Labour law arose due to the demands of workers for better conditions, the right to organize, and the simultaneous demands of employers to restrict the powers of workers in many organizations and to keep labour costs low. Employers’ costs can increase due to workers organizing to win higher wages, or by laws imposing costly requirements, such as health and safety or equal opportunities conditions. Workers’ organizations, such as trade unions, can also transcend purely industrial disputes, and gain political power – which some employers may oppose. The state of labour law at any one time is therefore both the product of, and a component of, struggles between different interests in society.
International Labour Organisation (ILO) was one of the first organisations to deal with labour issues. The ILO was established as an agency of the League of Nations following the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. Post-war reconstruction and the protection of labour unions occupied the attention of many nations during and immediately after World War I. In Great Britain, the Whitley Commission, a subcommittee of the Reconstruction Commission, recommended in its July 1918 Final Report that “industrial councils” be established throughout the world. The British Labour Party had issued its own reconstruction programme in the document titled Labour and the New Social Order. In February 1918, the third Inter-Allied Labour and Socialist Conference (representing delegates from Great Britain, France, Belgium and Italy) issued its report, advocating an international labour rights body, an end to secret diplomacy, and other goals. And in December 1918, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) issued its own distinctively apolitical report, which called for the achievement of numerous incremental improvements via the collective bargaining process.
As the war drew to a close, two competing visions for the post-war world emerged. The first was offered by the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which called for a meeting in Berne in July 1919. The Berne meeting would consider both the future of the IFTU and the various proposals which had been made in the previous few years. The IFTU also proposed including delegates from the Central Powers as equals. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, boycotted the meeting, wanting the Central Powers delegates in a subservient role as an admission of guilt for their countries’ role in the bringing about war. Instead, Gompers favored a meeting in Paris which would only consider President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points as a platform. Despite the American boycott, the Berne meeting went ahead as scheduled. In its final report, the Berne Conference demanded an end to wage labour and the establishment of socialism. If these ends could not be immediately achieved, then an international body attached to the League of Nations should enact and enforce legislation to protect workers and trade unions.
The British proposed establishing an international parliament to enact labour laws which each member of the League would be required to implement. Each nation would have two delegates to the parliament, one each from labour and management. An international labour office would collect statistics on labour issues and enforce the new international laws. Philosophically opposed to the concept of an international parliament and convinced that international standards would lower the few protections achieved in the United States, Gompers proposed that the international labour body be authorized only to make recommendations, and that enforcement be left up to the League of Nations. Despite vigorous opposition from the British, the American proposal was adopted.
The Americans made 10 proposals. Three were adopted without change: That labour should not be treated as a commodity; that all workers had the right to a wage sufficient to live on; and that women should receive equal pay for equal work. A proposal protecting the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association was amended to include only freedom of association. A proposed ban on the international shipment of goods made by children under the age of 16 was amended to ban goods made by children under the age of 14. A proposal to require an eight-hour work day was amended to require the eight-hour work day or the 40-hour work week (an exception was made for countries where productivity was low). Four other American proposals were rejected. Meanwhile, international delegates proposed three additional clauses, which were adopted: One or more days for weekly rest; equality of laws for foreign workers; and regular and frequent inspection of factory conditions.
The Commission issued its final report on 4 March 1919, and the Peace Conference adopted it without amendment on 11 April. The report became Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles. (The Treaty of Versailles was one of the peace treaties at the end of World War I. It ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919.)
The first annual conference (referred to as the International Labour Conference, or ILC) began on 29th October 1919 in Washington DC and adopted the first six International Labour Conventions, which dealt with hours of work in industry, unemployment, maternity protection, night work for women, minimum age and night work for young persons in industry. The prominent French socialist Albert Thomas became its first Director General. The ILO became a member of the United Nations system after the demise of the League in 1946.
Also Read: Purpose of labour legislation