International labour standards are central to the activities of the International Labour Organization. Over the years, the governments of member States and their employers' and workers' organizations have built up a system of international standards in all work-related matters, such as the abolition of forced labour, freedom of association, equality of treatment and opportunity, employment promotion and vocational training, social security, conditions of work, maternity protection, minimum age for entering the labour market, and protection of migrants and categories of workers such as seafarers.
In June of each year, after considerable preparatory work, representatives of governments, and employers' and workers' organizations of all member countries meet in the International Labour Conference in Geneva, to adopt or revise those standards which will become international labour Conventions or Recommendations. These international instruments deal with people and their work. The Conventions are binding for countries which ratify them.
These standards are subject to constant supervision by the ILO. Each member country agrees to present periodically to the International Labour Office a report on the measures taken to apply, in law and in practice, the Conventions which it has ratified. The government reports are examined by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, composed of some twenty independent, eminent figures in either the legal or social field and who are also specialists in labour matters. The Committee submits an annual report to the International Labour Conference, which is closely examined by a tripartite committee composed of government, employer and worker members.
In parallel with this mechanism of regular supervision, procedures written into the ILO Constitution also contribute to observing the system of international labour standards. Employers' and workers' organizations can lodge representations with the International Labour Office on a member State's non-compliance with a Convention it has ratified. If the representation is judged receivable by the ILO Governing Body, it appoints a tripartite committee to examine the issue. This committee submits a report containing its conclusions and recommendations to the Governing Body.
Moreover, any member country can lodge a complaint with the International Labour Office against another member country which, in its opinion, has not ensured in a satisfactory manner the implementation of a Convention which both of them have ratified. The Governing Body has the option to establish a Commission of Inquiry to examine the issue and present a report on the subject. This process may also be set in motion by the Governing Body itself or on complaint of a delegate to the Conference.
The Commission of Inquiry formulates recommendations on measures to be taken, if necessary. The governments concerned then have three months to accept these recommendations. If they do not, they may submit the case to the International Court of Justice.
If a member State does not comply with the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry or with the decision of the International Court of Justice, within the stipulated time, the Governing Body may "recommend to the Conference such action as it may deem wise and expedient to secure compliance therewith".
The supervisory system of the ILO also includes a standing tripartite committee of the Governing Body responsible for examining complaints concerning freedom of association and the right to organize, rights which have a central place in the ILO Constitution. Since its creation in 1951, this committee has examined over 1,800 cases concerning both employers' and workers' organizations in countries all around the world.
The supervisory mechanisms concerning the application of standards are extremely important. They ensure that the principles, once enunciated, are actually put into effect. In many cases, the regular supervisory procedure, based on the periodic examination of reports by the Committee of Experts and the Conference Committee, has proved to be effective.
Measures taken at the national level to put the Conventions into force are a crucial factor. International labour standards play an important role in the elaboration of national legislation, even in those countries which have not ratified a given Convention. Governments of member countries often refer to the ILO Conventions in questions concerning the adoption of labour laws or modifying existing legislation. The provisions of the standards are used as a basis for establishing national laws. International Labour Conventions thus have an impact which goes well beyond the legal obligations which they engender.
The Recommendations are not subject to ratification. They therefore do not carry the legal requirements of Conventions. They are often adopted at the same time as Conventions dealing with the same subject, which they complement in more detail. Recommendations are aimed at member countries and their goal is to stimulate and guide national programmes in given areas. They have also left their mark on law and practice in countries around the world.
The standard-setting function is the strength of the International Labour Organization. It draws its uniqueness from the constant search for a consensus between public authorities and the principal interested parties, namely employers and workers. The entire process of international labour standards, from their elaboration to the supervision of their application and their promotion is motivated by tripartism, which is a peaceful means of conducting work relations involving the full participation of employers and workers in the decisions which affect them. Governments and employers' and workers' organizations are thus partners in the framework of this unique international organization, the ILO, whose objective is to improve the lot of all people in their work. Standards are the principal means which it puts at their disposal for bringing this about.
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Globalization and Workers' Rights