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Overview focus: International Labor Standards

Published on : 03 Jan 2019

International Labor Standards

An inevitable consequence of globalization is the increasing attention to international labor standards, especially the core labor standards as under international treaties. An essential element of the current economic undertaking is the creation of new production processes and work arrangements, the cultivation of complex supply chains, and the rapid movement of capital and production units, which most often result in the suffering of the working class from quantum leaps and the decline in the global economy.

The concept of labor standards, just like democracy, is controversial and most often misunderstood. The efforts to implement these standards within national laws are sometimes seen as an ‘investment disincentive’, ‘anti-business’, and a ‘hindrance to competitiveness.’ However, such attitudes have begun to change. Though the debate still continues on labor standards, corporate social responsibilities and codes of conduct with regard to human rights, workers’ rights, and environmental protection have emerged.

This article answers the following questions:

  •  Who is the ILO?
  • What are the core and other international labor standards?
  • What are the advantages of observing these standards?

The  International Labor-Organization

Established in 1919, the International Labor Organization (ILO) is the only tripartite U.N agency which brings together the workers, employers, and governments of over the 187-member States. The ILO works to set labor standards, devise programs and develop policies that will promote decent work for all women and men. The ILO, is devoted to promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights. It pursues its founding mission that social justice is an essential element to secure lasting universal peace.

The working of ILO where workers and employers together have an equal voice with the governments in its deliberations depicts social dialogue in action. This ensures that the views of all the parties are closely reflected within the ILO standards, programs and policies.

The ILO believes in encouraging the tripartism between its constituents by promoting social dialogue between employers, trade unions, and where necessary, implementing national policy on social, economic, and other issues.


The International  Labor Standards

Labor standards simply put, are those rules that govern how workers are treated in a working environment. They originate at the international, national, and local levels and come in a variety of forms. The spirit of labor standards does not require the application of complex legal formulae and is as simple as ensuring basic rules of good sense and governance have been considered.

Labor standards cover a wide variety of topics which mainly concern the basic human rights of workers at work, respect for safety and health, ensuring that the workers are paid in time for their work and also covers labor inspection and basic labor administration. In the context of the economy, these standards are necessary to increase productivity and competitiveness over the long term. Labor standards, at the national level, are usually set in laws and regulations and can sometimes be found in collective agreements which normally bind the contracting parties- employers and trade unions. At the international level, these standards are usually found in international conventions and recommendations. There are two reasons as to why international labor standards are important:

  1. They represent an international consensus on the minimum best practices on human rights, more specifically on labor matters; and
  2. When the member countries have ratified such standards, they constitute binding legal obligations in both national and international law, which may even be incorporated in the national law.

The Core Labor Standards contain a set of four basic rights and principles at work, which are internationally recognized. These include:

  • Freedom of association and effectively recognizing the rights to collective bargaining;
  • Elimination of forced or compulsory labor and all its forms;
  • Abolition of child labor; and
  • Elimination of all forms of discrimination in employment and occupation.

Though there are many types of labor standards, the above listed four have achieved international consensus as for the “core” labor standards. The international support for these standards reflects an understanding of its application in all countries. The standards, however, do not establish a particular standard of working conditions, health and safety standards, or wages to be applied in each country and are not intended to alter the comparative advantage of any country.

These core standards have been articulated repeatedly in international human rights instruments and declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, and the most recent Declaration of 1995 Copenhagen Summit on Social Development. These core standards were further substantiated by the ILO in 1998 by the Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work which requires the member states, regardless of their status of ratification, to comply with the above-stated four principles. The promotion of these standards has also been adopted into the role of international organizations such as the World Bank and ADB.

There are also other additional standards that assist in developing the aspects of the core standards such as those on workers with family responsibilities, working hours for young workers, protection of migrant workers, and industrial relations. For instance, other labor standards cover topics such as:

  • Occupational health and safety;
  • Minimum wages and payment of wages;
  • Employment promotion, including mechanisms and employment exchanges;
  • Labor administration which includes labor inspection;
  • Social security; and
  •  Specific economic sectors and occupations such as the seafarers, homeworkers, plantation workers, etc.)

