Q&As on Business and General Policies

General Q&A

Question: How does the ILO deal with disputes?

The ILO Helpdesk for Business provides information on the principles contained in international labour standards. It does not address disputes. The ILO does have an interpretation procedure. You can find further information in Annex II, subsection 3 (page 24) of the MNE Declaration (2013).

Please note the following:

« Requests for interpretation may be addressed to the Office: a. as a rule by the government of a member State acting either on its own initiative or at the request of a national organization of employers or workers;
b. by a national organization of employers or workers, which is representative at the national and/or sectoral level, subject to the conditions set out in paragraph 6. Such requests should normally be channelled through the central organizations in the country concerned;
c. by an international organization of employers or workers on behalf of a representative national affiliate.”
Individual complainants cannot bring a request.

There is also the option of the Company-Union Dialogue but both the union and the management must agree, and the company must be a multinational operating across borders. The Company-Union Dialogue is not for purely internal disputes within a country.

If the issue concerns failure of the state to adequately protect the workers’ rights, there are a few mechanisms for bringing a complaint under the supervisory machinery. Please note, however that any complaint must be brought by a trade union at the national, sectoral or international level.

Question: My country is considering how to promote respect for workers’ rights. Do trade agreements influence how companies are making efforts to protect workers’ rights in supply chains?

Trade and Investment Agreements increasingly reference core labour standards in Ratifying the 8 core labour standards, wherein governments which are parties to such agreements make a commitment to ratify and apply these conventions, if they have not already done so.

See ILO’s recent report The Social Dimensions of Free Trade Agreements for a discussion of trends and implications

A growing number of trade agreements also reference CSR, encouraging each signatory country to promote socially responsible business within their territory and among their MNEs operating in the other countries which are party to the treaty. See, Corporate social responsibility in international trade and investment agreements: Implications for states, business and workers

Concerning how companies decide to source their products and services, companies are increasingly taking into account respect for workers’ rights when selecting suppliers. They may even be required by law to demonstrate that they have undertaken due diligence to assess whether their business partners are respecting their workers’ rights. (see, e.g., “Examples of government regulations on human rights reporting & due diligence for companies”).

A first step in any corporate human rights due diligence process is to assess the national legal framework of the country where the business partner operates. This includes checking whether the country has ratified the core labour standards and progress in implementing the provisions.

Companies do not necessarily refuse to source from countries which have not ratified all of the core conventions, but in such cases, the companies are likely to increase their sectoral and enterprise-level scrutiny as additional assurance that there are no problems with the potential supplier. It is also the case that ratification does not necessarily guarantee that more buyers will source from the country. Buyers also look for quality, timeliness of delivery, price advantage, etc. Respect for workers’ rights is only one factor, albeit an important one. ILO has developed programmes such as SCORE, which helps smaller producers to become both more responsible and more competitive. See https: www.ilo.org/empent/Projects/score/lang--en/index.htm for more information on this project.

You may find the following tool useful in thinking about how to promote ratification and implementation of the core labour standards to position your country to attract more and better foreign direct investment: HANDBOOK ON ASSESSMENT OF LABOUR PROVISIONS IN TRADE AND INVESTMENT ARRANGEMENTS .

Question: I have been assigned to develop the first code of conduct of the company I am working for. I have been reading codes from other companies and some are referring to your organization. I was wondering if that is acceptable or if we should have a membership before we can refer to you?

Answer: The ILO adopted an international instrument aiming at encouraging the positive contribution of enterprises to economic and social progress and at minimizing and resolving the difficulties to which their various operations may give rise. The ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration) sets out the principles in the field of employment, training, conditions of work and life and industrial relations which governments, employers’, workers’ organizations and enterprises are recommended to observe on a voluntary basis. The ILO MNE Declaration is the only instrument of its kind adopted in a tripartite manner. Its principles as well as those underlying the ILO’s Conventions and Recommendations provide guidance for the development and implementation of enterprises’ social policies and programmes and are often referred to in codes of conducts and similar initiatives.

