THE International Labor Organization in wartime still serves its member countries, and it is prepared to help constructively in strengthening the democratic processes which, when the war is over, must determine the foreign and domestic policies of all nations if the peace is to last. Today its key personnel have been transferred temporarily from Geneva, Switzerland, to Montreal, Canada, in order to ensure it freedom of speech and action in the service of the free peoples of the world. After eighteen months of war we are in a position not only to reassess the prewar achievement of the Organization but to examine its wartime activity. In this way the experience which it has gained in the practical application of the ideals of world democracy can be taken into full account in planning for postwar reconstruction.

The I.L.O. was created in 1919 in response to the conviction of peoples everywhere that foreign policy could not continue to disregard the world's underlying social issues. Its machinery was designed to furnish a broader base for the conduct of foreign affairs, so that greater consideration could be given to the needs of the diverse economic and social groups within nations. The Organization itself was intended to promote social justice and to prevent differences in labor standards from becoming factors in international trade rivalries.

In its twenty-one year span of life the Organization has grown from a novel and untried instrument into an effective agency through which the free citizenry of over 40 nations have drawn together in search of social justice. It has adapted its program and its methods to the changing demands of prosperity and depression, peace and war. Its strength stems partly from the enduring validity of its objectives, partly from its unique composition.

Governments, employers and workers of the member nations are responsible in equal measure for the functioning of the Organization as a whole. Employer and worker representatives have a full part in every phase of the work, and have coöperated closely with representatives of governments in ensuring that the conclusions reached are put into effect. In the annual session of the International Labor Conference, delegates from the "most representative organizations" of employers and workers sit alongside the government representatives and vote independently of them. In the Governing Body of the Office eight employers chosen by the employers' delegates at the general Conference and eight workers chosen by the workers' group are elected to share executive and administrative responsibility with the representatives of sixteen governments. Thus, every measure which has been advocated by the Organization, whether adopted formally as a Convention or Recommendation of the Conference or accepted by the Governing Body as part of the continuous program of work of the technical services, must first have undergone the critical scrutiny of the representatives of employers and workers as well as of the member governments.

The annual Conference has provided many opportunities for three-sided discussion of such labor and social issues as are international in character; and labor and social treaties among nations have supplemented political treaties and made them more meaningful. Each Conference takes as the basis for discussion an annual report on social and industrial developments during the year, submitted by the Director of the International Labor Office. The result has been an interchange of views and experience which has frequently clarified both national and international social and economic policies. But while this discussion is frequently the most dramatic part of the sessions, the principal achievement has been the creation of a body of international standards and obligations covering most of the main topics of labor and social legislation.

The obligations take the form of the 67 Conventions adopted by the Conference in the course of its 25 sessions. A Convention is adopted by a two-thirds vote of the delegates present at any given session. Each member nation has four votes, two being cast by the government delegates, one by the employer delegate and one by the worker delegate. When a Convention has been adopted, each member nation is under obligation to submit it to the competent national authority for ratification within 18 months at most. If a Convention is ratified, the standards included in its provisions become a treaty obligation of the ratifying country. If a Convention is rejected, there is no further obligation on the part of the nation rejecting it. When the war began on September 1, 1939, a total of 853 ratifications had been registered from over 50 countries and 46 Conventions had come into force for member nations. Ratifications have continued during the war, bringing the total to 879 as of January 1941. The United States during its brief membership has ratified five of these labor treaties, all of them determining labor standards for men at sea, including their hours of work, leave with pay, age of entrance, employers' liability and officers' competency.

The influence of the Conventions has not been limited to the ratifying countries. They have played a considerable rôle throughout the world as internationally-approved standards of social policy representing a broad measure of agreement among governments, employers and workers. The influence was especially great in countries which had been members of the Organization for the greater part of its existence and which had come to look upon it as a source of inspiration in the development of their social legislation.[i] Nor did the Organization's usefulness as an agency for defining standards stop with the adoption of Conventions. The 67 Conventions are supplemented by 66 formal Recommendations which have likewise influenced national standards.

Together, the Conventions and Recommendations adopted by the annual Conferences embody provisions relating to placement services and public works; unemployment; minimum wage-fixing machinery; the regulation of hours of work; weekly rest periods; annual vacations with pay; age of admission of young people to employment in industry, commerce and agriculture; vocational training and apprenticeship; employment at night for young people; maternity protection; limitations on night work for women; health precautions in various industrial processes; safety standards; workmen's compensation for accidents and industrial diseases; sickness insurance; old-age and survivors insurance; labor inspection; a wide range of maritime labor legislation; basic standards for colonial labor policy; and protection for migrant workers.

