ILO Research Guide

  1. Introduction
  2. History
  3. ILO's Mission
  4. Organization
  5. Conventions and Recommendations
  6. Cases and Reports Developed through the ILO's Monitoring Mechanisms
  7. Locating Sources of Law Created or Collected by the ILO
  8. Conducting Research on the ILO Website
  9. Bibliography for Further Reading

I. Introduction

The International Labour Organization ("ILO") is an international organization which works to improve working conditions and promote social justice and human rights. In 1969, on its 50th anniversary, the ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The ILO's website, provides both general information about the organization and original documentation for scholars.

For more information, see the "About the ILO" page of the ILO website

II. History


To address the problems caused by the industrialization of Europe in the 19th century, Robert Owen of Wales, and Jerome Blanqui and Daniel Legrand of France, among others, brought the need for international cooperation in setting labor standards to international prominence. The reasons articulated for the necessity of cooperation were both benevolent and economic. Cooperation was necessary to eradicate poverty and injustice, not just to protect workers, but also to prevent the social unrest these conditions could engender. Furthermore, international cooperation was necessary because each nation would be at a competitive disadvantage if it imposed higher standards unilaterally. Ultimately, these concerns led to the formation of The International Labour Organization on April 11, 1919 as an affiliated agency of the League of Nations. The original ILO Constitution was drafted as Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles. After the creation of the United Nations, the ILO became the first specialized agency to be affiliated with the UN in 1946.

For more information, see the "Origins and history" page of the ILO

III. ILO's Mission


The ILO website states the organization's goal as "bringing decent work and livelihoods, job-related security and better living standards to the people of both poor and rich countries." From its inception, the ILO has recognized social justice as a prerequisite to world peace. After the Second World War, its aims and purposes were reasserted and strengthened in The Declaration of Philadelphia, adopted on May 19, 1949, which states:

  • Labour is not a commodity;
  • Freedom of expression and association are essential to sustained progress;
  • Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity anywhere; [and]
  • All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.

For more information, see the "Mission and objectives" page of the ILO

IV. Organization


With headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, the ILO studies, creates, and monitors labor law standards; compiles extensive statistical reports; and provides a wide range of technical assistance. Its Administrative Tribunal also hears disputes raised by employees of international organizations. The ILO has numerous regional offices, a residential International Training Centre in Turin, Italy, an International Institute for Labour Studies in Geneva, and fourteen Multidisciplinary Teams (MDTs) throughout the developing world to provide technical assistance.

The Organization's basic structure is comprised of the International Labour Conference (the "Conference"), the Governing Body, and The International Labour Office (the "Office,"). The Conference is the large deliberative body which meets yearly to set policy, adopt conventions and recommendations, and monitor progress in the application of labor standards. The ILO's unique tripartite structure requires that for each member country in the ILO, there are four representatives in the Conference: two representatives of the country's government, one representative of employers' groups, and one representative of employees' groups.

The Governing Body is the executive body of the ILO. It is comprised of 28 government representatives, fourteen employers' representatives, and fourteen employees' representatives. Ten of the government seats are held by representatives of member states which the organization has categorized as "of chief industrial importance:" Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. A proposed revision of the ILO structure to eliminate these permanent seats is now under consideration.

The Secretariat of the Organization is the International Labour Office, which is headed by the Director-General.

V. Conventions and Recommendations


After extensive preparation by the Office and the Governing Body, the Conference, usually after consideration in two of its annual sessions, adopts Conventions and Recommendations. These are then brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities of the member nations by their representatives.

Conventions are treaties which do not bind a country unless ratified by that country. Each member country is bound to present ILO conventions which have secured a two-thirds majority in the Conference to that country's appropriate ratifying authority. ILO conventions must be ratified as written and without reservations, but sometimes include flexibility clauses to accommodate different climactic conditions or states of development of particular countries.

Recommendations are non-binding guidelines which are typically issued when state practice varies greatly, when the subject is too technical to be handled by a convention, or when a subject already covered by a convention needs to be addressed in greater detail. Member countries are obligated to bring recommendations to the attention of their governments.

Together, the body of ILO Conventions and Recommendations which the ILO considers still in effect is commonly known as the International Labour Code, but the Code and the Organization have an impact far beyond a simple calculation of the number of states which have ratified each convention. In judging the organization's impact, it is important to consider that member states which have not ratified conventions may still alter their law or practice in response to the principles established by the ILO, often as a result of the sophisticated ILO system of monitoring its standards. Furthermore, national courts, and legislatures may also rely on the ILO's articulation of legal principles, especially in the area of collective bargaining and freedom of association, on which the Organization has developed a large body of precedent.

VI. Cases and Reports Developed through the ILO's Monitoring Mechanisms


There are several mechanisms by which the ILO evaluates and promotes compliance with its standards.

