How International Labour Standards are used

Models and targets for labour law

International labour standards are primarily tools for governments which, in consultation with employers and workers, are seeking to draft and implement labour law and social policy in conformity with internationally accepted standards. For many states this process begins with a decision to consider ratifying an ILO convention. Countries often go through a period of examining and, if necessary, revising their legislation and policies in order to achieve compliance with the instrument they wish to ratify. International labour standards thus serve as targets for harmonizing national law and practice in a particular field; the actual ratification might come further along the path of implementing the standard. Some countries decide not to ratify a convention but bring their legislation into line with it anyway; such countries use ILO standards as models for drafting their law and policy. Still others ratify ILO conventions fairly quickly and then work to bring their national law and practice into line; the comments of the ILO's supervisory bodies and technical assistance can guide them in this process. For such countries, ratification is the first step on the path to implementing a standard.

Sources of international law applied at the national level

In numerous countries ratified international treaties apply automatically at the national level. Their courts are thus able to use international labour standards to decide cases on which national law is inadequate or silent, or to draw on definitions set out in the standards, such as "forced labour" or "discrimination".

Guidelines for social policy

In addition to shaping law, international labour standards can provide guidance for developing national and local policies, such as employment and work and family policies. They can also be used to improve various administrative structures such as labour administration, labour inspection, social security administration, employment services, and so on. Standards can also serve as a source of good industrial relations applied by labour dispute resolution bodies, and as models for collective agreements.

Other areas of influence

While the main users of international labour standards are the ILO's constituents, other actors have found them to be useful tools as well. Increasing consumer interest in the ethical dimensions of products has led multinational enterprises to adopt to govern labour conditions in their production sites and those in their supply chains. The majority of top 500 companies in the United States and the United Kingdom have adopted some sort of code of conduct, many of them referring to ILO standards. One British department store, for example, has developed a supplier code of conduct based on 15 ILO conventions and recommendations. While these codes are no substitute for binding international instruments, they play an important role in spreading the principles contained in international labour standards. Similarly, international labour standards have been used in various international collective agreements, for instance in the garment and textile industries. (Note 1)

International labour standards also have a direct impact on such globalized industries as the maritime shipping sector. They are used not only to shape the national maritime legislation of member States, but are taken as the basis for port state ship inspections and have a direct impact on the regulations and codes of other international organizations, such as the International Maritime Organization.

Other international institutions regularly use international labour standards in their activities. Reports on the application of international labour standards are regularly submitted to the United Nations human rights bodies and other international entities. International financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have integrated certain aspects of labour standards into some of their activities, including the World Bank's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper process.

Advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations draw on international labour standards to call for changes in policy, law or practice. Finally, a number of countries and regional organizations have incorporated respect for international labour standards into their bilateral, multilateral and regional trade agreements, such as the Common Market for the South (MERCOSUR) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). (Note 2)

The role of employers' and workers' organizations

Representative employers' and workers' organizations play an essential role in the international labour standards system: they participate in choosing subjects for new ILO standards and in drafting the texts; their votes can determine whether or not the International Labour Conference adopts a newly drafted standard. If a convention is adopted, employers and workers can encourage a government to ratify it. As discussed later in this booklet, if the convention is ratified, governments are required to periodically report to the ILO on how they are applying it in law and practice. Government reports must also be submitted to employers' and workers' organizations, which may comment on them. Employers' and workers' organizations can also supply relevant information directly to the ILO. They can initiate representations for violations of ILO conventions in accordance with procedures under article 24 of the ILO Constitution. Employer and worker delegates to the International Labour Conference can also file complaints against member states under article 26 of the Constitution.

If a member state has ratified the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 (No. 144), as more than 110 countries have done to date, it is obliged to hold national tripartite consultations on proposed new instruments to be discussed at the Conference, on submissions of instruments to the competent authorities, on reports concerning ratified conventions, on measures related to unratified conventions and recommendations, and on proposals regarding the denunciation of conventions.

Further information

  • Note on the role of Employers' and Workers' Organisations in the implementation of ILO Conventions and Recommendations - pdf
  • More on the role of employers' and workers' organizations from the Handbook of Procedures (Section VII)

Note 1 - ILO: Multi Enterprises and Social Policy (MULTI):
Note 2
- A. C. Reynaud: Labour Standards and the Integration Process in the Americas (Geneva, ILO, 2001).