ILO Century Project

A timeline of Historical Turning Points and ILO Milestones from 1700 to the present.

1712-01-01 08:39:32

Invention of the first practical steam machine

Together with other major technical innovations, the steam machine kicks off industrialization, first in England and later in continental Europe and the USA. This innovation changes the world of work and transforms society.

1838-01-01 08:39:32

Oliver Twist published

Charles Dickens’ famous novel – deemed one of the earliest social novels – addresses the underbelly of industrialism in nineteenth century England. Dickens, largely censorious of the Poor Law system of the time, speaks especially to the plight of young children, poignantly depicting the harsh conditions in which they are forced to work and live.

1840-02-23 07:29:49

Alsatian manufacturer Daniel Legrand, first advocate of an international labour legislation

Legrand appeals to European statesmen to address the abuses of the working population through intergovernmental negotiations. The social reform approach is later taken up by the founders of the ILO and its constituents.

1864-02-23 07:29:49

“First International” founded in London by Marx and Engels

The International Workingmen's Association, also known as the “First International”, is the first attempt to establish an international organization of workers (“Proletarians of all countries, unite!”). It fails in 1872, but by then the idea of international cooperation among workers to defend their interests has taken a firm hold.

1883-02-23 07:29:49

First social insurance laws adopted in Germany

German laws on disability, health and old age insurance stimulate welfare policies in other European countries and influence later the ILO’s activities with regard to social insurance and social security.

1890-01-25 00:44:08

Berlin Labour Conference

Fifteen European governments come together for the first time to discuss labour standards such as the regulation of child labour. The conference paves the way for further international meetings, but has little direct impact.

1891-01-25 00:44:08

Pope Leo XIII issues the Encyclical Rerum Novarum

Subtitled “On the conditions of labour”, the encyclical is the Catholic Church’s response to the misery of the working class, social conflicts and the rise of socialism. It is the basis of what will become a long standing relationship between the ILO, the Vatican and the Christian trade unions.

1900-01-25 00:44:08

The International Association for Labour Legislation (IALL) founded in Basel

This non-governmental organization, one of the ILO’s forerunners, tries to influence governments to adopt laws limiting night-work of women and prohibiting white phosphorus, a potentially dangerous chemical used in match manufacturing.

1901-01-20 08:07:42

Birth of the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centres (ISNTUC)

Renamed in 1913, the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) is the first international trade union body. The IFTU plays a key role in the early years of the ILO. In 1945 it is dissolved and replaced by the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).

1911-03-25 08:39:32

Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire in New York City

A tragic industrial accident on 25 March resulting in the deaths of 146 garment workers, nearly all of whom are young immigrant women.

1914-07-28 08:39:32

World War I

The “Great War” is caused by the imperialistic race between the European powers. It is one of the deadliest conflicts and millions of civilians endure hardship. During the war time period, working conditions worsen and labour laws are frequently suspended. Therefore, workers soon claim compensation for the war effort. A trade union congress in Leeds in 1916 calls for the creation of an international labour office.

1917-11-07 08:39:32

Bolshevik Revolution in Russia

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (also called the October Revolution) leads to the fall of the Tsarist regime and eventually to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. The Bolshevik perspective of an international proletarian revolution and the abolishment of capitalism causes fear among reformist politicians, trade unionists and employers.

1919-01-18 08:39:32

Paris Peace Conference and Treaty of Versailles

Diplomats from 27 countries meet in Paris to develop a series of treaties, later known as the Paris Peace Treaties, following the armistice. One of the treaties, the Treaty of Versailles, officially ends WWI and creates the League of Nations.

1919-01-20 08:07:42

Birth of the ILO

A commission at the Paris Peace Conference drafts the ILO’s Constitution which becomes part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles. ILO is one of the League of Nations agencies.

1920-01-18 02:13:32

Albert Thomas (France) appointed first Director of the ILO

Albert Thomas not only brings the Office to Geneva, he helps to consolidate the ILO in the international arena. A relentless traveller, he meets with governments and constituents in many member States and travels great distances to countries such as China and Japan.

1920-01-18 02:13:32

Office moves to Geneva

After the ILO’s secretariat has operated in several temporary premises in Paris and London, the Governing body decides to permanently establish the secretariat in Geneva.

1926-01-01 08:39:32

Slavery Convention adopted by the League of Nations

This international convention consolidates the efforts undertaken since the end of the nineteenth century to permanently ban slave labour and the slave trade. It concretely defines “slavery” and “the slave trade”, requiring signatories to bring about the elimination of slavery in all its forms by sanctioning severe penalties for slave trading, slaveholding and enslavement.

