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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 40
International Labour Standards

Writing the rules of the game – how international labour standards are created

7 June 2023

International labour standards  - Conventions, Recommendations and Protocols - are at the heart of the ILO’s mandate. They play an essential role in creating a level playing field for business and combatting the exploitation of workers. But the global economy is changing faster than ever, and changes in technology, migration and demographics are constantly creating new challenges for regulators. In addition, different countries, with different levels of development, economic systems and cultures, have a wide range of priorities and requirements.

So how are international labour standards created and kept fit for purpose. What topics might they need to address next?



Hello, and welcome to the ILO'S Future of Work podcast.

I'm Sophy Fisher.

In this programme, we're going to take a close look at something

that's at the heart of the ILO's mandate.

That's international labour standards or ILS as we sometimes call them.

ILS have been a cornerstone of the ILO's work

since the organization was founded in 1919.

They play an essential role in countering work-related exploitation and inequality,

creating a level playing field for business, and ensuring

that the global economy delivers benefits for everyone everywhere.

The world of work is changing all the time,

faster now, perhaps, than ever before.

That means that international labour standards

have to change too if they're to stay up to date

and be useful, and they have to do this

while at the same time being relevant for all the ILO's Member States

at whatever level of development or social or economic culture.

That's a pretty tough brief so how is it achieved?

How are labour standards created and kept relevant

and where might they go next?

Well, one person who knows this

very well is Tim De Meyer, Senior Advisor on Standards Policy

in the International Labour Standards Department at the ILO.

Tim, welcome. Thank you for coming.

Thank you, Sophy. A pleasure to be here.

Right. Let's start with some of the basics about ILS.

What are the different types?

Formally speaking, there are three types.

There are international labour Conventions,

which are legally binding, there are international labour Recommendations,

which are not supposed to be legally binding, and then you have

a third type that is occasionally used, protocols that can only be ratified.

They're open for ratification, but it can only be ratified

if the Convention to which they are associated are ratified.

There's currently a list of 190 Conventions on the ILO website,

but not all of them are still live and relevant.

Some of them have been superseded. Is that correct?

That is correct.

It is actually only a minority that is, today, fully considered up to date.

Now, exactly which ones are

and which ones aren't, that is the job of a specific tripartite working group,

the Standards Review Mechanism Tripartite Working Group

that advises the Governing Body to take decisions in that respect.

What is important to note is that on the same subject,

international labour standards have been revised

by the International Labour Conference sometimes several times over time.

The most prominent example,

certainly not the only one, is probably night work for women where in 1919,

we moved from a complete prohibition

of the night work of women to the standard

that we adopted in the early '90s where we considered, accepted

that night work is potentially hazardous, it's somewhat unsocial.

It is not particularly healthy, but for men and women alike,

but where employment opportunities are available to men,

they should also be there for women.

That's a considerable shift in--

That's a good example

of how we have to keep them up to date when social and economic thinking changes.

-Correct. -Right.

Okay, so let's take it back to basics.

Why is it important that we have these international labour standards

and what is their overall purpose?

Because I can see people saying, well,

why should my workplace standards be set by an international body?

They are part of my right to position my country competitively.

Who are you to tell us that we can't open for longer hours

or we have to do this in terms of occupational safety and health,

it may be against my culture.


There's historically two main purposes behind international labour standards.

One is actually to facilitate international trade and investment

because understandably, certain countries will only be

willing to open their markets to goods for a variety of reasons,

to goods and services that are being produced

under decent working conditions, decent labour standards.

The first purpose you could refer to

is often referred to as the level playing field.

The other one is that also internally,

given that international labour standards benchmark

what we call decent work,

it's important that these benchmarks

are clearly articulated and are supported

by those who will actually have

to give effect to them, and these are-- there's two sides of the labour market,

the workers and the employers' organizations.

They're also instruments, if you wish, of economic and social development.

You might say, for example,

if I'm an employer with a factory in one country

and I have a competitor in another country which has lower standards

and perhaps is using children, it's not fair on me because clearly,

they may be not paying those children at all or paying them a lot less

and so my goods are going to be undercut by them

because they're doing things that are deemed to be unacceptable.

Correct, that is perhaps even the most prominent aspect of it,

but there is also the aspect in the country where child labour occurs

is that eventually, if you want to maintain

international peace and stability, everyone has an interest in making sure

that certain exploitative practices are eradicated as soon as possible.

Because, in your example, if this international trade flow

is sustained with these

exploitative practices in place, chances are

that that has in the longer term a destabilizing economic and social

effect on the country where these goods are coming from,

and that is eventually not in the long-term interest of shall we say

the business community more widely, not just any particular employer.

Because you mean if these kids are working,

they're not in school,

-so as you try to move the country -Correct.

up the economic ladder to create more sophisticated products,

-they're not going to have the skill set -Exactly.

because they've been too busy making low-grade products

-and not going to school. -Exactly, exactly.

Right, okay. All right. Let's move on.

Let's talk a little bit about how ILS are created.

Where did the initial ideas come from?

