The International Labour Organisation

Analyse and critically assess the role played by the International Labour Organisation in developing and securing universally recognised minimum or ‘core' labour standards.

About ‘ILO':

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is the United Nations (UN) body that sets internationally recognised labour standards to protect the rights of workers globally. It is a tripartite organisation consisting of primarily three parties: workers, employers and governments. ILO was established right after the First World War as a part of the league nations. ILO has been unique within the United Nation as it is the only organisation where employees and employers have a formal voice, as all other UN associations are being run by their respective governments. ILO undertakes and performs a wide range of activities right from carrying out research and publishing information on the world of work. Having its Headquarters established in Geneva, it has regional head offices in many capital cities around the globe. The ILO also supports a large number of technical assistance and co-operation projects, including many that help build the capacity of employers and employees for organisations established in developing countries. The initial motive of the ILO was on humanitarian grounds where the conditions of workers faced numerous problems and were exploited with no consideration for their health, their family lives and their advancement. The second motive was political as with no significant improvement to workers conditions and a ever increasing numbers seen in the labour market as a result of industrialisation was creating social unrest and even revolutions in some cases. The third motive of the ILO was economic because of its inevitable effect on the cost of production, any industry or country would find itself a disadvantage compared to its competitors, the preamble of the ILO states that “the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries”. The most important aspect of work of the ILO is its role in formulating and monitoring international labour standards in the form of conventions, recommendations and Codes of Practice which set minimum standards of basic labour rights.

Since 1919, the ILO has maintained and developed a system of International Labour Standards which are aimed at promoting opportunities for men and women to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity. In today's globalised economy, international labour standards are an essential component in the international framework for ensuring that the growth of the global economy provides benefits to all. The ILO was set up in Geneva in 1920, the passion which drove the organisation was quickly brought down as certain governments felt that there were too many conventions, the publications were too critical and the budgets very high. At present there are 188 conventions and a similar number of recommendations out of which eight are considered as ‘Core', which make up ILO's Core Labour standards. The eight core conventions cover four key areas:

* Freedom of Association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining (Conventions 87 & 98).

* The elimination of all forms of Forced and Compulsory labour (Conventions 29 & 105).

* The effective abolition of child labour (Conventions 138 & 182).

* The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation (Conventions 100 & 111).

These conventions are international treaties, subject to ratification by ILO member countries. Though these conventions are legally binding on ratifying countries, the recommendations are non-binding as they only supplement the conventions by providing additional clarification and guidance for national policy and action. When a country ratifies an ILO convention it agrees to give its effect in law and also apply its provisions in practice, the nation further agrees to give supervisory powers to ILO in order to govern these measures adopted. However, even if the ILO notices that a country has not met the standard required by a convention, ILO does not possess any mechanism to force any government to change its law or practice. In 1998, the ILO produced the declaration of Fundamental Principles and right at work. The member states agreed that they should all respect, promote and realise ILO's core labour standards regardless of whether they follow and adopt the other conventions.

International Labour Standards and their Benefits:

The increasing attention drawn towards labour standards and especially on core labour standards is an inevitable consequence of globalisation. Labour standards are simply the rules which govern how people are treated in a working environment. They come in a variety of forms and originate at local, national and international levels. At the international level labour standards are found in international conventions and recommendations. International labour standards are important for two reasons: first, they represent the international consensus on minimum best practices, whether on human rights generally or more precisely on labour matters. Secondly, when they have been ratified by member countries they become legal obligations in national and international law, and maybe even included in national law. Today ILO has developed its own decent work agenda which has taken up many of the same challenges that the organisation faced at its inception, this aims to achieve decent work by promoting social dialogue, social protection and creating employment opportunities, as well as respect for International labour standards. These standards have grown to become a significant part of instruments on work and social policy backed by a supervisory mechanism designed to address all sorts of problems. These standards are the legal components in the ILO's strategy for governing globalisation, promoting sustainable development, eradicating poverty and ensure that people can work with dignity and safety. The challenges of globalisation have made these International Labour Standards more relevant than ever. The benefits which they provide are featured below:

* ‘A path to decent work' -

International labour standards are first and foremost about development of people as human beings. In the ILO's declaration of Philadelphia of 1944, the international community recognised that “Labour is not a commodity”. Economic development should include the creation of jobs and working conditions in which people can work in freedom, safety and dignity. In brief economic development is not undertaken for its own sake but to improve the lives of human beings.

