Society History

Society History

Origins and evolution of the International Society for Labour and Social Security Law

By Alexandre Berenstein and Jean Michel Servais, Honorary Presidents of the International Society for Labour and Social Security Law


The origins and first twenty years of the ISLSSL were traced by A. F. Cesarino Jr., in 1980, in a volume dedicated to the memory of Otto Kahn-Freund [1] who, like Cesarino himself, had been President and Honorary President of the Society.

Our intention is not to write a comprehensive history of the Society, but rather to point out some important steps during the half-century of its existence, from its early years to the present.[2]

Founding of the Society (1958)

Let us start by recalling the first protagonists of our Society; in Europe, Professor Renato Balzarini of Trieste, and in South America, Professor Cesarino of São Paulo, as mentioned above. Both were dynamic personalities with a clear vision of the international dimension of labour law. Both understood that, with the creation and development of the International Labour Organization (ILO), labour law could not be restricted within the national boundaries of each country, but that it had already become, in part at least, international law and that comparative law played, and continued to play, an important role in this regard. It was only natural that an international group of jurists came to be concerned with pursuing the development of national labour law beyond each country’s boundaries, focusing on the relationship between different national laws as well as the reciprocal influence of international law and domestic law in this domain. The creation of an international society responsible for promoting these objectives seemed not only useful, but necessary.

The 1st International Congress of Labour Law was convened at the initiative of Professor Balzarini in Trieste in 1951 by the University of Trieste, in collaboration with the International Institute of Labour Law in Rome. The topics on the agenda were fundamental themes and ideally suited for the creation of an international association of labour lawyers: on the one hand, the development of international labour law, on the other the formation of a common labour law and finally the codification of labour law [3]. Leading jurists from different countries of Europe, North and South America participated in this meeting. It approved a motion for the creation of an international organization of labour jurists, to be created jointly with the International Society for Social Law (ISSL), founded in 1950 by Professor Cesarino and headquartered in São Paulo.

The 1st International Congress on Social Law was convened in 1954, in São Paulo at the invitation of the ISSL. Many jurists from North and South America and Europe took part as well. The topics focused on the individual contract of employment, collective labour contract and social security [4]. The latter was linked to labour law through the area of “social law”. One of the decisions taken at the São Paulo meeting was to convene a second international congress of social law in Brussels in 1958.

Meanwhile, as a follow-up to the decisions taken in Trieste, Professor Balzarini asked Alexandre Berenstein to consider the organization in Geneva of the Second International Congress of Labour Law with a view to creating an International Association of Labour Law. The International Labour Office (ILO) agreed to actively support the Congress, which took place in 1957.

One theme, which dealt with labour problems and their link with private international law was covered by the ILO, while the other, concerning the content, legal effects, application and execution of collective agreements, was handled by the Swiss organizers of the Congress [5]. A session was devoted to the creation of the projected International Association. The creation was approved and it was decided to set up for this purpose a committee with a view to contacting the ISSL.

The scheduled meeting was held in Geneva in 1958 under the chairmanship of Mr. Alfred Borel, who, as Geneva’s Minister of Public Education, had assumed the presidency of the 1957 Congress. Professor Cesarino, President of the ISSL, M.C. Wilfred Jenks, Deputy Director-General of the ILO, who was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Congress, Mr. Jean de Givry of the ILO and Alexandre Berenstein took part. Full agreement was reached on the organization of the new association. It was agreed that the effective creation of the association would be held during the Congress of Brussels, which was about to meet, and Professor Berenstein was charged with presenting a draft Statute.

It was against this background that the Congress of Brussels (2nd International Congress of Social Law) opened. In reality it was an itinerant congress, since its sessions were successively held in different Belgian universities: Brussels, Ghent, Liège and Louvain. Its general theme was “The Role of the State in the regulation of labour and the organization of social security”, which was subdivided into six sub-themes [6].

Nature of the Society

During the Congress, on 13 June 1958, the Statutes of the new association were unanimously approved. Thus the merger of the ISSL with the international congresses of labour law brought into being a new non-governmental organization aimed at bringing together jurists from different countries interested in labour law and social security. The International Society for Labour and Social Security Law (ISLSSL) was born.