1. Through the ILO's regular reporting structure

Each member nation must regularly report the extent to which its national law is consistent with ILO conventions and recommendations. These reports are first evaluated by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, which consists of 20 internationally renowned scholars. The committee's annual report is reviewed at the annual session of the Conference by the Conference's Committee on the Application of Standards. The Committee on the Application of Standards then makes recommendations to the Conference, which may act to censure particular governments.

2. Through special mechanisms established to protect Freedom of Association

The ILO Governing Body's Committee on Freedom of Association has the competence to review complaints brought against member states which allege a violation of the fundamental right of freedom of association. Because freedom of association is one of the ILO's central tenets, a complaint may be brought against a member state even if that state has not ratified the organization's conventions on freedom of association.

The Committee may refer complaints to the Fact-Finding and Conciliation Commission on Freedom of Association for further investigation if the state to be investigated consents. After the investigation, matters concerning states which have ratified ILO conventions are then referred to the Committee of Experts.

3. Through Commissions of Inquiry

Under Article 26 of the ILO's constitution, an ad hoc commission of inquiry may be set up to investigate complaints against a member state which has ratified an ILO convention.

4. Through Representations

Under Article 24 of the ILO's constitution, a "representation" alleging a violation of an ILO convention which a state has ratified may be filed against that state. Under this procedure, a committee is appointed by the Governing Body, which then reviews the committee's report.

For more information, see the "Applying and promoting International Labour Standards" page of the ILO website

VII. Locating Sources of Law Created or Collected by the ILO


1. Conventions and Ratifications

Conventions and Ratifications are available on the ILO's website. These and most other documents at the website are also available in Spanish and French. The full-text of conventions and lists of countries ratifying them are available on the website through the ILOLEX database. A list of ratifications by country is also available. The full-text of ILO Recommendations is also available.

In print, Conventions and Recommendations appear in the Record of Proceedings of the Session of the International Labour Conference at which they are adopted and in Series A of the Official Bulletin for the year of their adoption. They are also compiled periodically in a collection, the most recent of which is International Labour Conventions and Recommendations, 1919-1995 (Geneva: ILO, 1996).

Every year, the ILO publishes its annual "List of Ratifications of Conventions." Updating information is available through Series A of the Official Bulletin.

2. The Digest of Decisions

The Digest of Decisions of the Freedom of Association Committee of the Governing Body is available on the web through ILOLEX. In print, the committee's reports appear in Series B of the Official Bulletin. The ILO also periodically publishes Freedom of Association: Digest of Decisions and Principles of the Freedom of Association Committee of the Governing Body of the ILO.

3. Decisions of the ILO Administrative Tribunal

Decisions of the ILO Administrative Tribunal, which hears disputes that employees of international organizations bring against their employers, are available on the web through the ILO TRIBLEX database.

4. National Law Collected by the ILO

As part of its evaluation of labor issues, the ILO collects and studies national labor and social security laws. These are accessible through its NATLEX database. In print, they appear as abstracts in the ILO's monthly Legislative Information.

5. Other Internal Documentation

The ILO website provides the full-text of the ILO constitution; the ILO mandate; annual reports and press releases; information about ILO publications, and articles from some of its publications, including World of Work and International Labour Review; and a wealth of additional internal documentation.

VIII. Conducting Research on the ILO Website


The ILO website is the most important resource for researching ILO material and also offers a large amount of other information such as national labor laws, news, labor statistics, and labor-related journal articles. Because the ILO website contains such a large amount of information, navigating and using the website effectively becomes an important research skill. The general approach of the ILO website is to present information in many narrowly-focused databases. This guide aims to explain the purpose and use of some of the more important resources on the ILO site. Like the rest of the ILO website, these databases are generally accessible in English, French, and Spanish.

1. ILO Library

The ILO Library page offers information about the ILO Library in Geneva as well as centralized access to the ILO's online resources. Available resources include more than thirty databases, the ILO Thesaurus, research and topical guides, and news services.


The NATLEX database contains information on the national labor, social security, and human rights legislation of 196 countries. NATLEX presents sources arranged by country or area of law and offers an advanced search feature. Although NATLEX itself is accessible in the ILO's three official languages (English, French, and Spanish), each source is presented in only one of the three. NATLEX is maintained by the ILO International Labour Statistics Department, which strives to provide up-to-date and full-text resources. Nevertheless, the ILO cautions that NATLEX is not intended to replace consultation of authentic texts.

3. ILOLex

ILOLex is the database which contains the ILO's own publications. In addition to the text of ILO conventions and recommendations, ILOLEX offers ratification information, the ILO Constitution, the Digest of Decisions of the Committee on Freedom of Association, committee reports, declarations, surveys, the ILO handbook of procedure, a comprehensive list of terms defined in ILO standards, and detailed information about each publication. Although ILOLEX presents considerably more information than other ILO databases, the site is organized intuitively and an advanced search feature allows users to navigate easily.