* ‘International legal framework for fair and stable globalisation' -

Achieving the goal of decent work requires action at international level. The world community is responding to this challenge in part by developing international legal instruments such as trade, finance, environment, human rights and labour. ILO supplements this legal framework by elaborating and promoting international labour standards aimed at making sure that economic growth and development go along with the creation of decent work.

* ‘A level playing field' -

An international legal framework on social standards ensures a level-playing field in the global economy. It helps governments and employers to avoid the temptation of lowering labour standards in the belief that this could give them a greater comparative advantage in international trade. Because international labour standards are minimum standards adopted by governments and the social partners, it is in everyone's interest to see these rules applies across the board, so that those who do not put them into practice do not undermine the efforts of those who do.

* ‘Means of improving economic performance' -

International labour standards are sometimes perceived as entailing significant costs and thus hindering economic development. However, research indicates that compliance with international labour standards often accompanies improvements in productivity and economic performance. The beneficial effects of labour standards do not go unnoticed by foreign investors. Studies have shown that in their criteria for choosing countries in which to invest. There is also little evidence that countries which do not respect labour standards are more competitive in the global economy.

* ‘A safety net in times of economic crisis -

Even fast-growing economies with high skilled workers can experience unforeseen economic downturns. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 showed how decades of economic growth could be undone by dramatic currency devaluations and falling market prices. The disastrous effects on the crisis of workers were compounded by the fact that in many of these countries social protection systems, active labour market policies and social dialogue were seriously wanting. An ILO study concluded that strengthening social dialogue, freedom of association, and social protection systems in the region would provide better safeguards against such economic downturns.

* Furthermore, international labour standards act as a strategy for reducing poverty as economic development has always depended on the acceptance of rules. A market governed by a fair set of rules and institutions is more efficient and brings benefit to everyone. Fair labour practices set out in international labour standards and applied through a national legal system ensure an efficient and stable labour market for workers and employers alike.

Critical review at ‘Core' labour standards of International Labour organisation:

‘Freedom of association and the Effective Recognition of the right to collective bargaining' - are the foundations for a process in which workers and employers make claims upon each other and resolve them through process of negotiation leading to collective agreements that are mutually beneficial. For workers, joining together allows them to have a more balanced relationship with their employer. It also provides a mechanism for negotiating a fair share of the results of their work, with due respect for the financial position of the enterprise or public service in which they are employed. For employers on the other hand, free association enables firms to ensure that competition is constructive and fair in a effort to raise productivity and conditions of work. In the context of the ILO, the term ‘social dialogue ‘covers all types of negotiation and consultation on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy.

The ILO convention on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise is always cited together with the right to organise and collective bargaining convention. These are referred to as the twin conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining. They give workers their most fundamental rights - the right to form and join organisations of their own choosing and to promote and defend their economic and social interests. While convention 87 gives workers the right to form and join trade unions, convention 98 lays down the key principles of the right to organise and bargain collectively. It provides the protection that workers and their organisations need against acts of anti-union discrimination and of interference by either public authorities or employers.

Freedom of association is considered the most fundamental of labour standards within ILO. Even prior to the 1998 Declaration on fundamental principles and Rights of work, this standard as defined in ILO conventions 87and 98, was thought vital enough that all member states could be subject to complaints on the principle they embodied, regardless of ratification status. Freedom of association applies to both employers and employees in formal and informal economies. It is considered as “enabling” right in that it allows key actors in the economy to join together to pursue their interests. The ILO committee on Freedom of Association examines complaints on the principles of freedom of association whether or not the relevant ILO conventions 87 and 98 have been ratified by the country in question. This tripartite committee oversees compliance with the fundamental principles of freedom of association. After investigating the complaint, the committee reports to the ILO governing Body which may request action by the government concerned, and follow up whether this action has been taken.

Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to organise convention, 1948 (No. 87)

This convention establishes the right of all workers and employers to form and join organisations of their own choosing without prior authorisation, lays down a series of guarantees for the free functioning of the organisation without any interference by the public authorities. The spirit of convention 87 is as follows:

* Workers and employers have the right to establish and to join organisations of their own choosing for furthering and defending their interests without previous authorisation.