The MNE Declaration mentions the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up, which highlights a set of core labour principles endorsed by the international community. Eight Conventions based on those principles have been identified as fundamental to the rights of human beings at work, irrespective of the level of development of individual ILO Member States. They cover four main areas:
  • freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
  • the effective abolition of child labour;
  • the elimination of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation.
A number of international initiatives involving enterprises refer to either or both the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up and the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, including the United Nations Global Compact, the Business and Human Rights Framework and Guiding Principles and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

An E-learning module provides an interactive opportunity to become knowledgeable about the ILO MNE Declaration and to learn how its recommendations can be put into practice to address a range of labour and employment issues. The self-guided module can be accessed at: https://www.ilo.org/mnelearning

Question: Does ILO maintain a list of auditors that can certify the companies comply with ILO standards?

Answer: Since the international labour standards (ILS) are directed at Governments, companies cannot “comply” with or conform to them; but companies can contribute to their aims.

The best benchmark they could use is compliance with national law, which is generally the basis of codes of conduct. There will be cases where national law does not reflect the provisions of the ILS, in which case the supplier should be encouraged to attain the higher aims set out in the ILS.

Knowledge of the law and practice of the country in question is an important first step in a due diligence process; however, even if national law or labour administration has problems, a company may hold itself to a higher standard. Therefore, an accurate assessment requires information about the specific company’s operations, which may require more extensive dialogue with the company. The employers’ and workers’ organizations familiar with the national and sectoral context also may be an important source of information; and collaboration with the relevant global union federations could also be useful.
ILO is not linked to any certification bodies and does not advocate certification for labour issues. Recent tragedies and numerous studies (see, e.g., the research of Richard Locke) have exposed the limits of such systems and high costs to suppliers, and have highlighted the importance of strong national institutions, sound industrial relations and effective social dialogue systems for effectively protecting the rights of workers.

Question: I represent a trade union in the tourism sector. Some years ago I tried to argue with a multinational that it is important to provide a worker with Terms and Conditions of work in his/her own language. I have been trying to find some legal basis for what seems to me a "basic" right for a worker and I wonder if the ILO has established ground in this regard.

There are a few direct references in international labour standards to the principle that workers should be able to understand their contract of employment. The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) states in Article 20, paragraph 3 (a) of Convention No. 169 that "workers belonging to the peoples concerned" (shall) "enjoy the protection afforded by national law and practice to other such workers in the same sectors, and that they are fully informed of their rights under labour legislation and of the means of redress available to them".

The ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration states in paragraph 13.3. that steps should be taken to ensure “that migrant workers receive understandable and enforceable employment contracts.”

The Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) provides in Article 7 that workers should be “informed of their terms and conditions of employment in an appropriate, verifiable and easily understandable manner and preferably, where possible, through written contracts in accordance with national laws, regulations or collective agreements.”

Providing the worker with a written contract in a language she or he can understand is also recognized as an important means of preventing forced labour. Combating forced labour: A handbook for employers and business recommends on page 4 that business “ensure that all workers have written contracts, in language that they can easily understand, specifying their rights with regard to payment of wages, overtime, retention of identity documents, and other issues related to preventing forced labour.”

Question: How do Organizations, in a country that has ratified an ILO Convention, report compliance with the ILO standards and Conventions? Does the level of compliance depend on whether it is operating from its registered/head office or a branch office in a particular country? Is there a list of the Conventions ratified and the Standards that are followed by all the member States? If so, how can I gain access to the same? How can I know of the violations/infractions/disobediences/non-observances by various organizations that may be operating from the Member States?

Answer: The ILO supervisory bodies consist of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations and the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards. These bodies currently review government reports on the application of ratified conventions every 2 years for priority conventions (concerning the fundamental principles and rights at work and employment) and every 5 years for all other conventions; however, for a variety of reasons, a government may be requested to report more frequently, particularly on the fundamental conventions.

Representation and complaint procedures can also be initiated against states that fail to comply with conventions they have ratified.

A special procedure—the Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA)—reviews complaints concerning violations of freedom of association, whether or not a Member State has ratified the relevant conventions.

Regarding question 1, ILO does not monitor compliance of organizations operating in a country. Member States which have ratified a particular convention report on whether they have established the requisite mechanisms for giving effect to the provisions of the convention, through national legislation or collective bargaining agreements and national labour administration, in particular labour inspection and the courts.

