The Future of ILO Standards

By Swepston, Lee | Monthly Labor Review, September 1994 | Go to article overview

The Future of ILO Standards


Swepston, Lee, Monthly Labor Review


The International Labor Organization (ILO), created in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles, has as its agenda the maintenance of social peace and improvement of the situation of the world's workers. First among the organization's tools for achieving its aims are international labor standards. Often called the "International Labor Code," these standards have helped form the basis for many social and labor laws in most of the countries that have gained their independence since 1919--that is, most countries in the world.

The ILO's mission, as designed by its founders, was to parallel that of the League of Nations: the League was to keep the physical peace, the ILO was to keep the social peace by adopting standards that would improve the situation of workers. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the fear that if action was not taken to relieve the inequalities and injustices suffered by workers around the world, the entire social order was threatened, ILO's goal seemed as ambitious as that of the League. The League did not survive, but the ILO has.

Many observers thus consider the ILO standards to have a long and illustrious past, but wonder if they have a similar future. This article looks at problems facing the ILO and offers some possible solutions.

75 years of standards

The "Declaration of Philadelphia" in 1944, which was a renewed statement of purpose, marked the beginning of the ILO's period of greatest creativity in the adoption of standards--1948 to 1964. During this time, the ILO addressed freedom of association, equal treatment, abolition of forced labor, minimum wages, treatment of indigenous and tribal peoples, and employment policies, among other issues. These standards (along with the Forced Labor Convention, adopted in 1930) have become fundamental to worldwide labor and human rights legislation. The ILO's body of standards has continued to develop since then.

There are now 175 ILO Conventions and 182 Recommendations setting forth labor standards. (See box on page 4 for explanation of Conventions and Recommendations.) The Conventions have received more than 6,000 ratifications, forming a huge "web" of international law and setting the social and labor agenda for most countries in the world. Today, the ILO provides standards on social security systems, protection against occupational hazards and disease, and regulation of working conditions and hours of work. However, not all ILO standards cover "workers' rights"; a significant number provide guidance for the establishment of labor istration and provide basic instructions for labor inspection and occupational safety and health systems. There also are special standards for occupational groups such as nurses, seafarers, and dockers. In short, ILO standards have provided inspiration for labor legislation worldwide--including that of emerging states of Africa and Asia--and are used as a point of reference for countries trying to change their social and labor systems (such as those in Eastern Europe and Latin America).

ILO standards are adopted in tripartite discussion among representatives of workers, employers, and government. This feature was a novel concept when it was first put forward, and is still unique in international affairs today. This tripartite system increases the likelihood that ILO standards will take into account the problems workers face, the capacity of employers to comply, and the possibilities that governments will adopt the regulatory and supervisory systems necessary to implement the standards on the national level. The ILO, like other international human rights bodies, has no "enforcement" procedure. (Enforcement cannot work in the international sphere, as no coercive means are available.) It relies on a system of regular reporting by government members before the annual session of its supervisory body.

More than 2,000 government reports are examined each year. They are sent to employers' and workers' roganizations in the country concerned, who have the right to comment (about 10 percent of the countries do so each year). …

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