A few explanations will allow a better understanding of the Statutes. They firstly concern the name of the association. It was envisaged to create an “International Association of Labour Law and Social Security.” However, Mr. Wildman, General Secretary of the “International Association of Social Security” (ISSA) feared a possible confusion with his umbrella organization of social security institutions in different countries of the world whose headquarters are at the ILO. Mr. Wildman promised to support the new association which was to include both labour law and social security specialists – who would sometimes, but not always, be the same persons – provided that the proposed title was modified. This proposal was agreed to, and the term “International Society” was adopted.

The new Society would focus on labour law and social security. Both disciplines had a common origin. Subsequently, due to the development of social insurance and social security (and welfare), the latter assumed a new impetus and became a full-fledged discipline, often far removed from labour law. Yet both disciplines had much in common. Both were major components of what is called, in French terminology, the “social law”, which covers legal norms designed to implement social policy. Hence the unanimous desire to bring together within a single association lawyers in both disciplines. It was also agreed that the Society would devote equal attention in its studies to both disciplines. This is why they are both given adequate treatment at each of the Society’s congresses.

Concerning the Society’s name, another question arose. In French, it was not a problem, apart from the minor point mentioned above, but this was not the case in English. English speaking colleagues stressed that the term “social security” was not sufficiently rooted in the English language to the extent that one could properly speak about an “International Society for Labour Law and Social Security.” Some believed that the term “social security” owed much to the American “Social Security Act” and to the Beveridge Plan. It was said that in the United States the term “social security” referred primarily to the regime created by this law and had little general connotation despite ILO Convention No. 102. That is why at the beginning the Society was called “International Society for Labour Law and Social Legislation” in English. Such difficulties did not present themselves in German or Spanish.

The purpose of the Society was to “study, for scientific purposes, labour law and social security law at both national and international levels, and to promote the exchange of ideas and information, as well as the closest possible collaboration among the jurists from different countries, dedicated to the study or application of this discipline.”

Headquarters were established in Geneva, and the Society continues to be governed by the Swiss Civil Code, which, in this respect, is rather liberal, since the only requirement is to observe the adoption of statutes creating the necessary structure. Under Swiss law, associations like our Society do not have an economic purpose and do not in fact need one for official authorization or entry in an official register.

One essential feature of the Society, at the time, was the fact that it was an association of individuals. It is theoretically the Executive Committee which alone could decide upon the admission of candidates, each of whom must, under the Statutes, “justify their interest in labour law or social security, on the basis of scientific work or the nature of their professional activity.” However, membership had to be secured through the national section recognized by the Executive Committee, when there was one. In reality, the Executive Committee decided that, except in cases of doubt, admissions presented directly by the national sections were considered valid. In light of the merger in Brussels, it was expected that the first members of the Society would be the members of the ISSL, those of the International Commission elected by the Geneva Congress, and the rapporteurs of the four international congresses.

As for the organization of the Society, the Statutes provided, on the one hand, a General Assembly of members to meet on the occasion of each congress, and on the other hand, a Board of Directors composed of between one and five representatives per country, appointed by the General Assembly, and – “last but not least” – an Executive Committee appointed by the Board of Directors which actually managed the Society. This structure remained on paper. Very quickly, the Board was replaced by the Executive Committee, whose members were appointed by the General Assembly. The congress, to be convened at intervals of two to five years, was devoted to scientific tasks and open to non-members of the Society.

During the Brussels Congress, there was an election of the Executive Committee’s members. Paul Durand, professor at the Law Faculty of Paris, was appointed President of the Society and Alexandre Berenstein Secretary-General.

The Early Years (1958-78)

Thus the Society was launched. The first period was what might be called the heroic period. As the Society was composed of individual members, there was a direct link between the Society’s Secretary-General and the members. Periodically, the Society published an updated list of affiliated members – the members who had paid their dues, usually through their national section, a membership card, signed by the Secretary-General and the Treasurer. The list of members on 1 March 1973 included 1,143 names from 47 different countries.

Communication was made using circulars, specifically coded “EC” for Executive Committee’s members, “S” national sections, and “M” for individual members, especially before the international congresses. These circulars contained information about the Society’s own activities and those of its sections.