For instance, a member State which has ratified the minimum Wage Fixing Machinery Convention, 1928 (No. 26) would report whether it has established a tripartite consultation body, what factors it takes into account in establishing the minimum wage, how often the minimum wage is adjusted and whether it keeps pace with inflation, what legislation mandates that enterprises pay at least the minimum wage, what percentage of the workforce receives at least the minimum wage, etc. Member States do not report on specific organizations' compliance with the established minimum wage.

A complaint received by the CFA may contain allegations concerning specific company practices concerning freedom of association. Please note, however, that this is a complaints-based mechanism and thus wholly dependent upon the filing of a complaint which is in any event brought against governments, and not employers. This is because under the ILO supervisory machinery the Government is the party responsible for ensuring that the standards and principles are applied in practice.

The ILO maintains a database of ratifications, organized by convention and by country; and a database of decisions concerning freedom of association. You can also find out more about what the Committee of Experts has said about a particular Member State's compliance with a ratified convention, using the "universal query form".

The relevant national labour administration may be able to provide you with information on violations of national labour law; however, this would not necessarily indicate compliance with international labour standards if the country has not ratified or does not comply with the relevant international labour standards.

As an employer, an enterprise in any country can be encouraged to take part in national processes through local organizations of employers, and through these organizations it may be able to raise concerns about breaches of labour standards at the national level. Through international employer organisations these concerns may be pursued at the international level.

You may also find useful the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration). The MNE Declaration is a non-binding instrument which contains recommendations on how enterprises should apply principles deriving from ILO Conventions and Recommendations. The objective of the MNE Declaration is to encourage the positive contribution that multinationals can make to economic and social progress and to minimize and resolve the difficulties to which their various operations may give rise. The MNE Declaration provides guidelines on how enterprises should apply principles deriving from international labour standards concerning employment, training, conditions of work and life, and industrial relations. The principles of the MNE Declaration are intended to guide multinational enterprises (whether they are of public, mixed or private ownership), governments, and the organizations of employers and workers in home countries as well as in host countries.

Question: Where can I find information on national labour laws?

Answer: The ILO maintains a database of national legislation called NATLEX. It is searchable by country and by subject.

Question: Is there any decision by ILO, legally binding document or recommendation which defines what in fact is an MNE? What are the conditions which must be fulfilled by the enterprise so it can be treated as multinational?

Answer: “Multinational enterprises include enterprises, whether they are of public, mixed or private ownership, which own or control production, distribution, services or other facilities outside the country in which they are based. The degree of autonomy of entities within multinational enterprises in relation to each other varies widely from one such enterprise to another, depending on the nature of the links between such entities and their fields of activity and having regard to the great diversity in the form of ownership, in the size, in the nature and location of the operations of the enterprises concerned”. See, Para. 6 of the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy.

Question: Is it possible to sign up as endorsing your convention statements? Saves a lot of work for tendering where this is becoming a requirement.

Answer: Only States can be members of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and ratify its conventions. However, enterprises such as cooperatives can refer to ILO instruments in their social policies, including their codes of conduct and similar social responsibility initiatives. The ILO adopted an international instrument aiming at encouraging the positive contribution of enterprises to economic and social progress and at minimizing and resolving the difficulties to which their various operations may give rise. The ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration) sets out the principles in the field of employment, training, conditions of work and life and industrial relations which governments, employers’, workers’ organizations and enterprises are recommended to observe on a voluntary basis.

Question: In a call for tenders, we have specified that the company awarded the contract should be in compliance with core labour standards. Most of the companies submitting tenders have stated that they are in compliance. What can we do to verify those claims?

Answer: We welcome the efforts of your municipality to help promote respect for workers’ rights in your procurement practices. At the same time, we appreciate the challenges this may pose when most of the employment takes place outside of your municipality and country and therefore you are dependent on other sources of information on how the fundamental principles and rights at work (FPRW, often referred to as core labour standards) are being implemented in the operations of the MNEs submitting tenders.

