The International Labour Organization (ILO) was created by the 1919 Peace Conference that followed World War I. Its original constitution, which formed part of the Treaty of Versailles, established it on 11 April 1919 as an autonomous organization associated with the League of Nations.
A statement made in the constitution's preamble—"Conditions of labor exist involving such injustice, hardship, and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled"—was not mere rhetoric. World War I had shaken many countries to their foundations. The revolution in Russia had succeeded. All over the world there was labor unrest, and the conviction of the need to improve the lot of working people was by no means limited to labor itself. Organized labor, however, had been especially active during the war in demanding that the peace treaty include recognition of the rights of labor and that labor be given a voice in international matters. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and other powerful trade-union bodies demanded in particular an international organization of labor that would wield "tremendous authority."
At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the president of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, was chairman of the conference's Commission on Labor Legislation. The Peace Conference, instead of establishing an international organization of labor, created an organization in which labor, employers, and governments were to be represented on an equal footing. As so constituted, the ILO was, and still is, unique among international governmental organizations—the only one in which private citizens, namely representatives of labor and of employers, have the same voting and other rights as are possessed by governments.
The ILO's principal function was to establish international labor and social standards through the drafting and adoption of international labor conventions. Prior to the existence of the ILO, only two international labor conventions had been adopted: one, designed to protect the health of workers in match factories, prohibited the use of white phosphorus, a poison, in the manufacture of matches; the other prescribed modest restrictions on night work by women. Neither of these was widely ratified. By contrast, more than 182 international labor conventions and 190 recommendations have been adopted by the ILO since 1919. International labor standards are used as a benchmark by which the rights and conditions of human beings have been measured.