International Labor Organization (ILO): Definition and Standards

What Is the International Labour Organization (ILO)?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations (U.N.) agency. The goal of the ILO is to advance social and economic justice by setting international labor standards. The ILO has 187 member states and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with approximately 40 field offices around the world. The standards upheld by the ILO are broadly intended to ensure accessible, productive, and sustainable work worldwide in conditions of freedom, equity, security, and dignity.

Key Takeaways

  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations (U.N.) agency.
  • The goal of the International Labour Organization (ILO) is to advance social and economic justice by setting international labor standards.
  • The conventions and protocols of the International Labour Organization (ILO) are a major contributor to international labor law.

Understanding the ILO

The International Labour Organization (ILO) was founded in 1919 under the League of Nations and incorporated into the U.N. as a specialized agency in 1946. The ILO is the first and oldest specialized agency of the U.N. The organization’s goal is to serve as a uniting force among governments, businesses, and workers. It emphasizes the need for workers to enjoy conditions of freedom, equity, security, and human dignity through their employment.

The ILO promotes international labor standards through its field offices in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia. The organization provides training on fair employment standards, offers technical cooperation for projects in partner countries, analyzes labor statistics and publishes related research, and regularly holds events and conferences to examine critical social and labor issues. The ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969. The organization was recognized for improving fraternity and peace among nations, pursuing decent work and justice for workers, and providing technical assistance to developing nations.

The labor standards set forth by the ILO have been published in 190 conventions and six protocols. These standards recognize the right to collective bargaining, attempt to eliminate forced or compulsory labor and abolish child labor, and eliminate acts of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation. As a result, the protocols and conventions of the ILO are a major contributor to international labor law.

The organization has a three-tiered structure that brings together governments, employers, and workers. The three main bodies of the ILO are the International Labour Conference, the Governing Body, and the International Labour Office. The International Labour Conference meets annually to formulate international labor standards; the Governing Body meets three times a year, serving as the executive council and deciding the agency’s policy and budget; and the International Labour Office is the permanent secretariat that administers the organization and implements activities. 

ILO List of International Labor Standards

These are legal instruments created by governments, employers, and workers that set basic principles and rights at work. They take the form of either conventions/protocols, which are legally binding international treaties ratified by member states, or recommendations, which are nonbinding guidelines. The former are created and adopted at the annual International Labour Conference, after which they must be ratified by the governing bodies, such as a parliament or congress, of member states. There are eight fundamental conventions:

  1. Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87) 
  2. Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98) 
  3. Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) (and its 2014 Protocol )
  4. Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) 
  5. Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) 
  6. Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) 
  7. Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100) 
  8. Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111) 

There are also four governance conventions, which are considered important for “the functioning of the international labour standards system”:

  1. Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81) 
  2. Employment Policy Convention, 1964 (No. 122) 
  3. Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention, 1969 (No. 129) 
  4. Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 (No. 144) 

ILO Programs

The ILO has consolidated its current technical projects into five “flagship programmes designed to enhance the efficiency and impact of its development cooperation with constituents on a global scale.” These programs are:


Devoted to improving working conditions in the factories of the garment and footwear industries, this program is jointly run with the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation. The emphasis is on “lasting improvements rather than quick fixes” and involves eight countries on three continents, working hands-on with 1,250 factories and in excess of 1.5 million workers. The program’s goal is to “prove that safe, dignified work means more productive factories, and a more profitable business model that benefits workers, managers, countries, and consumers alike.“

Global Flagship Programme on Building Special Protection Floors (SPFs) for All

This program was launched in 2016 and its long-term intention is "to extend social protection to the five billion people who are partially covered or living without social protection and the dignity it affords."

According to the ILO, 73% of the globe’s population lacks social protection, with five billion people living with daily anxiety. The ILO hopes to change that by creating “nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors.” It will “support governments, workers’ and employers’ confederations, and civil society organizations in 21 countries, in collaboration with other U.N. agencies.”

The first goal of the Global Flagship Programme was to “change 130 million lives by 2020 through establishing comprehensive social protection systems in 21 countries and conducting a global knowledge development and education campaign.” As of April 2021, the website gives no indication of whether or not that goal was met.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also taken on the challenge of including countries’ responses to the pandemic in its mission to protect workers.

International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and Forced Labour (IPEC+)

According to the ILO, there are 152 million children performing child labor, 40 million men, women, and children in “modern slavery,” 24.9 million people in forced labor, and 15.4 million people in forced marriages. This program hopes to put an end to these scourges. It is a relatively new program that combined two older ones on child labor and forced labor. IPEC+ collaborates with governments, employers, and workers to:

  • Strengthen technical and governance capacity to create transformative change in public institutions, laws, and practices at all levels
  • Encourage effective engagement and cooperation between the constituents and other stakeholders
  • Significantly expand knowledge and policy-oriented advice and information

The goals are to eliminate child labor by 2025 and end forced labor and human trafficking by 2030, in accordance with the U.N.’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which was adopted in 2015.

Safety + Health for All

Originally known as the Global Action for Prevention on Occupational Safety and Health (GAP-OSH) program, this was meant to “improve the health and safety of workers in small and medium-sized enterprises through fostering a global culture of prevention.” Created in 2016, it has been active in 15 countries and globally.

According to the ILO, 2.78 million workers die every year from work-related injuries and illnesses and 374 million more suffer nonfatal ones. The lost workdays account for nearly 4% of the world's annual gross domestic product (GDP). Its particular targets are:

  • Hazardous sectors, such as agriculture and construction
  • Workers with higher vulnerability to occupational injuries and diseases, including young workers (15-24), women, and migrant workers
  • Small and medium enterprises
  • Global supply chains

With the advent of COVID-19, it has been repurposed to offer “a tailored set of interventions to address the immediate and longer-term safety and health needs of constituents related to COVID-19.”

Jobs for Peace and Resilience

This program focuses on creating jobs in countries where there are conflicts and disasters, with an emphasis on employment for young people and women. Its key objectives, which it hopes to achieve through building institutions, social dialogue, and establishing fundamental principles and rights at work, are:

  • Providing direct job creation and income security
  • Enhancing skills for employability
  • Supporting self-employment, enterprises, and cooperatives
  • Bridging labor supply and demand

24 million

The number of new jobs that could be created around the world through transitioning to a green economy.

The Future of the International Labour Organization (ILO)

In 2019 the ILO convened for the Global Commission on the Future of Work. In preparation for the conference, about 110 countries participated in dialogues at the regional and national levels. The ensuing report made recommendations for governments on how best to approach the challenges of the 21st-century labor environment. Among these recommendations were a universal labor guarantee, social protection from birth to old age, and entitlement to lifelong learning.

The ILO also assessed what impact a transition to a green economy would have on employment. According to the ILO, if the right policies are put in place, a transition to a greener economy could create 24 million new jobs around the world by 2030.

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