International labour and social standards

Based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labor Organization (ILO) in particular has established a system of labour standards applicable throughout the world. While the so-called core labour standards (freedom of association, free collective bargaining and the right to collective agreements; elimination of forced labour; elimination of child labour; prohibition against discrimination at the job site and the principle of equal pay for the same work) are the most fundamental and known, a number of other conventions provide a normative framework for the world of work.

However, by no means are these labour standards being implemented everywhere – as the annual report of the International Labor Organization on the status of application of the conventions and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in its report on violations of trade union rights clearly demonstrates. The reasons for the often blatant contradictions between norm and reality are wide-ranging, extending from the inability or unwillingness of states to enforce compliance with legal standards to companies’ failure to respect legal requirements.

A fundamental right of workers is currently at centre stage in political struggles taking place at the international level as well as in many countries: the right to strike. Employers are disputing that Convention 87 on the Freedom of Association includes a right to strike, and in the process blocking the comprehensive application of the review mechanism on the occasion of the International Labor Conference. This feud is putting the very essence of the ILO structure of standards in question.

Above and beyond the ILO, additional instruments have been created to establish a normative framework for the activities of economic actors. Ranging from the OECD Guidelines for multinational enterprisesto the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, these do not constitute binding arrangements, however, but rather so-called “soft law”, which can only be enforced to varying degrees.

The work of the FES promotes effective implementation and further refinement of the international labour standards. It is to this end that consultation, advisory and training measures are being carried out – for example to strengthen the capabilities of the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards, to ensure that trade unions are involved in the development of new standards or make possible the application of the OECD guidelines.

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