As stated by its Director-General, "the primary goal of the ILO today is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity." In working towards this goal, the organization seeks to promote employment creation, strengthen fundamental principles and rights at work—workers' rights, improve social protection, and promote social dialogue, as well as provide relevant information, training, and technical assistance. At present, the ILO's work is organized into four thematic groupings or sectors: (1) Standards and fundamental principles and rights at work; (2) Employment; (3) Social Protection; and (4) Social Dialogue.
Founded in 1919, it was formed through the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, and was initially an agency of the League of Nations. It became a member of the United Nations system after the demise of the League and the formation of the UN at the end of World War II, as the first specialized agency associated with that body. Its Constitution, as amended to date, includes the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944) on the aims and purposes of the Organization. Its secretariat is known as the International Labor Office and its current Director-General is Juan Somavia (since 1999). While the organization has its critics, there are, as its Nobel Peace Prize citation said in 1969, "few organizations that have succeeded to the extent that the ILO has, in translating into action the fundamental moral idea on which it is based." "Beneath the foundation stone of the ILO's main office in Geneva lies a document," stated Aase Lionaes, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, "on which is written: 'Si vis pacem, cole justitiam.' If you desire peace, cultivate justice".
The ILO, like other labor unions, arose to correct conditions of injustice in pay. However, labor unions can also harm companies when they push too hard for wages or benefits, or demand pay for unproductive workers. In a competitive global market, they have driven many manufacturing companies out of the United States and other industrialized countries. Ultimately, cooperation between labor and management is required in which both sides see beyond their own interests to develop harmonious strategies that work for both capital and labor.
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The ILO hosts the International Labour Conference in Geneva every year in June. At the Conference, Conventions and Recommendations are crafted and adopted by majority decision. The Conference also makes decisions on the ILO's general policy, work program, and budget.
Each member state is represented at the International Labor Conference by four delegates: Two government delegates, an employer delegate, and a worker delegate. All delegates have individual voting rights, and all votes are equal, regardless of the population of the delegate's member state. The employer and worker delegates are normally chosen in agreement with the most representative national organizations of employers and workers. Usually, the workers' delegates coordinate their voting, as do the employers' delegates.
One of the principal functions of the ILO involves setting international labor standards through the adoption of Conventions and Recommendations covering a broad spectrum of labor-related subjects and which, together, are sometimes referred to as the International Labor Code.
Adoption of a Convention by the International Labor Conference allows governments to ratify it, and the Convention then becomes a treaty in international law when a specified number of governments have ratified it.
The coming into force of a Convention results in a legal obligation to apply its provisions by the nations that have ratified it. Ratification of a Convention is voluntary. Conventions that have not been ratified by member states have the same legal force as Recommendations. Governments are required to submit reports detailing their compliance with the obligations of the Conventions they have ratified. Every year, the International Labor Conference's Committee on the Application of Standards examines a number of alleged breaches of international labor standards. In recent years, one of the member states that has received the most attention is Myanmar/Burma, as the country has repeatedly been criticized for its failure to protect its citizens against forced labor exacted by the army.
All adopted ILO Conventions are considered international labor standards regardless of how many national governments have ratified them. The topics covered by them cover a wide range of issues, from freedom of association to health and safety at work, working conditions in the maritime sector, night work, discrimination, child labor, and forced labor.
In 1998, the International Labor Conference adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This Declaration identified four issue areas as "core" or fundamental international labor standards, meaning that any ILO member state should have ratified at least the eight key Conventions, which concern freedom of association, the right to organize and collective bargaining; discrimination; forced labor; and child labor. These core or fundamental standards have all been ratified by the overwhelming majority of ILO member states.
Despite the rapid ratification by many countries of the eight Conventions identified as fundamental, a number of academics and activists have criticized the ILO for creating a false division between different international labor standards, many of which cover specific and concrete human rights topics but were excluded from the 1998 Declaration, such as those on health and safety and working hours. To add further confusion, the new core conventions are often exclusively referred to as being human rights, whereas before all international labor standards were viewed as human rights. Philip Alston, John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University, has written on this narrowing of international labor standards in the name of human rights advocacy.
Recommendations do not have the binding force of Conventions, and are not subject to ratification by member countries. Recommendations may be adopted at the same time as Conventions to supplement the latter with additional or more detailed provisions. The intent of these recommendations is often to more precisely detail the principles of related Conventions.
In other cases, Recommendations may be adopted separately, and address issues not covered by, or unrelated to any particular Convention.
The ILO has a specialist program addressing child labor, the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC).
Under the name ILOAIDS, the ILO created the Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work as a document providing principles for "policy development and practical guidelines for programmes at enterprise, community and national levels." Including:
The organization received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969. "Working earnestly and untiringly, the ILO has succeeded," announced the Nobel Committee, "in introducing reforms that have removed the most flagrant injustices in a great many countries, particularly in Europe." The citation notes that one of the unique features of this international organization is that workers and employers have an equal voice with government in determining its policies and programs. Justice is a necessary foundation for peace, and ""Just as peace is indivisible, so also is justice."
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