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 ILO’s constituents are the main users of international labour standards, other actors have found them to be useful tools as well. Indeed, new actors use international labour standards and thus participate in their diffusion at the international level.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR)

The ILO defines CSR as a way in which enterprises give consideration to the impact of their operations on society and affirms their principles and values both in their own internal methods and in their interactions with other actors. In fact, increasing consumer interest in the ethical dimensions of products has led multinational enterprises to adopt voluntary codes of conduct to govern labour conditions in their production sites and those in their supply chains. The majority of the top 500 companies in the United States and the United Kingdom have adopted some sort of code of conduct, many of them referring to principles deriving from ILO standards. While these codes are no substitute for binding international instruments, they play an important role in spreading the principles contained in international labour standards.

The ILO can play an important role in CSR with two main reference points: the ILO Declaration on fundamental Principles and Right at Work and the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. In 2009, the ILO launched a Helpdesk that provides constituents and enterprises easy access to information, assistance, referral and advice regarding CSR and the implementation of labour standards.

Other International Organizations

The ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization under- lined that “other international and regional organizations with mandates in closely related fields can have an important contribution”, especially through the objectives of the Decent Work Agenda. 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 (IFI) and multi- lateral development bank (MDB), 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 or the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standard 2 which recognizes that the pursuit of economic growth through employment creation and income generation should be balanced with protection of basic rights of workers.(Note 1) With the adoption by the IFC in 2010 of the requirement that borrowing members comply with all core labour standards and other workplace practices, all MDB include core labour standards requirements in their standards bidding documents.

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.

Free-Trade agreements

A growing number of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, as well as regional economic integration arrangements, contain social and labour provisions related to workers’ rights. Indeed, trade agreements with labour provisions have increased significantly in the last two decades: 58 trade agreements included labour provisions in June 2013, up from 21 in 2005 and 4 in 1995 (Note 2). Labour provisions in free-trade agreements increasingly refer to ILO instruments, in particular the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and, in the case of recent EU agreements, also to ILO Conventions. For example, the European Union special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance (Generalized Schemes of Preferences/GSP+) provides additional benefits for countries implementing certain international standards in regard to human and labour rights. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1992 and was complemented in 1994 by the North American Agreement on Labour Cooperation (NAALC), several free trade agreements signed by the United States with a number of countries including Chile, the Republic of Korea, Morocco, Jordan, Singapore and Central American countries, have reaffirmed the parties commitment to the ILO and in particular the respect and promotion of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. For instance, the 2009 US trade agreement with Peru requires the parties to comply with all principles of the ILO’s 1998 Declaration without restrictions, in addition to enforcing their national labour laws.

Although labour provisions tend to be concentrated in North-South trade agreements, there is a modest but increasing trend to integrate labour provisions in trade agreements among developing and emerging countries.

Civil society

Advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations draw on interna- tional labour standards to call for changes in policy, law or practice. Civil society, and in particular, workers’ organizations have been instrumental in activating the different dimensions of labour provisions in trade agree- ments. They also make an extensive use of the ILO supervisory bodies’ comments in their advocacy strategies.

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 137 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 - International Finance Corporations, Performance Standard 2, Labor and working conditions, January 2012:
Note 2
- IILS, Social Dimensions of Free-Trade Agreements, ILO, 2013; See also C. Doumbia-Henry and E. Gravel, “Free Trade Agreements and Labour Rights: Recent Developments”, International Labour Review, Vol. 145 (2006), No. 3,pp. 185–206