How the International Labour Office came to Geneva ? / Pierre Sayour

How the International Labour Office came to Geneva ? / Pierre Sayour

Category : Message68

“How the International Labour Office came to Geneva ?” first appeared in issue 48, Oct. 2019, of Passé Simple, a monthly journal of Swiss history and archaeology, under the title “Le Bureau international du Travail ancre la vocation internationale de Genève” :

We publish it by kind permission of the journal.

In 2019, the International Labour Office (ILO) celebrated its 100th anniversary. The organization has been a feature of the Geneva landscape since 1920. After the First World War, the population of the canton was no more than 200,000. Why is the ILO based in Geneva and not in a major capital city like Paris, London or Brussels? The decision was a highly significant one because it forced the League of Nations, precursor of the United Nations, to take up residence in Geneva too.

The Treaty of Versailles – 1919

In 1919, following the First World War, the Allies and the defeated powers came together at the Paris Conference to draw up peace treaties. The discussions led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. At this conference, the Commission on International Labour Legislation drafted Part XIII of the Treaty, establishing the International Labour Organization. The commission comprised delegates from several countries. Particularly active and influential were those from France, the United Kingdom and the United States, all of them accompanied by representatives of workers’ and employers’ organizations. The Treaty of Versailles brought the Organization into being, with the International Labour Office as its secretariat and the International Labour Conference as its supreme body. The Treaty specifies that “the International Labour Office shall be established at the seat of the League of Nations as part of the organisation of the League” and that it “shall be under the control of a Governing Body”. The document also stipulates that the Organization will be tripartite, with representatives of governments and trade union and employers’ organizations included in its governance structures, and that “the first meeting of the Conference shall take place in October, 1919”.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, many institutions and individuals had focused on working conditions (working hours, factory safety, conditions of miners, seafarers, women, children, etc.). After the Great War, with its 18.5 million victims, and the Russian Revolution of 1917, discussions among the victorious powers could no longer ignore social issues. They knew there can be no lasting peace without social justice.

Albert Thomas

The first International Labour Conference was held in Washington in November 1919. In January 1920, the Governing Body elected Albert Thomas to be its Director. Thomas was French, a Socialist MP and former Minister of Munitions during the Great War. With his forceful personality, he breathed life into the new organization. The small team that moved into a private residence in London already included two future directors of the Office, Harold Butler (1883–1951) and Edward Phelan (1888–1967). They also played a leading role during this First Session of the Conference and had both been members of the United Kingdom delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. During this period, ILO officials had to move around in order to service meetings, whether in Washington, Paris or London.

Albert Thomas wished to put an end to this constant travelling by the Office. In the spring of 1920, according to his future chief of staff Marius Viple (1891–1949), “he had decided to make a stand to get it finally established in Geneva, cost what it might”. Albert Thomas gave his own analysis of the situation:

“It will not be easy, for the Secretary-General of the League of Nations and his political collaborators are against Geneva. So is the League Executive Council; and the Allied Supreme Council is in charge of the entire movement. I have the Peace Treaty on my side, because it is stated there (article 7) that the headquarters of the League of Nations shall be at Geneva, but it also provides that the League Council may at any time decide to set it up elsewhere. President Wilson is no longer there to defend the city of his choice. And it is now clear that the United States will not take part in the League, although they did so much to further its establishment. It is now the definite desire of the Governments that Brussels should be the headquarters instead of Geneva, because Brussels is nearer to London and Paris, and the British and French Cabinets have every intention to seize this opportunity to take charge of the international organizations now coming into being. This is what I am determined to avoid at all costs. The time has come for me to denounce all these intrigues publicly.”

The Treaty of Versailles stipulated that the ILO should be based in the same place as the League of Nations. Albert Thomas proposed to the League that the ILO’s headquarters be moved from London to Geneva, but Sir Eric Drummond, the League’s first Secretary General, opposed this option. Albert Thomas then forcefully defended his choice before the Governing Body: “It may well be asked whether this change of headquarters is likely to antagonize a number of powers which had interpreted the choice of Geneva as evidence of complete impartiality. We quite firmly state that we cannot sacrifice the future of the ILO or indeed its life to the hesitations and schemes of the League Secretariat and the Executive Council.”

In March 1920 at its Third Session, in London, the Governing Body approved a budget of £41,500 for the transfer of the Office to Geneva, and on 16 May 1920, the Swiss Confederation voted in favour of accession to the League of Nations. Nevertheless, the League and its Secretary General still preferred a different city for its headquarters, namely Brussels. The Peace Treaty stipulated that the first assembly of the League was to be convened by the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. On 16 July 1920, he sent Drummond a telegram: “At the request of the Council of the League of Nations that I summon a meeting of the Assembly of the League of Nations, I have the honor, in accordance with the provisions of Article 5 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, to summon the Assembly of the League to convene in the city of Geneva, the seat of the League, on the 15th day of November, 1920, at 11 o’clock.” Thus Geneva’s leading role as a city destined to host numerous international organizations and agencies asserted itself. Albert Thomas gave impetus to the process and in this way, the ILO also affirmed its independence in its relations with the League of Nations.

It is also true that both the creation in 1863 of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva and its substantial development during the First World War paved the way.

So it was that in July 1920, the Office moved to the La Châtelaine building in Geneva, today occupied by the ICRC and at that time home to the Thudicum boarding school, named after the family that founded it. When this building became too small, a new one was constructed in 1926 on the shores of Lake Geneva. During the Second World War, under the direction of John Winant, part of the staff had to leave Geneva in May 1940 for security reasons, moving to premises at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Under the terms of the Constitution, the Office could not legally leave Geneva and had to remain in the same city as the League of Nations. During the war it therefore adopted the name of ILO Working Centre while maintaining its relations with numerous countries. Edward Phelan became the fourth Director General of the Office in 1941.

By the 1960s, the Office comprised more than 2,000 staff, meaning the building on Rue de Lausanne was now quite cramped. The only option was to rent new premises, in Grand-Saconnex. In 1969, the Office began construction of the building it has occupied since 1973. Thirteen storeys high and 200 metres in length, it is in the shape of a diverging, concave lens. Designed by E. Beaudoin (France), P.L. Nervi (Italy) and A. Camenzind (Switzerland), the architecture remains highly original even today, its modernity reaffirmed by the recent renovations, while the location affords staff members a magnificent view of Geneva and its surroundings.


“The strange and wonderful early years of the ILO” by Marius Viple, in Message, No. 65, 2019.

“Le Bureau international du Travail à Genève a cinquante ans”, by Henri Villy, in Union, 1970.

“How the ILO led the League to Geneva” by Yvan Elsmark, in Lettre aux anciens fonctionnaires (ILO Staff Union Former Officials Section), No. 26 (Dec. 1999).

Minutes of the Third Session of the ILO Governing Body (March 1920).

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