There are several actions we can suggest. First, your municipality could take steps to ensure a shared understanding of the FPRW. You also could include provisions for reporting on measures taken to ensure respect for the FPRW. In developing these provisions, you may wish to engage in social dialogue with the relevant employers’ and workers’ organizations at the local and national level, as well as the relevant trade unions operating at the global sectoral level, to seek their views on what could be done to strengthen the oversight of company claims of compliance with the FPRW.

You may wish to get in touch with other municipalities which have also committed to applying the FPRW in their procurement processes, to learn from their experiences. You may wish also to check the following sites, which are very active on responsible public procurement at the local government level:

Question: A company operates in countries which have not ratified ILO conventions. The company respects the local law and as a consequence does not respect ILO conventions related to freedom of association (for instance in China) or discrimination against women (for instance in Oman sultanate). If the company cannot engage in dialogue with government, to what extent can it be considered as a breach of ILO conventions? What should the company do?

Answer: Companies should “obey national laws and regulations, give due consideration to local practices and respect relevant international standards.” ILO MNE Declaration, para. 8. In many situations, national law may not be in line with international labour standards, but does not actually block a company from respecting the principles contained in international labour standards and the MNE Declaration. For instance, a law may allow employing persons as young as 12 years of age but not impede a company from setting its own internal policy to not hire anyone below 15 years of age.

In other cases, national law may act as a genuine barrier to respecting the principles contained in international labour standards. In situations where the law or its implementation is genuinely in conflict with international norms of behaviour, companies may consider seeking to influence relevant organizations and authorities to remedy the conflict. National employers’ organizations may be able to help. A list of national federations can be found here: http://www.ioe-emp.org/en/member-federations/index.html.

Where it is not possible for a company to influence change, and where not following these norms would have significant consequences, it may wish to consider, as feasible and appropriate, reviewing the nature of operations within that jurisdiction.

Question: We are interested in choosing a standard [for certification] which follows your regulations the best, and which is the most reliable. Can you recommend any? Or give any information on who to contact regarding this matter?

Answer: ILO does not deal with certification schemes, and therefore cannot answer your specific question. However, we can provide some general guidance which we hope will be helpful.

1. Address a broad range of labour standards. The ILO MNE Declaration identifies principles underlying international labour standards that can be used by companies. A one-page overview is attached for your convenience, and the link to the full text is here:

2. Respect national legislation and adhere to collective bargaining agreements

3. Promote and use social dialogue. Social dialogue can lead to a better understanding of problem and solutions. Social dialogue can be an important means to advance and protect workers’ interests and promote sustainable enterprise development. Dialogue improves transparency and helps to build a shared understanding of the meaning and importance of workers’ rights. Social dialogue requires independent parties. This means that worker representative must be freely chosen in accordance with law or by trade unions that represent the workers concerned.

Discussions are also important between buyers and suppliers, to better understand suppliers’ needs and constraints. Suppliers are under pressure due to short lead times, frequent or last-minute changes in an order; buyer expectations to improve quality and shorten delivery times while simultaneously cutting costs, etc.

4. Providing support for correcting problems uncovered. Multinationals should consider ways to provide suppliers, both management and workers, guidance and support to take needed corrective action to protect workers’ rights.

5. Harmonizing with, and supporting the development of, the public labour inspection system. Although CSR can be a useful compliment, ILO is concerned to ensure that private initiatives do not replace public labour inspection systems. Private initiatives should operate in harmony with the public labour administration and do nothing to undermine it, and should cooperate with the public authorities and national employers’ and workers’ organizations. Any private inspection systems should be under the supervision of the public labour inspection system.

6. Considering impact for workers and costs to suppliers. There is a growing body of literature which casts doubt on the effectiveness and efficiency of private initiatives to protect workers’ rights, at least as they are currently conducted. Often it is difficult to identify any significant and sustained benefit to the workers.

There is also a growing concern about the costs to suppliers, in terms of both expense and disruption to operations. These resources might be better spent improving working conditions or strengthening public labour inspection.

You may also wish to consult with the relevant national employers' and workers' organisations, both in your home country and in the countries where your products are made, about which approaches and initiatives in their view are most effective.

Lastly, we have a set of guidelines concerning labour inspection which were negotiated at the international level. Although specific to the forestry sector, it may give you a good indication of the areas ILO thinks are important for protecting workers' rights, and some suggestions on good practice on checking compliance, including both public inspection and private approaches.