Among the Society’s activities there was also collaboration with other international organizations. The Society maintains close relations with the International Labour Office, which had collaborated on its setting up and is represented in the Society itself. It is also closely related to the ISSA through an agreement, which provides for representation of this association in its Executive Committee. Collaboration was also established with the International Association of Legal Sciences and the International Association of Comparative Law. Friendly relations were maintained with the now defunct International Association for Social Progress, the successor association of the International Association for the Legal Protection of Workers, itself a precursor of the ILO.

A few years after the establishment of the Society, the International Industrial Relations Association (IIRA) was created (in English today the “International Labour and Employment Relations Association” (ILERA)). Its objectives are similar, but, aiming to distinguish itself from a strictly legal approach, it brings together economists and sociologists as well as lawyers, with a view to studying a specific aspect of social policy – industrial relations. Although the ISLSSL later decided by statutory amendment to admit economists and sociologists, as their disciplines are inextricably related to law, this amendment in many ways remained a theoretical one. The two institutions nonetheless have a close relationship, including the organization of congresses that more than once have followed each other back to back in the same venue.

In short, the ISLSSL has always sought to maintain sound relations and, if possible, to coordinate its activities with other institutions with similar objectives. It should also be noted that the Society fosters links with regional associations such as the Ibero-American Labour Law Academy, or, today, the numerous centres and research networks that have been established.

The Society granted its patronage to the International School of Comparative Labour Law of Trieste, created by the International Faculty of Comparative Law in Strasbourg, which was an offshoot of the International Association of Comparative Law. This school, under the direction of Professor Balzarini, was chaired at the beginning by Otto Kahn-Freund, who was then followed by Alexandre Berenstein. Classes were held every year in July and August by professors from different countries who were the leading figures in the study of labour law and social security. Many students from this school have held academic chairs and currently play a prominent role in the Society.

But the immediate objective, after the inception of the Society, was the organisation of the Fifth International Congress on Labour Law and Social Security to follow those of Trieste, São Paulo, Geneva and Brussels. President Paul Durand contacted several Latin American representatives for this purpose, without any immediate success. Unfortunately, before he could continue these efforts, he died in February 1960 in Agadir, Morocco, in a terrible earthquake.

The appointment of a vice-president was not expected. Professor Cesarino, Honorary President who was offered the interim Presidency, refused it, thinking that this function should be performed by the Secretary-General. Therefore, it was left to Alexandre Berenstein to take measures for the election of a new President. It was a delicate situation. At that time, travelling was not easy, and if a meeting of the Executive Committee was to be convened at short notice for the appointment of a president, members from very distant countries would have hesitated to make the trip. In short, there was the risk of convening an unrepresentative assembly. Alexandre Berenstein therefore proposed a vote by correspondence. Each Committee member could vote for three candidates with the first name on the ballot sheet being assigned three points, the second two points and the third one point. This would produce a more reliable vote than if each member were asked to vote for only one candidate. The proposal was accepted. Otto Kahn-Freund, a professor at the London School of Economics, obtained the largest number of votes on the first ballot and was unanimously elected President on the second ballot.

There was a need for further steps to convene the Fifth Congress. Everyone knew the difficulties in raising public and/or private funds for holding such an event, especially as labour law and social security were not accorded the same importance as other academic disciplines.

André Brun, Professor at the Faculty of Law of Lyon, declared his willingness to organize the Fifth International Congress of Labour Law and Social Security. It met in Lyon in 1963. Professor Brun, in proposing its organization, thought that it would have been easy to secure funding. Yet when fundraising efforts did not succeed, the Congress opened without the means to meet the contractual obligations to host the event. However, funds started to arrive during the course of the Congress, a scenario that has been oft repeated since when funds and membership dues are received at the last moment.

A similar difficulty arose with the publication of that Congress’ proceedings. There were no funds available to pay the printer. But Kahn-Freund, during a trip to the United States, obtained (thanks to the intervention of the President of the American section, Harold A. Katz), an agreement with the School of Law at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The latter was authorized to publish an English version of the main reports of the Lyon Congress, which enabled financing of the publication of the Congress’ Proceedings [7]. Later, André Brun was informed that official funds were at his disposal, but he no longer needed them!