The formal standards hereby set up are further supplemented by the conclusions formulated by numerous special meetings of experts convened to discuss specific questions of labor and social policy. Much of the most valuable work done by the Organization in the field of social insurance, for instance, has taken the form of standards of policy framed at meetings of experts. The questions dealt with in this way include the economical administration of medical and pharmaceutical benefits under health insurance; guiding principles for preventive and curative action by pension insurance schemes; the evaluation of permanent incapacity under workmen's compensation and invalidity insurance schemes; and the investment of the funds of social insurance institutions. The standards determined by expert committees range from the relatively formal Standard Code of Industrial Hygiene[ii] to the resolutions adopted at successive sessions of the advisory committees of the Governing Body, such as the committees on salaried employees and professional workers. The United States has been particularly interested in the conclusions adopted by two expert gatherings which have discussed the problem of silicosis. International standards for the compilation of comparable labor statistics (the subjects covered include statistics of employment and unemployment, wages and hours of work, cost of living index numbers, real wages, and migration) have been developed through the work of the Office and of expert committees.

In addition to these general international standards, regional standards have been established covering certain particular problems. In the Americas, for example, regional labor conferences were held at Santiago, Chile, in 1936 and at Havana, Cuba, in 1939. These were especially concerned with problems of social security and the conditions of employment of women and young persons. At the 1939 meeting, particular attention was given to the question of migration to the American Continent, from the point of view both of the problems presented to the countries of immigration and of the measures needed to protect immigrant workers and their families.[iii] Similarly, factory inspection problems have been discussed on a regional basis.

In summarizing the normal peacetime accomplishments of the I.L.O. one may say with justifiable pride that an International Labor Code has been built up over the past twenty-one years which stands today as the first stage in planning for future international action in respect to labor and social problems. Though it is impossible to foresee in detail the extent to which, and the manner in which, these standards and obligations will require modification in the light of changed conditions, and though there are many respects in which the component parts of the Code have been inadequate and incomplete, yet the standards and the obligations already laid down do provide a point of departure for the future.[iv]

The function of the I.L.O. as a center for the collection and distribution of information and as a technical service equipped to give advice and assistance to member countries in connection with the preparation and administration of labor and social legislation has been greatly extended in recent years. I.L.O. experts have been called in to advise on social insurance, labor inspection, industrial hygiene, migration and other specific problems and even to draft complete labor codes. Such work has been undertaken in a wide range of countries -- Argentina, China, Brazil, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Venezuela, Great Britain, Canada and the United States. In Great Britain, the Office was asked to submit to a Royal Commission evidence on workmen's compensation systems in other countries; in the United States the Social Security Board sought I.L.O. advice when setting up an administrative organization; and the Canadian Government recently requested information on social security measures. In general, it may be said that the technical staff of the Organization now possesses the essential qualifications for sifting material and suggestions relating to social and labor policy, and that it is prepared to contribute toward the solution of the new social problems that may arise as a result of the present war.


Many of the ordinary activities of the I.L.O. were sharply interrupted by the outbreak of the war. The Organization was determined, however, to continue its work to the greatest extent possible and also to undertake a considerable amount of advance planning. Its policy and program in this most critical period have been inspired by the same faith and spirit in which the Organization was founded. They also have drawn on the experience and techniques which it has acquired in the interval between wars.

As early as October 1938, immediately after Munich, the Governing Body of the Office faced the question of what its functions would be in wartime. After a full discussion, in the course of which stress was laid on the difficulty of the labor problems arising in time of war, and on the necessity of preserving a tripartite mechanism for dealing, on an international scale, with the problems of reconstruction which would have to be solved at the close of a war, the Governing Body decided unanimously that in the event of war the activities of the Organization should be maintained on the highest possible level. Early in 1939, an Emergency Committee was set up to suggest practical measures to execute this policy. Its report to the June Conference in 1939 pointed out that war would create new labor and social problems demanding urgent solution, and that the Organization must remain in a position to offer its experience as a guide in working out social policies in both belligerent and neutral countries.

Calls on the Office have, in fact, been more frequent since the war began than even in the preceding years of activity. The adaptation of its program of technical work to war requirements was necessarily gradual and continuous. But no sooner had hostilities started than the Office began studying certain important problems -- for example, those of the organization of employment; the adaptation of social security programs to changed social needs; living costs and wages; and nutritional standards in wartime. In general, the Office has continued to serve as a world center for the comparison and analysis of the experience of various nations with regard to social problems, whether of war or of peace.

