HUMAN RIGHTS, DECENT WORK AND THE ROLE OF LABOUR
STANDARDS IN INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT POLICIES
A concept paper on rights-based thinking, as applied to the ILO's standard-
By Roger Plant
This paper was commissioned by the ILO's Development Policies and Programmes
Department, with the following objectives.
The author was requested to prepare a concept paper on the relevance and practical
implications of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (hence, the
Declaration) for the realization of the concept of "Decent Work", as formulated by the ILO
Director General in his report to the 1999 session of the International Labour Conference. In
particular, he was asked to examine the link between rights at work and the issues of
employment promotion and social progress. In this regard he was requested also to analyse the
relevance of each of the principles and rights comprising the Declaration to the achievement of
the ILO's broader social policy goals, placing this analysis within the framework of current
international debates on a human rights-based approach to social and economic development.
These terms of reference are quite broad, and the author was left free to choose his own
terminology and approach. The paper is not concerned with procedural issues for implementing
the Declaration, and the author has not attempted to familiarise himself with these. Rather it is
concerned with a difficult substantive challenge. How can the narrower vision of the
Declaration (concerned essentially with rights at work) best be reconciled with the broader
vision of Decent Work (concerned with the more global challenges of rights at work,
employment, social protection and social dialogue) through the ILO's public activities directed
towards all key actors on the international stage? And what role can be played in this endeavour
by ILO standards, including their supervision, analytical reporting by reference to them, and
dissemination of this reporting to key international actors? The importance of this wider impact
-on international financial institutions, private sector operators, and also NGOs - has been
highlighted by the ILO Director General in his report on Decent Work.
Though the approach is that of a concept paper, some attention is also given to
operational issues, in particular the way in which a range of ILO standards (and not only those
covered by the Declaration) can be reference points for implementing the concept of Decent
The paper draws on an earlier work prepared by the same author for the ILO's World
Employment Programme in 1993. This was prepared at a time when the ILO was making efforts
to integrate more closely its standard-setting and technical cooperation activities. It was argued
then that the ILO needed to give greater visibility to its international labour standards on the
world stage. At that time, the application of the ILO's numerous standards had been a rather
recondite affair, under its Article 22 supervisory procedures.
The main proposal was to have greater use of thematic reporting on Conventions,
particularly the so-called "promotional" Conventions, utilising and expanding the general
reporting procedures already developed under the Employment Policy Convention. Reports
could identify the positive measures taken by states to give effect to the provisions of
Conventions, but also emphasise obstacles to implementing the Conventions. The model was to
use this material as a framework for more comprehensive and more thematic analysis on issues
deemed to be of major current importance. Employment policy was seen as an obvious
candidate for a regular, perhaps annual, report. But employment services, human resources
development, rural workers and development, social policy and social security were identified
among the many issues that would seem to merit regular treatment on the above basis.
This earlier study was written at a time when certain labour standards were widely under
attack by labour economists, seen as comprising rigidities and distortions to efficient labour
market functioning. These became controversial issues in the context of structural adjustment
programmes. Notably the World Bank was at that time giving more attention to labour market
issues in its policy dialogue with governments, seeking inter alia to promote wage flexibility
and remove barriers to labour mobility1. And in the context of rising unemployment in industrial
Europe, the IMF was also arguing that "well-meaning efforts to protect the unemployed and
people in insecure and low-paying jobs have actually been adding to labour market rigidities"2.
The earlier study thus argued that thematic reporting on the application of standards
would be most useful, in those areas where policies were being intensely debated. It could be of
particular importance on issues where there were calls for reforming those areas of labour law
and institutions which were covered by existing ILO instruments. Moreover, the ILO needed to
show a willingness to engage in open debate with other agencies, confronting the arguments that
there are trade-offs between labour standards and development. It was argued moreover that -
despite continuing criticisms of labour standards as rigidities -the recent emphasis on
governance was now leading to a renewed understanding of the role of labour institutions in
development. It was thus vital that the ILO should influence future thinking on governance and
the enabling environment for development, in accordance with the principles of social justice.
One way to achieve this would be to encourage constructive criticism and informed debate,
identifying specific areas where the major policy approaches of other international organisations
may conflict with existing ILO standards. A more thematic approach to reporting on standards
would certainly facilitate informed debates of this kind.