1926-01-18 02:13:32

Establishment of a supervisory system

In 1926, the International Labour Conference sets up a supervisory system on the application of its standards.

1929-10-28 00:54:27

Wall Street Crash and begin of world economic crisis

The US stock market crash – considered to be the most devastating crash in American history – triggers an unprecedented economic crisis in the industrialized world and marks the beginning of the “Great Depression”. Across the world (but particularly in the US and Europe) mass unemployment and widespread economic hardship have devastating effects which last for over a decade. Support for internationalism fades as nationalist and isolationist tendencies gain importance.

1932-01-18 02:13:32

Harold Butler (UK) appointed 2nd Director of the ILO

As Europe is weakened by the economic crisis and nationalist governments come to power in several European countries, the situation becomes increasingly difficult for the ILO. Director Harold Butler pushes for an extension of ILO’s activities beyond Europe.

1933-01-01 00:00:00

New Deal programme in the United States

Under the Roosevelt administration, several programmes based on Keneysian ideas begin to be adopted in the UK and America, as well as some other European counties, in order to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression. They are based on convictions shared by the ILO and include the promotion of social protection, trade union rights, public work programmes, etc.

1933-01-01 00:00:00

Hitler seizes power in Germany

In the context of a devastated economy with extremely high unemployment rates, Adolf Hitler seizes power, supported by strong anti-democratic forces. Germany becomes a nationalist dictatorship hostile to any form of internationalism. Fascist regimes come to power in other European countries such as Austria, Italy, Spain and Romania.

1934-01-18 02:13:32

The USA and the Soviet Union join the ILO, Germany withdraws

Concern about the growing threat represented by Nazi Germany is an important impetus for the USA and the USSR to join the ILO. With the withdrawal of Germany, the ILO ‘s influence in Europe is weakened.

1936-01-18 02:13:32

First ILO Regional Conference in Santiago, Chile

Given the rise of nationalist and anti-democratic governments in Europe in the 1930s, and with the USA as a new member, the ILO shifts focus away from Europe. The first regional conference in Santiago, Chile examines problems of particular interest to this region.

1939-01-01 00:00:00

World War II

This conflict, which starts with Germany’s attack on Poland, is also called the “total war”. Nations all over the world are embroiled in battle and over 100 million die. Women participate more than ever before in the war time effort, taking over jobs traditionally assigned to men. This changes perceptions about women’s rights and abilities, and their participation in the labour force.

1939-01-18 02:13:32

John Winant (USA) appointed 3rd Director of the ILO

In 1940, John Winant has to face Nazi armies sweeping over Europe and the isolation of the ILO from its chief sources of democratic support. The transfer of the Office away from Geneva becomes a necessity.

1940-01-18 02:13:32

Office moves to Montreal, Canada

In August 1940, the Canadian Government officially agrees to the temporary transfer of forty staff members from 18 countries. They are hosted until 1947 by McGill University in Montreal. Most other officials return to their countries as national correspondents or are posted to branch offices.

1941-01-01 16:14:55

F.D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedom speech

In January 1941 US President Franklin Roosevelt delivers his State of the Union address, known as the Four Freedoms speech, in which he outlines fundamental freedoms that all people should enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These four concepts are later deemed universal human rights and become part of the Charter of the United Nations.

1941-01-18 02:13:32

Edward Phelan (Ireland) appointed 4th Director –General of the ILO

Director-General Edward Phelan guides the Office with limited staff and a skeleton budget through the war years. Contributing significantly to the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944, he helps the ILO to develop a new vision for the post-WWII world and to find its role in the new UN system.

1944-01-18 02:13:32

Declaration of Philadelphia

This Declaration sets out the key principles for the ILO’s work after the end of WWII.

1945-01-01 16:14:55

Birth of United Nations

The UN, which replaces the defunct League of Nations, is born out of the need to preserve peace, security and cooperation between nations in the aftermath of World War II. The United Nations Charter is signed by 50 nations on 26 June 1945 in San Francisco.

1946-01-18 02:13:32

ILO first UN specialized agency

The ILO is the only League of Nations organization to survive into the post-war period. In 1945 a resolution is adopted confirming the desire of the ILO to enter into a relationship with the United Nations.

1947-01-01 16:14:55

Independence of India

India gains her independence after almost 100 years under British rule and becomes a leading force in the developing world.