Importance of the Labor Standards

  • Economic Advantages of Labor Standards

Putting labor standards into practice helps improve the economies of the Developing Member Countries (DMCs). Though many developing countries raise the argument that keeping their labor costs low in manufacturing and services is the only advantage they have in comparison to the developed countries, they fail to consider the productivity-increasing effect of these labor standards. Lack of respect for the workers’ rights negatively impacts the development of the economy and the people concerned. Labor standards are the tools, instruments or indicators that assist in development as well as measure the progress towards development.

  • Good Governance

Respecting people’s rights with regard to work and action by the government to safeguard these rights, is in itself support for the concept of governance. Respecting the labor standards provide a number of positive governance benefits, such as:

  • Assists in the reduction of poverty and increase the living standards.
  • Improves dialogue between the social partners; and
  • Improves prospects of exports since importing countries increasingly demand observance of these core standards;
  • Promotes decent work;
  • Builds respect for law and for human rights;
  • Human Rights and Labor Standards

Most of the labor standards are internationally recognized human rights which are contained in international conventions that have received almost universal ratification, including most developing countries. There has been a growing international consensus that human rights are indivisible and have to be applied to everyone.

Core Labor Standards

  • Abolition of Child Labor

There are two child labor conventions adopted by the ILO and one by the United Nations:

  • The Minimum Age Convention

The Convention and its accompanying Recommendation No 146 was adopted by the ILO in 1973. It sets its goal as the effective elimination of child labor and sets the basic minimum age for employment or work as follows:

  1. Until the end of compulsory schooling or 14 years of age for developing countries and 15 for developed countries, whichever is higher;
  2. Minimum age of 12 and 13 years respectively for ‘light work’; and
  3. Minimum age of 18 and sometimes 16 for hazardous or dangerous work.
  • Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention

The ILO in 1999, adopted the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (No.182) and Recommendation No. 190, which targets the worst forms of child labor. The said convention, regardless of the level of economic development of the ratifying country, applies to all branches of economic activity that requires immediate action. The Convention recognizes the following as the worst forms of child labor:

  1. All forms of slavery and similar practices such as sale and trafficking of children, serfdom, and forced or compulsory labor;
  2. Use, procurement, or offering a child for prostitution, production or performance of pornography;
  3. Use, offering, or procurement of a child for illicit activities such as for the production and trafficking of drugs;
  4. Work, by its nature or circumstance, is likely to harm the health, morals, or safety of the child.
  •  In addition, the United Nations also adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, which has been ratified by almost every country in the world and also applies to child labor.
  • Elimination of Discrimination in Employment and Occupation
  • Equal Remuneration Convention of 1951

The very first binding international instrument with the purpose of promoting gender equality and eliminating discrimination was the ILO Equal Remuneration Convention of 1951 (No.100), along with its accompanying Recommendation No.90. The Convention addresses the following main issues:

  • Basic, ordinary, minimum wage or salary and additional emoluments arising out of the workers’ employment and which payable in cash or in kind, whether directly or indirectly, by the employer to work;
  • Rates of remuneration established without any discrimination on the basis of gender, directly or indirectly;

Where differential rates of remuneration are applied, without regard to gender, to the workers depending upon the differences in the work performed, which is determined by an objective appraisal, must not be contrary to the principle of equal remuneration.

  • The Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention

Following this, the ILO adopted the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention No. 111 and Recommendation No. 111, which addressed all types of discrimination with regard to employment and occupation. The Convention tackles the following main issues:

  • Each ratifying State has to declare and pursue a national policy that is designed to promote equality in both opportunity and treatment with a view to eliminating any discrimination in respect of:
  • Any discrimination, distinction, preference or exclusion made on the basis of color, race, political opinion, religion, social origin, national extraction, or other such grounds as specified by the States which nullifies or prejudice the equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation;
  1. Access to vocational training;
  2. Access to employment and particular occupations;
  3. Terms and conditions of the employment
  • The ratifying states have to seek the cooperation of the workers’ and employers’ organizations and other bodies in the promotion of the acceptance and observance of its policy; repeal statutes and other provisions inconsistent with the policy; enact legislation and promote educational programs to secure its acceptance; observance of the policy in employment and other such actions which needs to be indicated in its annual reports on the application of provisions of the Convention.
  • Elimination of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The definition of forced labor by the ILO comprises two basic elements: that the work or service was exacted under the menace of a penalty; and it was undertaken involuntarily.