* The public authorities have to refrain from any interference that would restrict the right or impede the lawful exercise.

* In exercising the rights provided for in the Convention, employees and employers and their respective organisations have to respect the law of the land. However, the law of the land must not be so applied as to impair the guarantees provided for in the convention.

Right to Organise and Collective bargaining Convention, 1949 (No.98)

This convention provides for protection against anti-union discrimination, for protection of employees and employers against acts of interference by each other, and for measures to promote and encourage collective bargaining. Convention 98 includes:

* Workers must be protected against acts of anti-union discrimination, such as making their employment subject to the condition that they shall not join a union or shall refrain membership, causing the dismissal or otherwise prejudice a worker by reason of union membership, participation in union activities outside working hours.

* Employee and employer organisations must enjoy adequate protection against any acts of interference by each other.

* Measures to encourage and promote the full development and utilisation of machinery for voluntary negotiations with regard to employment contracts, and to collective agreements.

* The Convention leaves it to national laws or regulations to determine the extent to which it applies to the armed forces and the police. Furthermore, it does not deal with the position of public servants engaged in the administration of the state.

Soon after the adoption of conventions No. 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, the ILO came to the conclusion that the principle of freedom of association needed a further supervisory procedure to ensure compliance with it in countries that had not ratified the relevant conventions. As a result, in 1951 the ILO set up the committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) for the purpose of examining complaints about violations of freedom of association, whether or not the country concerned had ratified the relevant conventions. In 1994, the International confederation of free Trade unions (ICFTU) and the World confederation of labour (WCL) filed a complaint against the government of Indonesia for violation of Trade union rights, including the denial of the workers' right to establish organisations of their own choosing as well as very serious allegations concerning the arrest and harassment of trade union leaders. Through the CFA the international community kept up the pressure on Indonesia for the release of trade union leaders detained. In the years since then Indonesia's engagement with the ILO had taken significant steps to improve protection of trade union rights, and has ratified all eight fundamental conventions, making it one of the few nations in the Asia-pacific to do so.

‘Elimination of all forms of Forced and Compulsory Labour' - Forced labour is universally condemned. Yet the elimination of its numerous forms ranging from slavery and debt bondage to human trafficking remains one of the most complex challenges facing local communities, employees, employers and national governments. Clearly, there is a need to identify any broad patterns of forced labour in the region as well as country-specific data on it. Such information is needed to assist decision makers in their deliberations on how best to tackle the problem, assess priorities, and design and target interventions against forced labour.

The first minimum global estimates of the numbers of people in forced labour were given in the ILO second global report on forced labour. About 12.3 million people globally are victims of forced labour, more than 2.4 million of them have been trafficked, 9.8 million are exploited by private agents and 2.5 million are forced to work by the state or by rebel military groups. The majority of forced labour in the world is in Asia and the Pacific (9.5 million).

Convention on Forced or Compulsory labour - The ILO definition of forced labour comprises two basic elements: the work or service is exacted under the menace of a penalty, and it is undertaken involuntarily. The forced labour convention, 1930 (No. 29), the ILO defines forced labour for the purposes of international law as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered him voluntarily” the other fundamental ILO instrument, the abolition of forced labour convention, 1957 (No.105), specifies that forced labour can never be used for the purpose of economic development or as a means of political education or punishment for having participated in strikes.

This convention clarifies certain purposes for which forced labour can never be imposed. However certain types of labour are excluded from the scope of convention No.29 like work of a pure military character; work that forms part of the normal civic obligations of citizens; work in cases of emergency and minor communal services such as services performed by the members of the community in the direct interest of the said community.