As the report concluded, the main message was that the ILO had everything to gain from
an outward-looking approach, which critically examines its standards and their impact, sharing
its information with other actors in the development process.
Since this study was written, much water has passed under the bridge. First, the 1998
For example Arvil Van Adams et al., The World Bank's Treatment of Employment and
Labour Market Issues, World Bank Technical Paper No. 177, Washington DC, June 1992.
Speech of IMF Director Michel Camdessus to annual meeting of IMF and World Bank,
cited in IMF Survey, 11 October 1993.
Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work has had a huge impact on the ILO's
public image. Increasingly, the ILO and its mandate are identified by policy actors in the outside
world with the seven core labour standards covered by the Declaration. This has many positive
implications for the ILO and its influence. But it also raises questions, as to how the ILO can
successfully promote the Declaration without correspondingly reducing the attention given to
other standards, notably those in the areas of employment and social protection, which have
always been a vital part of its overall mandate.
Second, the 1995 World Social Summit has presented new opportunities for the ILO,
and also posed new challenges. Once again, the Summit's Declaration and Programme of Action
place much emphasis on the seven core labour standards covered by the Declaration. But they
also highlight the goal of full employment, placing the promotion of appropriately and
adequately remunerated employment at the centre of strategies and policies of Governments.
Moreover, the Summit reinforces the concept of "rights-based" approaches to development,
reaffirming that all human rights are universal and indivisible, including the right to
development as a universal and inalienable right.
Third, the attempts to incorporate labour standards within trade agreements have
gathered pace, culminating most recently in the difficult discussions at the November 1999
WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle. Of the "new issues" on the negotiating agenda, that of
labour standards proved to be perhaps the most controversial. The ILO's Declaration to a large
extent had its genesis in earlier debates on the possible inclusion of a social clause in
international trade agreements. WTO discussions have now served to give the Declaration a
huge amount of prominence, making it the centrepiece of international discussions on the
concept of core labour standards.
Fourth, the concept of a "rights-based" approach to development has now taken off in a
big way, among both multilateral and bilateral donors. Of the multilateral donors, the United
Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been a leader in this area. Of the bilateral
donors, the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) is a prominent
example. Since the UK government officially endorsed a rights-based approach to development,
it has grappled with ways to implement this at both the programme and policy level. The issue
of core labour standards, and labour standards more generally, has been an important aspect of
this discussion. A UK government policy paper on labour standards and development was in
draft form at the time of writing. Other governments, including the Danish International
Development Agency (DANIDA), have also given more attention to labour standards and rights
in their development programming in recent years. It can be anticipated that this trend will grow
in international donor policies over the coming decade, drawing yet more international attention
to the ILO's labour standards and their application.
Fifth and most importantly, the ILO has now issued its blueprint for its future strategy,
in the form of Decent Work, the Director General's report to the 1999 session of the
International Labour Conference. In the area of human rights and labour standards, Decent Work
examines how best to implement the Declaration, but it goes much further than this. It makes a
courageous effort to give the ILO and its core mandate more prominence on the world stage, by
streamlining and refining its message, and insisting on the relevance of all future activities to
this basic mandate. And in doing this it gives due attention to the ILO's labour standards
activities , to their role and purpose, to past shortcomings in their supervision, and to ways in
which they could now have more influence on the formulation of social policy worldwide. In
other words, it represents a determined effort to place the ILO's normative principles more
squarely on the international agenda, as a driving force of its policy interventions.
The approach taken towards labour standards in Decent Work has much in common
with this author's earlier work on labour, standards, employment and development. It throws out
some important challenges for the ILO's work on standards. It wants the standards to be known
more widely, to be assessed critically in accordance with evolving economic and labour market
circumstances, and to be benchmarks for social policy initiatives outside the ILO itself.
Moreover, Decent Work clearly envisages reforms to the existing supervisory mechanisms. The
present Article 22 reporting system is seen as burdensome for governments, and often failing to
distinguish between serious issues and matters of detail. The proposals thus seek to make ILO
standards and their supervision as relevant as possible to global debates and policy thinking on
key issues of employment and social policy, social protection and dialogue, amongst others.