  • Forced Labour Convention of 1930

The Forced Labour Convention No.29 of 1930, defines forced labor as the work or service for which the person has not offered himself voluntarily and was exacted from such person under the menace of penalty. The Convention excludes the following types of labor from its scope:

  • Work of a purely military character;
  • Work that is the consequence of a conviction by a court of law provided such work is carried out under a public authority’s control and supervision, and such person is not placed at the disposal of other private individuals, companies or associations;
  • Work that forms part of the normal civic duties of the citizens;
  • Minor communal services; and
  • Work in the event of an emergency such as war, calamity and other circumstances that would endanger the existence of the well-being of the population.
  • The Abolition of Forced Labour of 1957 (No.105) which specifies that forced labor cannot be used for the purposes of economic development or as a means of political education, labor discipline, discrimination, or punishment for participation in strikes.
  •  Freedom of Association and the Effective Recognition of the Right to Collective Bargaining

One of the most basic principles that form the foundation of the work of ILO is the freedom of association. In addition to the recognition of the principle in the ILO Constitution and the Declaration of Philadelphia that was incorporated into the Constitution in 1944, the ILO has also adopted the following two conventions:

  • Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention No.87

This Convention adopted in 1948 establishes the right of all workers and employers to form and join organizations of their choosing without any prior authorization, and also guarantees for the free functioning of these organizations without interference by the public authorities. The essence of the Convention is the following:

Employers and workers, without any prior authorization, possess the right to establish and to join organizations of their choice for the purpose of furthering or defending their interests;

The public authorities have to refrain from any interference that could restrict this right or its lawful exercise;

The workers and employers, in the exercise of this right, have to respect the laws of the land. However, the law of the land must not be applied in such a way so as to impede the guarantees provided in the convention.

  • Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention No. 98, 1949

The Convention provides measures to promote collective bargaining and protection against anti-union discrimination for the protection of employers’ and workers’ organizations against interference from each other. The Convention addresses the following issues:

  • Protection to the workers from acts of anti-union discrimination such as subjecting their employment to the condition that they shall not join a union or relinquish such membership, dismissing or prejudicing a worker by reason of membership in a union and such;
  • Measures to promote and encourage the full development and utilization of machinery for voluntary negotiations regarding employment contracts and collective agreements;
  • The Convention entrusts the national laws and regulations to determine the extent to which the provisions of the Convention shall apply to the armed forces, the police and the public servants engaged in the administration of the State.

International Labor Standards in the UAE

Amongst UAE’s estimated 9.1 million population, the UAE nationals are estimated to be around 12 percent, while the remaining 8 million are composed of foreigners, which are mostly temporary contract workers. In 2014, foreign workers in the UAE contributed more than 29 billion US Dollars to their home countries, making the UAE the third largest source of remittances in the world.

As a result of the dynamics in the labor market and the mounting complexity of the labor mobility, the UAE Government represented by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization (MoHR), has focused on strengthening the governance of the labor market. An example would be the most recent reforms to the Kafal or the sponsorship system, which has been introduced for temporary foreign workers who obtain their work permit through the MOHR. This includes several rights such as the possibility for these workers to unilaterally terminate their contract. The UAE also has instituted a Wage Protection System and issued several ministerial decrees to ensure timely payment of the wages to the workers.

Though UAE still does not possess any independent trade unions, the Government has granted certain professional association’s limited freedom to raise their work-related concerns, lobby the same to Government for redress, and file grievances.

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