Working towards an international labour standard: combating forced labour in Nepal

The ILO's Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations has noted over 60 cases of progress in the struggle against forced labour in the last ten years. In many developing countries, however, ancient social traditions pose difficult problems. One country that has risen to this challenge is Nepal. Although the Constitution of Nepal prohibits forced labour in any form, in the early 1990s approximately 1.2 million Nepalese were subjected to slave-like practices under a debt-bondage system known as kamaiya. Under this system, the disadvantaged, mostly from the Tharu ethnic group in western Nepal, were forced to do agricultural work, while being bound by debt to work for landlords. Kamaiyas were often bonded over generations. In the late 1990s, the Nepalese government decided to tackle this problem with a view to ratifying the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29). It requested international assistance and, with the technical assistance of the ILO, in 2002 Nepal passed the Bonded Labour (Prohibition) Act which explicitly forbids forced and bonded labour. The ILO continued to play a major role in the eradication of the kamaiya system by helping to build up organizational and bargaining skills as both workers and landowners adjusted to the conditions of free labour. As a result of these continuous collaborative efforts, Nepal ratified Convention No. 29 in 2002.

Elimination of discrimination in Employment and Occupation - Discrimination in one form or another occurs in the world of work everyday, throughout the world. Discrimination at work can be direct or indirect. It is direct when regulations, laws, and policies explicitly exclude or disadvantage workers on the basis of characteristics such as political opinion, marital status or sex. Prejudices and stereotypes are normally at the heart of direct discrimination. At the same time, work is a privileged entry point from which to liberate society from discrimination. Literally millions of people in the world are denied of jobs, confined to certain occupations or offered lower pay simply because of their sex, religion or colour of their skin irrespective of their capabilities or the requirements of the job.

Discrimination in employment and occupation may take many forms and occurs in all kind of work settings, in other words discrimination results in and reinforces inequalities.

ILO Conventions on discrimination in Employment and Occupation

The first binding international instrument to be adopted with the specific objective of promoting gender equality and eliminating discrimination was the ILO Equal remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), along with its accompanying recommendation (No. 90). Upon their adoption, it was recognised that equal pay could not be achieved without the elimination of discrimination in all areas of employment. The main issues in the Equal remuneration Convention No.100 are:

· Remuneration the ordinary, basic or minimum wage and any additional emoluments whatsoever payable directly or indirectly whether in cash or kind by the employer to the worker and arising out of the workers' employment.

· For the purpose of the convention, the term “equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value” refers to rates of remuneration established without discrimination based directly or indirectly, on sex.

· Where differential rates between workers correspond, without regard to sex, to differences in the work to be performed as determined by an objective appraisal, these must not be considered as being contrary to the principle of equal remuneration.

· These instruments were shortly followed, in 1958, by the adoption by the ILO of the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No.111), which addresses all forms of discrimination concerning employment and occupation.

A primary indicator of gender gaps in terms of labour market activity is usually the labour force participation rate (LFPR) of women and men. A recent ILO report on gender equality in the world of work in Asia and Pacific region indicates that women's LFPRs do vary considerably in the region but do not necessarily depend on high levels of economic growth. In Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, where women's LFPRs in 2000 were 67.4%, 58.3%, and 46.1% respectively, great improvements in women's LFPRs have occurred in spite of relatively low levels of economic growth. ILO had designed a toolkit to fight discrimination at workplace; this toolkit is designed for those who require policies to challenge racism. It would help both workers and employers to analyse their situation and develop appropriate strategies. These variety of toolkits, pamphlets and a comprehensive practitioners handbook are intended to stimulate, guide and support effective practice. ILO had also convened an inter-institutional working group to develop evaluative standards, indicators, methodology and tools to qualitatively assess integration and anti-discrimination practices.

‘Abolition of Child Labour' - Children enjoy the same human rights accorded to all people. But, lacking the knowledge, experience or physical development of adults and the power to defend their own interests in an adult world, children also have distinct rights to protection by virtue of their age. One of these is protection from economic exploitation and from work that is dangerous to the health and morals of children or which hampers their development. ILO has collected information worldwide about children working in different occupations. The following summary highlights the overall situation:

· In 2000, some 352 million children aged between 5 and 17 years were involved in economic activity in the world.

· 246 million children were engaged in what the ILO defines as Child labour.

· 171 million of 246 million were estimated to be in hazardous situations or conditions that qualify as worst forms of child labour.

· 8.4 million of 246 million were involved in the unconditional worst forms of child labour.

· Some 127 million children aged 5-14 years are economically active in Asia and Pacific region, or 60% of the world's 211 million economically active children in that age group.

Although urban street children and children in factory work and export manufacturing have received considerable attention, far larger numbers are employed in agriculture and domestic service. Child labour is much higher in rural than in urban areas, and three quarters of working children are engaged in family enterprises.