The present paper thus aims to adapt the author's earlier work on human rights, labour
standards and development to the present climate and context, both in global terms and within
the ILO itself. It is written largely as context paper, but also puts forth some proposals as to how
the implementation of both the Declaration and the concept of Decent Work could be adapted to
current thinking on rights-based approaches to development.
The paper is structured as follows. The next section summarises some of the main
challenges with which the ILO may now be faced in this area. The paper then reviews some
thinking and policy on rights-based approaches to development, as considered relevant to the
ILO's own activities. This sets the stage for a review of ILO approaches to human rights and
labour standards, examining some changes over time. A next section examines how ILO
standards - and particularly core labour standards - are now being used in international
development policies, whether by governments or the private sector. A final section analyses
both the Declaration and the concept of Decent Work by reference to rights-based thinking, also
discussing the implications for the application of ILO standards more generally. Some proposals
are also made for future action by the ILO, mainly in the area of analytical reporting on labour
2. THE CONCEPT OF CORE LABOUR STANDARDS: BASIC DILEMMAS
After many years of deliberation, the ILO has now given formal content to the concept
of core labour standards. These are the standards equated with fundamental human rights,
which any state should be accepted to apply whatever its degree of poverty or wealth, whatever
its level of economic and social development, and whatever its political system.
This concept has its origins in the longstanding debates concerning fair labour standards
in international trade, and first received global endorsement at the World Summit for Social
Development in 1995. Within the ILO, it received formal recognition in the 1998 Declaration of
Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The follow-up to the Declaration is now being
keenly watched worldwide.
The succinct formulation of core labour standards represents significant advantages for
the ILO and its mission for the protection of workers worldwide. For decades the ILO has been
striving to make its standards relevant to global debates on social policy, and in particular to
place them on the agenda of the Bretton Woods institutions. To a large extent this can now be
seen as achieved. The OECD's 1996 study on Trade, Employment and Labour Standards3
(currently being updated) uses the concept, based mainly on the labour rights covered by the
ILO Declaration. It argues moreover that the concerns expressed by certain developing countries
- that core standards would negatively affect their economic performance or international
competitive position - are unfounded. The World Bank, so notoriously sceptical about the
"rigidities" of labour market institutions at one stage of its adjustment policies, now seems
increasingly willing to take the concept of core labour standards on board. Labour standards are
now being addressed as part of its social policy principles. And, despite ongoing reservations as
to whether certain standards can be justified on economic grounds, labour standards are now
figuring more prominently in social assessment.
Moreover, bilateral donor agencies are now keen to incorporate core labour standards
within their development policy and programmes. The United Kingdom is one example. Core
labour standards were endorsed in its 1997 White Paper on International Development. A
number of steps have been taken since then to promote fundamental labour rights, most
particularly addressing child labour through the ILO's IPEC programme and elsewhere. Core
labour standards have also been endorsed through investment programmes or public contracts,
and initiatives have been taken to seek the support of private companies through ethical trading
initiatives. Moreover, the United Kingdom Department for International Development has
recently commissioned a study, to refine its strategy for applying core labour standards
throughout its international development programme4.
Yet the highly visible impact of core standards and the Declaration, evident in the
degree of acceptance that they have already received in other international organizations, does
pose a challenge for the ILO. The Declaration is increasingly likely to become the "public
image" of the ILO. How can it promote these standards in the most visible way possible,
without implicitly undermining other Conventions, Declarations and policy instruments to
which it has attached major importance in the past? Or to put it more positively, what additional
steps can it take to place these other Conventions on international and national policy agendas,
either through the Declaration or independently of it?
It is important to address these issues for at least two basic reasons.
First, all of the ILO's resources, including its standard-setting instruments, have always
had two complementary goals. One is to protect workers. The other is to create the enabling
environment for full, productive and freely chosen employment, and to safeguard the vulnerable
through adequate social protection. These wider goals were first spelled out in the 1944
Trade, Employment and Labour Standards: A Study of Core Workers' Rights and
International Trade, OECD, 1996.
Sarah Ladbury and Stephen Gibbons, "Core Labour Standards: Key Issues and a
Proposal for a Strategy", consultancy report submitted to United Kingdom Department for
International Development, January 2000.
Declaration of Philadelphia. They were recently reaffirmed in comprehensive fashion in Decent
Work, the Director-General's report to the 1999 International Labour Conference.