4. Labordoc

Labordoc is the ILO's database of work-related journal articles. Labordoc provides all ILO publications, as well as comprehensive coverage of work-related material from more than 500 journals. Although Labordoc's coverage is comprehensive, it is not exhaustive, as articles are selected for inclusion. Further, Labordoc focuses its collection on material related to developing nations with an emphasis on empirical literature. The site's interface is available in English, French, and Spanish, though the collection contains articles in many languages and users can limit searches by language. The help section offers guidance on ILO terminology and how to use Labordoc's streamlined interface. The site includes an advanced search feature which allows users to build boolean search terms, set limits, and search within fields.


LABORSTA offers statistical data for 200 countries and territories arranged by topic, country, or publication. The site also provides thorough definitions and explanations of relevant terminology and methodology. The user can retrieve data for several countries simultaneously or over a selected time period. Although LABORSTA offers a large amount of data, the site utilizes an intuitive but streamlined interface with relatively few features.


The TRAVAIL database compiles information on employment and working condition laws. The site also provides helpful infosheets and illustrative maps. The scope of TRAVAIL is limited to laws related to working time, minimum wage, and maternity protection. Unlike NATLEX, TRAVAIL summarizes the information rather than retrieving the text of the legislation. Users can browse by subject or by country and can select multiple countries and subjects for quick comparisons. TRAVAIL also provides a basic search function.

7. Triblex

Triblex is the case law database of the ILO Administrative Tribunal. Triblex allows users to browse Tribunal case law by session, organization or keyword. The site also features an advanced search function which allows users to search by term, date, organization, session, keyword, or judgment number. Triblex also offers the enabling statute and rules of the Administrative Tribunal. Because researching Administrative Tribunal case law can be challenging to the unfamiliar researcher, one of Triblex's most useful features is its in-depth "About us" section. This section provides a wealth of explanatory information on the Tribunal, its composition, and its history. The section also features a Frequently Asked Questions page which offers a quick illustration of Tribunal procedure.

8. EPLex

EPLex summarizes national employment protection law for more than seventy countries, focusing on seven primary topics: the source and scope of regulation, employment contracts, substantive requirements for dismissals, procedural requirements for individual dismissals, collective dismissals for economic reasons, severance pay, and avenues for redress. Within these primary categories, EPLex monitors more than fifty variables. The information is presented in a uniform questionnaire format with references to the relevant legislation. Users can browse EPLex by country or by topic. The database's straightforward format makes navigation easy and intuitive, but the advanced search feature also allows users to create highly specialized comparisons. Users can also download the EPLex database in spreadsheet form. EPLex is updated annually.

9. SafeWork Bookshelf

The ILO's SafeWork Bookshelf site contains four important resources. First, the ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health an Safety offers in-depth articles on occupational hazards and conditions. The Encyclopedia is arranged by topic in 18 parts over four volumes. The fourth volume contains helpful guides which explain how to use the encyclopedia. Second, the collection of International Chemical Safety Cards presents medical and safety information on a large number of chemicals, arranged alphabetically. Third, SafeWork Bookshelf compiles ILO Conventions and Recommendations related to occupational Health and Safety. Last, ILO Codes of Practice are guides which offer recommended practices on several occupational topics. Codes are prepared by experts and approved by the Governing Body. SafeWork Bookshelf is clearly organized and easy to navigate. A simple search feature allows users to search for terms within the four resources simultaneously. Users can also export individual articles to Microsoft Word.


CISDoc is a database of bibliographic information on occupational health and safety materials including regulations, ILO conventions, books, and journal articles. Because CISDoc offers only bibliographic material, the results are citations and not full text documents. CISDoc utilizes a simple interface, but the site does not have many features and can be confusing. The help menu is important as it explains the fields and boolean search functions. Search results are displayed in a new browser window and users can customize how results are displayed. Further, users can register and save their queries and display customizations.

IX. Bibliography for Further Reading


Bartolomei de la Cruz, Hector J., Geraldo von Potobsky, and Lee Swepston. The International Labour Organisation: the international standards system and basic human rights. Boulder, CO; Oxford, England: Westview Press, 1996.

Betten, Lammy. International Labour Law: selected issues. Deventer; Boston: Kluwer Law and Taxation Publishers, 1993.

Ghebali, Victor-Yves. The International Labour Organization: a case study on the evolution of U.N. specialised agencies. Dordrecht; Boston; London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1989.

Milman-Sivan, Faina. Labor Rights and Globalization: An Institutional analysis of the International Labor Organization (ILO). New York: Columbia University, 2006.

By Charlotte Bynum
Revised in Oct. 2010 by Zachary D. Wellbrock '11