Meanwhile, at first, countries at peace and distant from the conflict carried on their own economic life more or less as usual, even though they were considerably affected by the disturbance in Europe. Those countries were naturally entitled to expect the Office to continue to render normal peacetime services to them. Consequently, the second American regional conference met, as had been planned, at Havana at the end of November 1939. The delegates treated regional questions within the broader framework of international action. A declaration was adopted unanimously urging the I.L.O. to serve during the war as a social liaison between American countries and democratic European nations, and stating the conviction of the delegates that it would have an essential part to play in the postwar reconstruction. The delegates pledged the unwavering support of the governments and peoples of the Americas to the fulfillment of this purpose.

In February 1940 a meeting of the Governing Body was held in Geneva. This was its first meeting since the beginning of the war, and the last which it has been possible to hold in Geneva up to the present time. The fact that government representatives, employers and workers of some 16 countries could actually meet was important, for during the last war there was far too little discussion of social policy on an international basis. The tripartite groups, made up of nationals of belligerent and neutral countries, both European and non-European, found themselves, somewhat to their own surprise, in a large measure of agreement on general social objectives and policy in wartime, and the debates led to a considerable degree of mutual understanding. It was decided to go ahead with plans for a June Conference and to make methods of collaboration between government authorities, employers and workers the principal subject of discussion -- one whose significance was soon to be still further demonstrated at a time when the very survival of the democracies was dependent on the achievement of national unity by consent of the governed.

At the time this February meeting adjourned, only 12 of the 30 members of the Governing Body were nationals of countries directly involved in the European war; 18 were neutral. By the middle of May, the figures at a similar meeting, had one been held, would have been just reversed. At the end of June, 10 out of the 30 would have been representatives of countries which had been occupied or defeated by Germany. The new situation obviously called for new measures. Expenses had to be cut and staff had to be drastically reduced to meet the losses in support. The annual Conference had to be postponed. The question of the location of the I.L.O. had to be reëxamined. The principal body of staff had remained at work in Geneva so long as the risk of armed invasion was the principal disadvantage. Now the problem became the moral and physical isolation of the Office from the chief sources of its democratic support. We could not run the risk that an organization which was the international expression of the social purpose of the free peoples throughout the world should become a tool for the totalitarian policies of aggressor nations. The danger that this might happen was averted by transferring the principal body of staff to the New World.

Thanks to the coöperation of the Canadian Government and the generous hospitality of McGill University, a new working center has been established at Montreal. The process of reëstablishment has now been accomplished. Some 50 members of the staff, of 18 different nationalities, are at work there. The program of publications has been resumed, including the regular publication of the International Labour Review (in English, French and Spanish), the continuation of the Legislative Series (which carries on the work begun by the unofficial Basle Labor Office as early as 1906), and a number of special studies, reports and pamphlets. The work of technical assistance in the formulation and improvement of social and labor legislation has been intensified.[v] In preparation for the forthcoming International Labor Conference, a supplementary report on methods of collaboration between governments, employers and workers is in process, as well as a report analyzing social change during the war period.

Here, as at many other points, the current work of the I.L.O. is directed with a view to responsibilities which it must assume at the close of the war. The coöperation between governments and workers and employers which has proved indispensable in wartime will be no less indispensable in dealing with problems of reconstruction. The Organization, which is the international embodiment of such coöperation, will have a great part to play in rebuilding a democratic world. "My war aims," declared the British Minister of Labor, "are summed up in the phrase 'the motive of our life should be social security.'" The late Marquess of Lothian stressed that the provision of markets and employment for all should be the main purpose of postwar economic policy. President Roosevelt has said that the future of the world must be founded on freedom from fear and want. Similar declarations have been made by the statesmen of many other countries.

To provide the working arrangements for bringing social ideals into practice must be, in large part, the function of those who know industry intimately as employers and workers. That is why the International Labor Organization, an international institution which is responsive to the desires of both employers and workers, and in which they have learned to work together constructively during 21 years, has such a great opportunity and so high a responsibility.

[i] In some of the smaller European countries, for example, and (especially during the latter half of the period) in a number of the Latin American countries.

[ii] Another example is the Code of Safety Regulations for Underground Work for Coal Mines which would have been adopted by the Conference before now but for the outbreak of war. The compilation and recommendations of the experts have, however, been submitted to member governments.

[iii] Discussion on this question was initiated largely at the behest of the South American republics.

[iv] The preparation of a codified and annotated edition of the Conventions and Recommendations adopted by the International Labor Conferences, with appendices embodying the other standards of social policy framed under the auspices of the I.L.O., from 1919 to 1939, has been completed and the volume will be issued as soon as possible. It is hoped to follow this Code with a Digest of the Constitutional Practice of the Organization over the same period. Code and Digest together will be useful tools for all concerned with the activities of the I.L.O.

[v] One result of this aspect of I.L.O. activity has been the creation of an Inter-American Committee to Forward Social Security, under the Organization's auspices.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now