Second, the ILO has an immense responsibility - including a historical one - for
pursuing a balanced approach to the economic and social rights that comprise the essence of its
mandate. Rights-based thinking is now pervading development policy at all levels. And the ILO
- which played such an important role in drafting the United Nations International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - of course needs to seek the integral application of all
those rights in the Covenant which respond to its own mandate. The ILO's mandate in these
areas has again been reaffirmed by the World Social Summit, its Declaration and Follow-up. It
is accepted wisdom within the United Nations system that all human rights are indivisible and
of equal importance. This obviously calls for concerted efforts by the ILO to promote the rights
to employment and social security or protection.
As is explicit in Decent Work, and perhaps more implicit in the Declaration, there has
been no intention to establish any "hierarchy of rights" within the ILO. The four strategic
objectives cover all areas of ILO activity, and provide its central message. And while the
Conventions covered by the Declaration deal directly only with "rights at work", its preamble
stresses the linkage between social progress and economic growth. It also emphasises that the
ILO itself should draw on all its resources to ensure that, in the context of a global strategy for
economic and social development, economic and social policies are mutually reinforcing
components in order to create broad-based sustainable development.
Thus the issue for the future is how best to work towards the four over-arching strategic
objectives for the ILO, some of them at national level, others at international level. And a key
question is whether or how international labour standards on employment, human resources and
social policies (existing ones, and possible future ones) could be made more relevant to the
global pursuit of social objectives. How can some basic ILO principles and lessons be placed on
international development agendas, in the same way that the core labour standards of the
Declaration now enjoy widespread international acceptance.
3. A RIGHTS-BASED APPROACH TO DEVELOPMENT: THE CONCEPT AND
Concept of a rights-based approach to development
A rights-based approach to development can mean different things. It can mean that the
very concept of development, understood as integral human development, should be construed
as the realisation of human rights. Rights are thus put forward as the goals of any development
policy. And as international human rights instruments cover an ever broader range of issues, an
increasing number of goals and objectives can be framed in the language of human rights. In
this sense, the commitment to policy measures in terms of rights has been seen as a useful
vehicle for increasing government accountability to their citizens.
A paper prepared for the United Kingdom's Department for International Development,
which has officially rights-based development thinking, sees a human rights approach to
development from this holistic perspective5. A human rights approach is seen as poverty-
oriented, addressing the structural inequities that cause impoverishment. The aim is to use
human rights principles and legal norms as a "coherent framework for concrete action to
eliminate poverty and to achieve sustainable improvement in the quality of life of the poor and
socially isolated". It is seen as complementing existing models and theories of development - for
example the entitlements and capability approach which looks at the problem of poverty from
the perspective of the poor - by placing an emphasis on choices for people and solutions in
terms of the steps to be taken to achieve human rights and thereby development. Finally, it is
seen as an approach which "requires a revitalisation of economic, social and cultural rights, and
a recognition of their equal priority with civil and political rights". In summary, this more
comprehensive vision of a rights-based approach "uses thinking about human rights as the
scaffolding of development policy"6.
Alternatively, human rights can be seen as one of the sectoral areas deserving support.
As part of support for democratisation and improved governance, development assistance can
aim to strengthen an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, an independent media, and
independent human rights organisations. Support for labour institutions, both support for
independent worker organizations and an adequate supervisory mechanism of labour
administration, can be part of this package.
Third, human rights can be seen as a cross-cutting issue in development. Their
achievement may not be seen as a specific goal of development, but can be a key reference point
for any policy or approach. As with gender, human rights can be mainstreamed in this way. The
range of human rights instruments can provide important benchmarks for social policy
objectives, both "positive" and "negative". The emphasis on participation and empowerment in
the development process - as brought out so strongly in the 1995 World Social Summit -
exemplifies this aspect of "rights in development".
In any event, the recent emphasis on rights-based approaches has revivified some rather
old debates about the nature of human rights, and as to which rights if any should be accorded
priority when linkages are drawn between human rights and development policy. These issues
need to be examined briefly, in that they are of much relevance to the use that can be made of
international labour standards in development policy.