The initial ideas can come from many, many different sources,

but let me give perhaps one example

to the Convention and Recommendation number

189 and 200 and--

200 and something.

-189 is domestic workers, yes? -It's correct.

That's the example of the domestic workers.

The first time that the Conference actually suggested

a potential future standard setting on domestic workers was in 1936,

and that was then followed up by resolutions of the Conference in 1946,

in 1948, and a number of times after that.

Always the idea being that domestic workers, of course,

are a category of workers that very often work,

not just in poor working conditions, but out of social control,

out of the site of social supervision, which are always hidden circumstances as

some of our standards tend to refer to it, so it's by nature a vulnerable group.

What is interesting is that over time and what probably at some point

made the difference in deciding to move towards standard setting

is that domestic workers, in the overall labour market,

have an increasingly important function, and particularly in those countries

where gender equality has been seen

to undergo significant change.

It's very important to help women

access labour market if they can afford indeed,

and if they have domestic work, that will take out of their hands

a certain amount of household responsibilities.

We first started talking about labour standards on domestic work

in the 1930s, and that Convention was finally passed

-by the ILC in-- -In 2011.

Not everything takes that long.

Not everything takes that long, that's correct.

Obviously, there are standards that we are now just recently decided

to be setting in 2025 and 2026.

The standards I'm referring to is on the protection of workers

in the platform economy.

Let's take that as an example.

The first step would be that there'll be some sort of general consensus

among the ILO's membership that work needs to be done in platform economy workers

or in a particular area.

Where would that idea then go?

Would it go to a technical committee

or would it go straight to the Conference or what?

What's the process that it follows?

It very often starts with suggestions that can come up,

for example, through one of the so-called recurrent discussions

at the International Labour Conference.

In the case of the platform economy.

I forget now the exact year, but it must have been 2017, 2018, 2019,

it came up in the discussions,

clearly an issue of great common interest.

There's then a certain amount of research that the office gets into,

that research needs to be examined, can be done typically

by a tripartite technical meeting or a tripartite meeting of experts.

From there it goes potentially, if there is a consensus to do it that way,

to move to the Governing Body, and in the Governing Body,

then a discussion takes place, or indeed, as was the case on this occasion, a vote.

There is a discussion that takes place and that is the moment

when the formal standard-setting process starts.

Very quickly from there, what then happens is

the Governing Body took a decision to devote a double discussion.

That means two discussions

at the 2025 and 2026 Conferences.

You have to have it twice on the floor of the Conference.

It has to be discussed twice

-by the Conference. -Absolutely, and that is in order

to allow not just for due consideration

and proper reflection,

but also to enable 187 Member States

to organize consultations, particularly with representatives

of workers and employers, as to not just whether the standards

are suitable, what exactly would have to go into these standards?

It goes from the Governing Body to discussion at the Conference,

then back to the Governing Body, and then back for a second discussion?

-How does it work? -No, not necessarily.

Once the Governing Body has taken the decision the office prepares

a so-called law and practice report which is

a technical background report with, attached to that, a questionnaire

and it's that questionnaire that governments are going to fill in

and on the basis of which they will hold consultations with workers and employers.

That is sent back to the office, the office summarizes,

and that feeds into the first discussion at the Conference.

The first Conference discussion produces, in principle, conclusions.

These conclusions are the basis for a draft,

whatever instrument has been proposed by the Conference.

That again goes into a national

consultation process, is again summarized,

gives rise to the second discussion, and then hopefully the adoption.

Does it have to be adopted unanimously or by a majority or what?


The Conference adopts international labour standards

by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast, so it is not unanimity.

There are examples of Conventions in the past

that have been adopted with unanimity.

The most recent example clearly was the Worst Forms

of Child Labour Convention, which by now, 20 years, a good 21 years,

actually, after its adoption, was universally ratified.

The first ever ILO Conventions to be universally ratified.

A lot of these topics that are the subject of ILS,

they're quite controversial topics.

I mean, like violence and harassment was the most recent Convention.

I mean, the last-minute negotiations when you're sort of 85%,

90% of the way there, what are those like?

You have to understand that adopting

an international labour standard is a social dialogue process.

Every social dialogue process that is proper and meaningful

takes energy, takes time,

and eventually always focuses on a number of controversial issues.

Maybe I would select another example just to take it into another sphere.

When the Maternity Protection Convention was adopted in 2000,

there was very considerable debate around

whether maternity benefits without which

maternity leave actually doesn't make a lot of sense because, of course,

in the course of maternity women

-need an income. -That's right.

You're not going to take the leave

-if you haven't got any income. -Exactly.

The question is then what is the best way of financing your maternity benefits?

Everyone would readily agree that a social insurance system,

that means pooling the risk of being confronted with women

that are going to take maternity leave, and that will impose

an additional burden on employers to find replacement,

everyone would agree that social insurance would be

the best possible way of organizing that.

However, the reality is that in the world today,

in many countries, the social security system

is not sufficiently developed, and in that case,

many countries have resorted to individual employee liability.

