission on International Labour Legislation. The work of the Commission led to the inclusion in the Treaty of Versailles and the other peace treaties of Part XIII, which dealt with labour matters. This section of the treaties provided for the establishment of an International Labour Organization, which might adopt conventions and recommendations in this field. Conventions would be binding only on those states which ratified them, adopted by the Peace Conference in April of 1919.
In October 1919, the International Labour Conference met in Washington to adopt the first Conventions and to appoint the Governing Body. Since then, the International Labour Conference has met regularly in general once a year, except during the Second World War. At the end of the Second World War, the International Labour Conference adopted in May 1944, in Philadelphia, a Declaration which defined again the aims and purposes of the Organization.
This Declaration reaffirmed in particular:
• That labour is not a commodity
• That freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress
• That poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere and that the war against want requires to be carried on with unrelenting vigour within each nation, and by continuous and concerted international effort in which the representatives of workers and employers, enjoying equal status with those of governments, join them in free discussion and democratic decision with a view to the promotion of the common welfare.
The Declaration affirmed that all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity. It also referred to the social aspect of economic and financial measures.
The Declaration then defined a number of specific objectives of the ILO, such as
• Full employment and the raising of living standards
• Facilities of training policies in regard to wages, hours of work and other conditions of work calculated to ensure a just share of the fruits of progress to all
• The effective recognition of the right of collective bargaining
• The co-operation of management and labour in the continuous improvement of productive efficiency, and the collaboration of workers and employer in the preparation and application of social and economic measures, the extension of social security measures to provide a basic income to all in need of such protection, and comprehensive medical care, etc.
Apart from the ILO standards, an increasing number of bilateral and regional agreements have been concluded in the field of labour. The general trend of agreements has been the constant broadening of their scope, both as regards the fields covered, the categories of persons protected and the framework within which the matters are treated. Thus a number of these instruments go beyond the traditional field of labour law and touch upon matters of civil liberties and penal law, of property law etc. Main source of this section has been International Encyclopaedia for Labour Law and Industrial Relations, Supplement 163.