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 countries, 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 may come further along the path of implementing the standard. Some countries decide not to ratify a Convention but to bring their legislation into line with it anyway; such countries use ILO standards as models for drafting their law and policy. Others ratify ILO Conventions fairly quickly and then work to bring their national law and practice into line after ratification. The comments of the ILO supervisory bodies and technical assistance (see section “Applying and promoting International Labour Standards”) 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 of “forced labour” or “discrimination”. Alongside voluntary initiatives and non-statutory rules, the legal system is one of the means through which international standards are disseminated. The use of these standards by the highest courts of certain countries, as observed by the ILO for over a decade, bears witness to their increasing acceptance and use at the national level. In this way, national and international systems for the regulation of labour are a mutual source of inspiration. International labour standards there appear to be a universal point of reference for an increasing number of actors at the international level, thereby reinforcing international labour law, which is becoming an essential resource in the denunciation of inequalities in the world of work and the regulation of labour relations, conditions and disputes, as reflected in more widespread respect for the values defended by the ILO.

Guidelines for social policy

In addition to shaping law, international labour standards can provide guidance for developing national and local policies, such as employment, work and family policies. They can also be used to improve various administrative structures, such as labour administration, labour inspection, social security and employment services. 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 ILO constituents are the main users of international labour standards, other actors have also found them to be useful tools. Indeed, new actors are using international labour standards and therefore participating in their diffusion at the international level.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the promotion of inclusive, responsible and sustainable practices in the workplace

The ILO defines CSR as a way in which enterprises give consideration to the impact of their operations on society and affirm their principles and values, both in their own internal methods and procedures and in their interactions with other actors. Increasing consumer interest in the ethical dimension of products and the working conditions in which they are produced has led multinational enterprises to adopt voluntary codes of conduct governing labour conditions in their production sites and supply chains. The majority of the top 500 companies in the United States and United Kingdom have adopted some sort of code of conduct, many of them referring to principles derived from ILO standards. While these codes are no substitute for binding international instruments, they play an important role in helping to spread the principles contained in inter- national labour standards.

The ILO can play an important role in CSR through two main reference points: the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) and the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (the “MNE Declaration”), a revised version of which was adopted by the Governing Body in 2017 in response to new economic realities, and particularly the increase in inter- national investment and trade, and the growth in global supply chains. This revision reinforced the MNE Declaration through the inclusion of principles addressing specific aspects of decent work, such as social security, forced labour, the transition from the informal to the formal economy, wages, the access of victims to remedies and compensation. It also contains guidance on the process of “due diligence” for the achievement of decent work, the creation of decent jobs, sustainable enterprises, more inclusive growth and an improved sharing of the benefits of foreign direct investment which are particularly relevant to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8. Moreover, many initiatives that promote inclusive, responsible and sustainable enterprise practices make reference to ILO instruments, including the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, the United Nations Global Compact and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

In 2009, the ILO launched a Helpdesk that provides constituents and enterprises with easy access to information, assistance, referral and advice regarding CSR and the implementation of labour standards with a view to aligning enterprise practices with international labour standards.

Other International Organizations

The ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization emphasizes that other international and regional organizations with mandates in closely related fields can make 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 (IFIs), such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank (AfDB), have integrated certain aspects of labour standards into some of their activities. For example, in 2013 the AfDB introduced into its environmental and social safeguards policy an operational safeguard on labour conditions and safety and health (Operational safeguard 5), setting out the requirements of the AfDB in relation to its borrowers and clients, which makes explicit reference to ILO international labour standards. In so doing, the AfDB joins other international donors which have adopted similar approaches in their safeguards policy or other strategy documents, including: the World Bank in its Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers process and Performance Standard 2 of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) (part of the World Bank Group), which recognizes that the pursuit of economic growth through employment creation must also comply with the protection of the basic rights of workers. Moreover, international labour standards have a direct impact on such globalized sectors as maritime transport. They are used not only for the design of national maritime legislation in member States, but also as a reference for inspections of ships by port States and have a direct effect 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 free trade agreements, as well as regional economic integration arrangements, contain social and labour provisions related to workers’ rights. Indeed, the number of free trade agreements with labour provisions has increased significantly over the past two decades: 70 trade agreements included labour provisions in 2016, compared with 58 in 2013, 21 in 2005 and four in 1995. (Note 1) Free trade agreements increasingly refer to ILO instruments in their labour clauses, and particularly the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) and, in the case of recent European Union agreements, also to ILO Conventions. Since 2013, 80 per cent of the agreements which have entered into force contain such clauses, starting with the agreements involving the European Union, the United States and Canada. However, such clauses made their appearance very early. For example, in the context of the European Union, the special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance (the Generalized System of Preferences/GSP+) provides additional benefits for countries implementing certain international standards in relation to human and labour rights. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1992 and was supplemented in 1994 by the North American Agreement on Labour Cooperation (NAALC) (this agreement was completely renegotiated in October 2018), several free trade agreements have been signed by the United States with countries such as Chile, Jordan, Republic of Korea, Morocco, Singapore and Central American countries. In these agreements, the signatory countries reaffirm their commitment to the ILO, and particularly to the respect and promotion of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. More recently, the free trade agreement between Japan and the European Union, signed in 2017, makes reference to the Decent Work Agenda and the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (2008) as standards that are binding on the parties, which should also endeavour to ratify the eight fundamental ILO Conventions. The agreement also contains clauses on corporate social responsibility with references to the MNE Declaration.

Civil society

Advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations draw on international labour standards to call for changes in policy, law or practice.

The role of employers' and workers' organizations

Representative employers’ and workers’ organizations play an essential role in the international labour standards system, not only as users of the system, but also as constituents of the Organization. They participate in choosing subjects for new ILO standards and in drafting the texts, and their votes 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. If the Convention is ratified, governments are required to report periodically to the ILO on how they are applying it in law and practice (the same applies to Protocols). Government reports must also be submitted to the most representative employers’ and workers’ organizations, which may comment on their content. Employers’ and workers’ organizations can also supply information on the application of Conventions directly to the ILO under article 23(2) of the ILO Constitution. They can initiate representations under article 24 of the ILO Constitution. As constituents of the Organization, they also participate in the tripartite committees set up to examine representations. Moreover, an Employer or Worker delegate to the International Labour Conference can also file a complaint under article 26 of the Constitution. If a member State has ratified the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 (No. 144), as 145 countries had done on 1st January 2019, it is required to hold national tripartite consultations on proposed new instruments to be discussed at the Conference, the submission of instruments to the competent authorities, reports concerning ratified Conventions, measures related to unratified Conventions and to Recommendations, and 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 VIII)

Note 1 - 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