Something that,

particularly on smaller enterprises, of course, imposes a big burden.

There is language in that Convention that eventually represented a compromise,

but that was difficult to reach.

Are we talking two o'clock in the morning

negotiating sessions down to the wire?

That is standard, yes.

It goes into, particularly in the last week,

it goes into the wee hours of the morning.

The World Trade Organization, what do they call it,

into the tunnel or something like that for the last 48 hours?

When everybody's almost locked in a room with curly sandwiches and stale water.

Absolutely. Totally, totally.

You see, of course, it doesn't necessarily represent

decent work for the representatives that are negotiating that,

but the reality is that it is an indication

of the seriousness and the dedication that the many representatives,

in our case, not just governments but also workers have

in coming to a conclusion

that nobody is ever perfectly happy with

-but everyone can live with. -Yes.

Well, that is the purpose of negotiation diplomacy, isn't it?

-Exactly. -You have to compromise.

-Exactly. -Okay.

This is the Future of Work podcast so let's look forward a little bit.

Give us a couple of predictions for

where you see the current activity in ILS.

If you're looking forward a decade, what can we expect do you think?

Well, there is a number of items that, in fact,

a Governing Body has already decided

that shall we say within the next 10 years,

should appear on a Conference agenda for standard-setting purposes.

Three of those, actually four,

are on occupational safety and health once again.

The first one that we will

be tackling in '24/'25 is biological hazards.

That immediately relates, of course, to the pandemic that we are still trying

to get our way out of.

The next occupational safety and health topic will be a partial revision

of standards that we already have on chemical hazards because technology,

including chemical technology continues to evolve.

Another one that we discovered didn't have yet standards on

is ergonomics and manual handling.

We do know

that around the world, for example, musculoskeletal disorders are

a very significant source of injuries and diseases indeed.

Then there is a guarding of machinery.

Now, outside the occupational safety and health area, we will be looking,

I already referred to platform economy.

Yes, to the gig work.

There is not yet a consensus but a considerable interest,

I would say,

in developing some sort of normative guidance

around supply chains, given, of course,

the pressures that globalization unharnessed tends

to put on workers in particular

down the lower levels of supply chains.

Those two are interesting, of course,

particularly because they are, by definition, cross-border.

-Indeed. -A platform worker and supply chains

by definition involve a number of countries.

Correct, and also because, of course, we do not want to forego the benefits

of an open global trading economy, but as I said,

some of these forces need to be harnessed

in order to make sure that, to put it in the language

of the 2030 Development Agenda, that we leave no one behind.

Yes, and we don't devolve down to the lowest common denominator

or race to the bottom, we keep up a standard.

What was the final one you were going to predict for the future?

One issue that is probably significant, it is also looked at

within the wider UN context, is access to justice.

Lack of access to justice is an important source of tension,

can give rise to conflict, and eventually undermines peace,

and therefore, United Nations is obviously concerned about it.

There's significant numbers of people around the world,

we're talking billions, that at this point are estimated

not to have access to justice, and part of that is labour justice.

Of course, the world of work is the ILO's business.

One of the things that we will be looking at

is to see whether we have the sufficient guidance in place to make

sure that states around the world invest sufficiently in dispute settlement.

Of course, one of the ILO's mottos is if you desire peace, cultivate justice.

-Exactly. -Well, of course,

that's said in the original in Latin, but I won't go there.

I think the other one that's actually on the agenda of this upcoming Conference

is apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships is one that directly came out of the,

I referred to it earlier, the Standards Review Mechanism,

which came to the conclusion that we had standards,

particularly Recommendations in the past,

that were no longer considered up to date.

At the same time, particularly in the context of the need

to drive productivity to facilitate a school-to-work transition,

youth employment around the world being higher than for more adult categories,

and the role that quality apprenticeships can play

in making sure that the world also has

a sufficient number of manual labour,

that all contributed to a decision to say maybe we need to have standards.

The first discussion on that took place already last year in 2022,

and hopefully, in 2023, we'll come to a conclusion with

what we understand to be at this point will be a Recommendation.

It's interesting because two of the items that you've mentioned,

apprenticeships applying

to younger workers and ergonomics frequently applying to older workers,

are reflective of one of the issues that's so much talked about now,

which is getting people into the workforce and retaining people in the workforce.

I suppose that's one example of how labour standards are

stepping up to answer some of the social

and economic problems as they emerge in the 21st century.

Yes, correct.

What international labour standards always try to do,

and what makes very often for the difficult negotiations

that we were talking about, is finding the right balance

between labour market flexibility and job security.

That's certainly also the case for the standards

that we were just talking about.

Tim, that was fascinating. Thank you so much.

We could talk about this quite a lot longer,

but I think we have to leave it there.

My thanks very much to you today for joining us.

That was Tim De Meyer from the International

Labour Standards Department at the ILO.

If you'd like to know more about international

labour standards such as, for example,

which countries have ratified which instruments, you can find

loads of information on the ILO'S website about this.

For now, let me wish you goodbye and please join us again soon

for another edition of the Future of Work podcast.