1947-01-18 02:13:32

First (preparatory) Asian Regional Conference

India, an ILO member State since 1919, pushes for a bigger role of the developing world within the ILO.

1948-01-18 02:13:32

David Morse (USA) appointed 5th Director-General of the ILO

Under his leadership the ILO extends its scope of action by developing technical cooperation as a new field of activity in the difficult context of the Cold War. David Morse is – with over 20 years in office – the longest serving Director-General to date.

1952-01-01 16:14:55

European Coal and Steel community

In May 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman proposes the establishment of a common market for coal and steel for those countries willing to delegate control of these sectors to an independent authority. Two years later, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) is set up.

1952-10-25 18:28:27

ILO launches the Andean Indian programme

The programme is the first large-scale technical cooperation programme. In cooperation with other UN agencies, it aims to improve the social and economic conditions of Andean Indians in seven Latin American countries.

1953-03-26 00:59:59

Stalin’s death

Josef Stalin – under whose dictatorial rule the Soviet Union became the world’s second industrial and military power and a direct opponent of the United States in the bi-polar world of the Cold War – dies in March 1953. Because Stalin refused to have any relations with the League of Nations, his death marks the beginning of a new involvement of the Soviet Union in the multilateral system.

1954-10-25 18:28:27

(Re-)admission of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union, after having lost its ILO membership in 1939 following its exclusion from the League of Nations, is readmitted in 1954 as a consequence of Stalin’s death. Other communist states join the ILO or reactivate their memberships shortly afterwards.

1960-03-26 00:59:59

16 African states gain independence

A wave of rebellions after the Second World War results in 16 African states gaining independence from European colonial rule in 1960, giving a major impetus to the liberation of the whole continent. Over the next three years, more than 32 countries become sovereign states.

1960-10-25 18:28:27

First African Regional Conference in Lagos,Nigeria

The Conference follows the addition of 16 newly independent African states to the ILO in 1960. The decolonization in the 1950s and 60s modifies the ILO’s structure and activities considerably.

1961-03-26 00:59:59

Birth of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is founded in Belgrade as a group of states which are not aligned formally with the Western or Eastern military blocs (Former Yugoslavia, Egypt, Cuba, Ghana, etc.) The NAM’s objective is to prevent its members, especially in the developing world, from becoming victims of the Cold War power games.

1963-03-25 08:39:32

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech

On 28 August, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his iconic speech calling for equality and freedom from racial discrimination. Delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the speech lays the groundwork for civil rights legislation and inspires social justice movements in a number of other countries. In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. receives the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end segregation and discrimination by nonviolent means.

1964-10-25 18:28:27

Adoption of the Declaration on Apartheid

In 1964 the International Labour Conference unanimously adopts the Declaration concerning the Policy of Apartheid of the Republic of South Africa (RSA).

1969-08-02 10:43:22

ILO awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

In her laudation, Mrs Aase Lionaes, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, states:

1970-08-06 06:29:28

Wilfred Jenks (UK) appointed 6th Director-General of the ILO

Wilfred Jenks, who helped draft the Declaration of Philadelphia of 1944, faces a politicization of labour problems resulting from the global East-West conflict.

1974-08-05 05:51:12

Francis Blanchard (France) appointed 7th Director-General of the ILO

As Director-General, Mr Blanchard oversees the expansion of ILO technical cooperation programmes, which changes the image of the ILO. He succeeds in averting major damage to the Organization when the United States withdraws from the ILO (1977–1980).

1977-08-05 05:51:12

Governing Body adopts Declaration on Multinational enterprises

Given the growing importance of multinational enterprises, the Declaration concerning Multinational Enterprises is adopted. It aims to guide and inspire multinational enterprises in areas such as employment, training, conditions of work, safety and health, and industrial relations.

1980-03-26 00:59:59

Creation of first independent trade union in Poland (Solidarnosc)

Solidarnosc emerges in Poland as food price hikes lead to a strike movement at the Gdansk Lenin Shipyard. It is the first trade union in a communist country which is not controlled by the communist party. Its leader, Lech Wałęsa, becomes the first president of Poland after the end of the Cold War.

1982-03-26 00:59:59

Latin American debt crisis

In the context of a worldwide recession and rising interest rates, Mexico defaults on its foreign debts. This is the beginning of the biggest economic crisis in Latin America. The IMF intervenes in many Latin American countries, providing loans under strict conditionalities. This ushers in an era of structural adjustment policies which require governments to enact major economic reforms, including trade liberalization, privatization and deregulation.

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