This problem continued to delay, and more recently to prevent the publication of Congress Proceedings, even though they represent an important source of comparative law. More recently, the advent of information technology has helped overcome this challenge. Today, Congress reports are published online on the ISLSSL website. Many consider that the Lyon Congress was the real starting point of ISLSSL activities. The themes discussed at this Congress as well as of the following congresses can be found on the website.

The Sixth Congress was held in Stockholm in 1966 under the direction of Folke Schmidt, professor at the University of Stockholm. From then on, congresses became a regular occurrence and the Society was established in most countries. Otto Kahn-Freund declined an offer of re-election, and Folke Schmidt succeeded him. It was during Schmidt’s presidency that the Seventh Congress was held in Warsaw in 1970 at the invitation of the Polish Section, chaired by Professor Waclaw Szubert. This was the first time the congress was held in a communist country in Eastern Europe, at a time when the continent was divided into two antagonistic blocs. It carried immense symbolic value, and not only because the logo designed by Polish colleagues for the event became the Society’s original logo – the paragraph symbol and within it, a cogwheel (the former symbolizing the law and the latter, labour).

Four years later, in 1974, the Eighth Congress was held in Selva di Fasano (Italy), at the invitation of the Italian section chaired by Professor Giuliano Mazzoni. A few days before the congress, the ILO organized a roundtable in Geneva for participants from developing countries as a way to ensure the financing of their journey since many could not otherwise make the trip – an approach that has since been repeated. Gradually, the Society put in place a scholarship fund to enable colleagues from poorer countries to participate in its activities. More recently, these funds have been reserved for young researchers.

The President and the Secretary-General both asked to be relieved of their duties at this congress. French Professor Jean-Maurice Verdier was elected to the presidency. Berenstein thought it appropriate to involve the ILO closer in the Society’s activities. The ILO gave its moral support, but let it be known that no budget line could allow, except in special cases, the provision of material support. According to the outgoing Secretary General, it could try to integrate the secretariat of the ISLSSL into the ILO so that it could take charge of the secretariat itself and publish and dispatch newsletters and bulletins in different languages used by the Society. Finally, the duty travel of ILO officials could be used to maintain and strengthen the Society’s contacts with remote countries. The fact that Geneva had been chosen as the seat of the Society favoured this approach. The ILO was already hosting the secretariat of the International Industrial Relations Association. There seemed to be no reason for the ILO not to accord the same treatment to the Society. All the more so given the role Wilfred Jenks, the eventual Director-General of the ILO, played in founding the Society, and the interest of the ILO in the Society’s work.

Thus, Johannes Schregle, Chief of the ILO’s Division of Industrial Relations and Labour Administration, was appointed Secretary-General of the Society. The ISLSSL would not regret its decision. The anticipated benefits of the ILO’s integration were soon realized.

In 1978, the German section, under the direction of Professor Gerhard Müller, Chairman of the Bundesarbeitsgericht, and Professor Franz Gamillscheg, organized the Ninth Congress in Munich. The original Statutes, which created an association of individual members, had come to be seen as too heavy a structure for the Society. It was at the Munich Congress that a revision was adopted by the General Assembly.

The main change was, in principle, to grant membership to the national sections and no longer to individuals. Only individuals who were not members of national sections (either because these did not exist in their countries or because they were international civil servants) could maintain the status of individual members. Likewise, the Society decided to admit academic institutions as members. The section’s members could be not only lawyers, but also “other experts in labour law and social security.” In the English, the term “Social Legislation” was replaced by “Social Security”, as it had been in the other languages. The Board of Directors, which had never been activated, was abolished and the Executive Committee now included representatives from all national sections. This marked the end of the so-called heroic period. The General-Secretariat no longer worked through individual members, but instead through national sections of the Society.

The Formative Years (1978-2012)

The International Society has since gradually expanded. World Congresses were held in Washington in 1982, Caracas in 1985, Madrid in 1988, Athens in 1991, Seoul in 1994, Buenos Aires in 1997, Jerusalem in 2000, Montevideo in 2003, Paris in 2006, Sydney in 2009 and Santiago, Chile, in 2012, demonstrating the global character of its activities.