Question: One of our customers asked us if our company is committed to respect international labour standards. To date, we respect the labour code of the country, but the ILO Conventions and Recommendations have they all been ratified and are they held to account by the national law? If this is not the case, which ones are not?

Reply: The application of international labour standards is regularly reviewed by the oversight bodies of the ILO, the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations and the Committee on the Application of Standards of the International Labour Conference.

Member States which have ratified a convention are required to report periodically on the measures put in place to implement the provisions of the conventions through national legislation, collective agreement or national labour administration labour, especially labour inspection. The list of ratifications by Convention and country is available.

To learn more about what the expert panel said about the compliance of national law with the provisions of a specific agreement has been ratified, use the universal search form.

You can also consult the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. The statement is non-binding instrument which contains recommendations on how companies should apply principles deriving from conventions and ILO recommendations. The aim of the declaration is to encourage the positive contribution multinational enterprises to economic and social progress and to minimize and resolve difficulties which their various operations may give rise. The statement provides guidance on how companies should apply principles deriving from international labour standards concerning employment, training, conditions of work and life, and industrial relations. The Declaration principles guiding multinational companies (whether public, private or mixed ownership), the countries of origin as well as the governments of the host countries and the organizations of employers and workers.

Question: I would like to know about the international standards that protect workers and how the employer participates in the implementation of these, what are the penalties if these rules are not apply fully. I would appreciate if you can send me information or recommend me a book to consult.

Answer: The subjects covered by international labour standards are the following:

  • Freedom of association
  • Collective bargaining
  • Forced labour
  • Child labour
  • Equal opportunity and treatment
  • Tripartite consultation
  • Labour administration
  • Labour inspection
  • Employment policy
  • Employment promotion
  • Orientation and professional training
  • Job security
  • Social policy
  • Wages
  • Working time
  • Security and health at work
  • Social security
  • Maternity protection
  • Migrant workers
  • Seafarers
  • Fishermen
  • Dockworkers
  • Indigenous and tribal peoples
  • Other specific categories of workers
For a brief description of international labour standards on each of these issues, we recommend reading the following guidance: "Rules of the Game: a brief introduction to International Labour Standards (Revised edition 2014)”. See Chapter 3; on the role of organizations of employers and workers in the system of regular monitoring of these standards, see page 100.

Question: Is there any international labour norm that regulates how to use documents and electronic signatures in the field of work?

Answer: There is no international labour norm that regulates exhaustively the value of documents and electronic signatures in the field of work.

Nevertheless, certain international labour norms that regulate specific subjects address, at least indirectly, this subject. The Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations of the ILO has maintained in the General Survey on Protection of Wages of 2003 that payment of wages by direct electronic transfer to a bank account or by money order is compatible with the Protection of Wages Convention of 1949 (No. 95) as long as its 5th article is complied with.

Furthermore, the Private Employment Agencies Recommendation of 1997 (No. 188) includes the following recommendations:

11. Private employment agencies should be prohibited from recording, in files or registers, personal data which are not required for judging the aptitude of applicants for jobs for which they are being or could be considered.

12 (1) Private employment agencies should store the personal data of a worker only for so long as it is justified by the specific purposes for which they have been collected, or so long as the worker wishes to remain on a list of potential job candidates.

(2) Measures should be taken to ensure that workers have access to all their personal data as processed by automated or electronic systems, or kept in a manual file. These measures should include the right of workers to obtain and examine a copy of any such data and the right to demand that incorrect or incomplete data be deleted or corrected.

(3) Unless directly relevant to the requirements of a particular occupation and with the express permission of the worker concerned, private employment agencies should not require, maintain or use information on the medical status of a worker, or use such information to determine the suitability of a worker for employment.

The Seafarers' Identity Documents Convention (Revised) of 2003 (No. 185) also requires Member States to keep in electronic format certain information. As an example of this, paragraph 1 of article 4 therein provides that “Each Member shall ensure that a record of each seafarers' identity document issued, suspended or withdrawn by it is stored in an electronic database. The necessary measures shall be taken to secure the database from interference or unauthorized access”.