International Labour Conference plenary sitting © ILO PHOTOGRAPHY

Where your employment rights are born
How does this global forum actually work?
1 Jun 2023

Geneva has long been a hub for international meetings and events. Among them, few can rival the history and influence of the International Labour Conference.

The International Labour Conference (ILC) is the largest global gathering dedicated to the world of work. The ILC is organized by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN specialized agency dedicated to promoting social justice and decent work for all, which was founded in 1919. The Conference meets once a year, usually in Geneva, to discuss key world of work issues, craft and adopt International Labour Standards and monitor their implementation and set the ILO’s global agenda.

A unique forum for social justice

The ILC is the highest decision-making body of the ILO and – uniquely in the UN system – each of the ILO’s 187 Member States are represented by a delegation embodying government, employers and workers in each country, and their respective advisers. It is a forum for dialogue, collaboration, and consensus-building on a wide range of topics, including employment, social protection, working conditions, social dialogue and labor rights. Their aim is to advance social justice in line with the ILO’s mandate.

In the Conference plenary sessions and committee meetings, delegates discuss problems facing the world of work. They adopt conventions and recommendations (to be ratified by Member States and brought into national legislation) on these issues and elect the members of the Governing Body.

National delegations are led by Ministers of Labour. Accredited international organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, also participate in the Conference, as well as observers. In total, this means more than 4,000 accredited people can attend the annual event.

A unique tripartite model

The ILC not only adopts International Labour Standards, it also sets the broad policies of the ILO. Many government representatives are cabinet ministers responsible for labor affairs in their own countries. Employer and worker delegates are nominated in agreement with the most representative national organizations of the social partners. Worker and employer delegates to the Conference often challenge political convenience and the views of ministries, adding the perspectives of employers and workers to those of governments.

Every delegate has the same rights, and all can express themselves freely and vote as they wish. Worker and employer delegates may sometimes vote against their government’s representatives or against each other. This diversity of viewpoints, however, does not prevent decisions from being adopted, based on consensus.

A global platform for key world of work issues

The ILC has several main tasks. First is the drafting and adoption of new International Labour Standards and Recommendations, which are developed through a rigorous process of research, consultation, and negotiation. The Conference brings together both leaders and experts from various fields to share their knowledge and experiences and to contribute to the development of new standards. In the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards, the ILC supervises the application of conventions and recommendations at the national level.

In addition to its normative function, the Conference provides a platform where social and labor matters of global importance can be discussed. This year’s Conference contains agenda items of particular importance, including apprenticeships, social protection with a particular focus on labor protection, and the need for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies. In the second week of the Conference, a high-level World of Work Summit on the crucial theme of social justice for all will be addressed by several Heads of State and Government.

The Conference brings together representatives of governments, workers and employers to share knowledge and advance social justice

A vital role in promoting social dialogue

The ILC also plays a vital role in promoting social dialogue and tripartism at the national and international levels. It provides an opportunity for governments, employers, and workers to exchange views, share concerns and best practices, and build trust and understanding, even in countries where relations between the tripartite constituents can be sometimes strained. This dialogue helps to build consensus and facilitate the implementation of labor policies and programmes.

The ILC can pass resolutions that provide guidelines for the ILO’s general policy and future activities. Every two years, the ILC adopts the ILO’s biennial work programme and budget, which is financed by Member States. Every three years, the ILC elects the ILO Governing Body.

Over the decades, the ILC has become a highly respected and influential international forum that has contributed significantly to the development of global labor standards and policies. Its work has helped shape the international labor law framework, including through the adoption of fundamental conventions, which are considered to be the foundation of International Labour Standards. These cover the rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining and safe and healthy working conditions, and the elimination of child and forced labor, as well as discrimination at work.

A century-long history of labor rights

The ILC has been held every year since its inception in 1919, except for a few years during World War II. At the first session of the Conference, held in Washington, DC in November 1919, 40 countries and territories were represented. The Conference adopted the first ILO convention (No.1) on the hours of work, establishing the 8-hour day and 48-hour working week. The French request for the establishment of an International Labour Conference with maritime issues at its core, led to the calling of the second session of the ILC in 1920, focused on maritime issues. 

After this, maritime sessions of the Conference were called as the need arose. Dignitaries and Heads of State are invited to address the ILC, where they speak about recent developments in the world of work in their countries and in the world. Over the years, many remarkable figures have travelled to Geneva to address the Conference.

In 1981, at the 67th session of the International Labour Conference in 1981, Polish workers’ delegate Lech Walesa (of the trade union Solidarity, and later the President of Poland) gave a speech championing workers’ self-management, social justice, and trade union independence. His appearance caused a stir because only the year before, he had led a strike in the Gdańsk Shipyard that helped force the Polish authorities to sign the Gdansk Agreements, giving workers the right to organize in free and independent trade unions. In 1982, the Conference was addressed by Pope John Paul II, a relevant appropriate speaker given his early life as a manual worker, and his desire to promote the dignity of labor, as noted in his encyclical Laborem exercens.

On 8 June 1990, in one of his first visits to an international organization following his release from prison, Nelson Mandela addressed the International Labour Conference. He saluted the ILO for its “enormous contribution” to the struggle for democracy and the promotion of democratic principles, going on to say that the actions of the ILO “are important elements in the common efforts of all humanity to isolate and by this means destroy the system of apartheid.”

After more than a century, the International Labour Conference remains a critical platform for promoting social justice and decent work for all. Its tripartite structure, normative function, and role in promoting social dialogue make it a unique and essential forum for addressing the most pressing issues related to labor and employment. The ILC’s work has contributed significantly to the development and improvement of global labor standards and policies and continues to play a vital role in shaping the world of work. 

* Alexander Belopopsky is Head of Internal Communications at the ILO.
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