In Washington, Professor Cesarino, one of the Honorary Presidents of the Society, was appointed to take over the presidency from Professor Verdier. The practice now was to elect a new president on the occasion of each World Congress. Professor Benjamin Aaron of UCLA, Los Angeles succeeded him, subsequently Professor László Nagy of the University of Szeged in Hungary and Professor Franz Gamillscheg of the University of Göttingen, Germany. Professor Chi Sun Kim, University of Seoul, was elected president in 1997 but sadly died before the end of his mandate. Professor Américo Pla Rodríguez, University of Montevideo, had already been elected to succeed him and assumed his mandate early. Then came Professor Roger Blanpain of the University of Leuven in Belgium, Professor Clyde Summers of the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Kazuo Sugeno of the University of Tokyo and Professor Michal Sewerynski of the University of Lodz in Poland. Most recently, Adrián Goldin, Professor at the Universities of Buenos Aires and San Andrés in Buenos Aires was elected President in 2012.

The Secretaries-General who succeeded Johannes Schregle were also high-level officials of the ILO: Jean-Michel Servais, appointed in 1988, Arturo Bronstein in 2001 and Giuseppe Casale in 2012.

Mention should be made of the geographical expansion of the Society’s activities. The revised Statutes, that included the opportunity to appoint Vice-Presidents from different regions, promoted the idea of regional meetings. These congresses of the Society took place in the Americas, Asia and Europe, though only once to date in Africa. The list of regional congresses, with an indication of the themes discussed, is also available on this website. It goes without saying that the national associations of the Society also organize congresses. More recently, the rules for the election of the Society’s officers have been clarified and they promote the active participation of the associations in their work.

Finally, although the International School of comparative labour law of Trieste, which was sponsored by the Society, no longer exists, Professor Nagy created an International Seminar of Comparative Labour Law and Social Security in Szeged, which took up the torch and carried on teaching every summer from 1986 to 1998. His initiative was taken up in France by Dr. Philippe Auvergnon, Director of the Centre for Comparative Labour Law and Social Security (COMPTRASEC) of the University Montesquieu-Bordeaux 3. The sessions of this seminar continued until 2009. An additional session was organized by Professor Marie-Ange Moreau at the University of Lyon 2-Lumière in 2011. Meanwhile, since 2011 a Seminar on International and Comparative Labour Law has been organized in Isla Margarita, Venezuela, by the Universitas Foundation under the auspices of Professor Oscar Hernández Álvarez, Professor at the University “Centro Occidental Lisandro Alvarado”. The ISLSSL also sponsored other events, including more than one in Spain that had a large representation from Latin America.

In parallel to these events, and looking ahead to the promise of young researchers, the ISLSSL has always encouraged the exchange of information and publications, as well as joint research among its members or affiliates. Frequently, the themes of the congresses were selected from these studies.

The Present and the Future

More recently, some members have questioned the Society’s traditional view during a wide debate that could be characterized as “Classical and Modern” [8]. The former wished in particular to maintain the traditional form of organization of congresses around general reports on a given topic based on national reports and produced in several languages as requested by the members. The latter emphasized the need for the ISLSSL to better adapt to a globalized world, by designating high level comparative specialists at its congresses with a view to addressing cross-cutting issues and with greater openness to youth, women and legal professions other than academics.

A working group was tasked, under the chairmanship of Jean Michel Servais, to seek a synthesis between these opposing views. The report submitted and approved by the Executive Committee in September 2012 emphasized the need to identify the best and most relevant research on current social policy issues and to discuss it at the Society’s congresses. The manner in which to present it was left to the organizers of each event, in agreement with the Executive Committee and its office. The richness of a multilingual and multicultural approach was emphasised as well as the need to involve young researchers. Moreover, available information technology should be better and more systematically used, including working more closely with the various transnational networks recently created in the fields of labour law and social security.