‘Conventions of ILO on Child labour'

There are two basic conventions on child labour adopted by the ILO, and one adopted by the United Nations. The ILO Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) and its accompanying recommendation (No. 146) set the goal of elimination of child labour, and the basic minimum age for employment or work. The convention sets a minimum age of 2 years younger for “Light work” i.e 12 and 13 years, respectively; and a higher minimum age for dangerous or hazardous work which is basically 18 years but 16 years under certain circumstances. The major actors in the Minimum Age convention No.138 are:

· National Policy - each state that ratifies Convention No.138 undertakes to pursue a national policy to ensure the effective abolition of Child labour.

· Declaration of minimum age for admission to employment or work.

· Individual exceptions after consultation with organisations of employers and workers, the competent authority may allow exceptions in individual cases in a very few areas, but not the basic rules.

· Hazardous Work - the employment of young persons from the age of 16 years may be authorised after consultation with organisations of employers and employees keeping in mind that their health, safety and morals are fully protected; and they have received adequate specific instruction or vocational training in the relevant division of activity.

· Light Work is work which is not likely to be harmful to health or development of young persons concerned and is not such as to prejudice their attendance at school or their participation in vocational orientation or training programs.

In addition, the convention on the Rights of the child which is been adopted by the United Nations in 1989, has been ratified by almost every country in the world which also applies to child labour.

For over a dozen years, international labour standards have been used by trade unions in Brazil in the fight against child labour. In 1991 the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) created the National Commission for the Defence of the Child and Adolescents' Rights, whose main efforts have focused on enforcing the Statute of Children and Adolescents and promoting the ratification of the ILO Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138). Through partnerships with the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, non-governmental organizations, research centres, social institutions and national and international trade unions, CUT led successful efforts to include clauses on children's rights and labour in collective bargaining agreements, conducted studies and surveys to evaluate the reality of child labour exploitation in Brazil, and produced radio programmes, booklets and posters as part of awareness raising activities. These efforts have borne fruit, as Brazil recently ratified both Convention Nos. 138 and 182, thereby committing itself to eliminate child labour within an international legal framework.

Conclusions & Suggestions concerning the role of ILO in establishing ‘Core' labour standards

A number of academic scholars have criticised the ILO creating a false division between various international labour standards. Many of these standards cover specific Human rights topics but were excluded when the declaration was made in 1998, such as those concerning to health & ‘Human rights' whereas previously all international labour standards were categorised generally under Human rights. The ILO has to renew its commitment to technical cooperation as a fundamental means of action to achieve its mission and realize its objectives and must remain a major instrument of the ILO to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. The ILO needs to build and strengthen a capacity for engagement in macroeconomic issues. There is also a similar need to strengthen the capacity of the trade unions, employers. Organizations and governments in order that they are capable, for example, of evaluating the trade-offs inherent in economic policy and globalization.

The ILO should adopt a participative, flexible and dynamic policy of drawing upon the experience of decentralization and regional programmes of the 1970s and 1980s and upon the new global, socio-economic developments. It must be sensitive and responsive, above all, to regional diversity and the specificity of national needs within, of course, the framework of the four strategic objectives and the promotion of the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The unique composition of the ILO within the United Nations family as a body made up of trade unions, employers. Organizations and governments, is a real strength which can be used to advantage in core labour issues. This advantage must be used more systematically and more effectively. Specific programmes requiring autonomy is excepted, the ILO needs to draw the tripartite constituents into all aspects of technical cooperation. When pursuing the four strategic objectives and when implementing the InFocus programmes, it is crucial to secure that gender aspects and questions of equal opportunity are being mainstreamed in all the programmes, thus ensuring that issues of vital importance to women all over the world are not neglected or under-resourced.

At the country level, the ILO must be active in the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) to ensure that its constituents. Priorities are effectively pursued, while optimizing the potential capacities of the United Nations system as a whole. All these partnerships must be built on a realistic perception of both the common objectives and the specific interests of the partners concerned, so that the ILO can uphold the values and concerns of its own constituents more effectively in a wider arena. As a knowledge, service and advocacy organization, the ILO should, without weakening tripartism, develop relations with other actors in civil society that share its values and objectives.


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