Presidents Adrián Goldin, Tiziano Treu and Janice Bellace set out to implement the conclusions of this report. To maximize the results of their efforts, they worked closely with the other executive officers, Secretary General Giuseppe Casale, and successive Treasurers Stefano Bellomo, Janice Bellace and Rolando Murgas. Tiziano Treu initiated a format whereby working groups, focused on current topics, were established to encourage collaborative research and debate and also, as the basis for preparing reports on these topics that would be presented during the congresses. The redesign of the Society’s website and the establishment of a Facebook page represent other initiatives to communicate more easily and quickly with members. The ‘Young Scholars,’ those in the early stages of their careers, have created their own structure within the overall structure of the International Society, and their dynamism augurs well for the future of the ISLSSL.

The vitality of the Society is demonstrated in other ways. In 2015, a world congress was held for the first time on the continent of Africa, in Cape Town. This provided an impetus to reach out to countries where a national association of sufficient size has not yet been formed but where there is growing interest in labour law. Following the formation of the African Labour Law Society (ALLS) in 2016, two ALLS conferences were organised in South Africa. Today ALLS counts about 200 members representing 19 African countries. In addition, the II ISLSSL African Regional Congress will take place in 2020 in Zimbabwe. The last World Congress was organised on the Campus of the International Training Centre of the ILO in Turin (Italy) on 4 – 7 September 2018. The next World Congress will take place in Lima (Peru) on 7 – 10 September 2021. The International Society for Labour and Social Security Law membership is growing and this is testified by new members, which have recently joined the Society, notably: Bolivia, Portugal, Slovak Republic and Switzerland. More national associations are in the process of finalizing their affiliation. In particular, our membership is now more diverse, in terms of gender, race/ethnicity and age. The increasing realization that labour law and policy are the bulwarks of stable, peaceful, and sustainable societies indicates that the members of our Society will have much to research and debate in the coming years.

Last updated September 2021

Paul Durand (France)
Otto Kahn-Freund (United Kingdom)
Folke Schmidt (Sweden)
Jean-Maurice Verdier (France)
A.F. Cesarino Jr. (Brazil)
Benjamin Aaron (United States)
Laszlo Nagy (Hungary)
Franz Gamillscheg (Germany)
Chi-Sun Kim (Korea)
Americo Pla Rodriguez (Uruguay)
Roger Blanpain (Belgium)
Clyde Summers (United States)(resigned in 2005)
Kazuo Sugeno (Japan)
Michal Sewerynski (Poland)
Adrian Goldin (Argentina)
Tiziano Treu (Italy)
Janice Bellace (United States)
Maria Emila Casas Baamonde (Spain)
Alexandre Berenstein (Switzerland)
Johannes Schregle (Germany)
Jean-Michel Servais (Belgium)
Arturo Bronstein (Argentina)
Giuseppe Casale (Italy)
Humberto Villasmil Prieto (Venezuela)
Gabriel Aubert (Switzerland)
Bernd von Maydell (Germany)
Juan A. Sagardoy Bengoechea (Spain)
Irene Petronella Asscher-Vonk (Netherlands)
Giuseppe Casale (Italy)
Corinne Vargha (Belgium)
Stefano Bellomo (Italy)
Janice Bellace (United States)
Rolando Murgas Torrazza (Panama)
Alberto Pizzoferrato (Italy)


[1] Antonio F. Cesarino, Jr.: “History of the International Society of Labour Law and Social Security, in In Memoriam Sir Otto Kahn-Freund: 17.11.1900-16.8.1979, Beck, Munich, 1980, p. 397-415.
[2] The following pages were written in 1994 by Alexandre Berenstein and have been updated by Jean Michel Servais.
[3] Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Primo Diritto del Lavoro, Trieste, 24-27 maggio 1951, Università di Trieste, 1952.
[4] Annals of the First International Congress of Social Law (in São Paulo, Brazil, 8-15 August 1954), three volumes, São Paulo, 1955-1957.
[5] Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Labour Law, Geneva, 12-14 September 1957, Geneva, 1961.
[6] Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Social Law, Brussels, 1958, two volumes.
[7] Rutgers Law Review, vol. 18, No. 2, 1964. Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress of Labour Law and Social Security, Lyon, 1963, three volumes, Lyon, 1965.
[8] The term has its origins in the debate that took place in France in the late seventeenth century on the merits of the writers of antiquity and those of the age of Louis XIV.