Categories of rights: civil and political, economic, social and cultural
Debates continue to take place as to whether some human rights are more "fundamental"
than others? Is there a hierarchy of rights? Is the realisation of some human rights a precondition
for the effective enjoyment of others? Much has been written about the different nature of civil
and political rights on the one hand; and economic, social and cultural rights on the other. While
Julia Hausermann, A Human Rights Approach to Development, Discussion Paper
commissioned by the United Kingdom Department for International Development, Rights and
Humanity, London, 1998.
"What can we do with a rights-based approach to development?", Overseas
Development Institute, Briefing Paper, 1999(3), September.
no distinction is made between different concepts of rights in the 1948 Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, different covenants were adopted on the two sets of rights by the United Nations
General Assembly in 1966. There has been much discussion since then as to whether these two
sets of rights are intrinsically different in nature, and why. Civil and political rights can be seen
as absolute and capable of implementation by any state whatever its level of economic and
social development; and economic and social rights as more promotional or "aspirational",
requiring resources and investment for their adequate realisation. Distinctions are sometimes
drawn between "costly" and "costless" rights for the state.
The distinction between two sets of rights is often seen as an unfortunate one, which
caused the human rights issue to become something of an ideological battleground in the late
Cold War period. The West championed civil liberties, using the human rights banner as part of
the pressure for liberal democratisation elsewhere. The communist bloc placed its emphasis on
economic and social rights, as linked to a fairer distribution of global resources. "Human rights
begins with breakfast" became the favoured slogan of some developing country governments,
who argued that a new international economic order was a prerequisite for the adequate
realisation of human rights.
Thus prominent international labour lawyer Nicolas Valticos has argued that the
subdivision between different sets of rights "can only be termed regrettable because, in truth,
human rights consist of rights relating to both categories, and no essential difference exists
between them. On the contrary, the two categories of rights should be inextricably linked since,
just as a person does not live on bread alone, neither does he or she live on fresh air alone"7.
The drafting of the two United Nations human rights covenants took place mainly in the
early 1950s, though they were adopted by the General Assembly until 1966. By this time the
ILO had already adopted over a hundred labour conventions, including those related to forced
labour, freedom of association and collective bargaining, equal remuneration and the protection
of wages, as well as a large number of sectoral conventions. According to one expert on the
subject, the ILO originally opposed the detailed elaboration of economic and social rights in a
United Nations human rights instrument, on the ground that this would involve overlap with
international labour conventions: but later changed its stance, and played a central role in
drafting the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(ESCR Covenant) which were considered to relate to its core mandate8. The ILO itself was
particularly involved in drafting the provisions of the ESCR Covenant related to the right to
work; the right to just and favourable conditions of work; the right to form trade unions, and to
join the trade union of one's choice; and the right of everyone to social security, including social
The rights to employment, to fair conditions of work and social security are thus
internationally recognised human rights. In theory, they are on the same footing in international
Nicolas Valticos, "International labour standards and human rights: Approaching the
year 2000", in International Labour Review, Vol. 137 (1998), No. 2.
Philip Alston, "Prevention versus cure as a human rights strategy", in Development,
Human Rights and the Rule of Law, International Commission of Jurists, 1981.
law as individual freedoms, to freedom of expression, conscience and association. Yet there has
never been much clarity, as to the practical implications of recognising these social goals in the
language of human rights. Among public opinion at large, at least in the industrialised countries,
the prevailing view still seems to be that civil and political freedoms are the most fundamental
human rights, in that they are innate human guarantees subject to violation by repressive state
Moreover the implementation machinery for the two United Nations covenants suggest
that, even though all human rights may be indivisible and of equal importance, they are
nevertheless different in nature. A state that becomes a party to the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights (CPR Covenant) is under an immediate obligation to comply with its
provisions. States parties can take measures departing from their obligations in exceptional
circumstances, such as a public emergency that threatens the life of the nation. However, there
can be no derogation from a number of the CPR Covenant's articles, covering for example: the
right to life; the right not to be subject to torture; the right not to be held in slavery or servitude;
the right not to be convicted through retrospective application of the law; and the rights to
freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Thus an official United Nations text on the subject
observes that a reason why two separate covenants were adopted was because civil and political
rights could be secured immediately, whereas adequate economic, social and cultural rights
could be achieved only progressively according to each State's available resources9.
Such wisdom has now been widely challenged, by legal scholars and economists. Some
of the rights covered by the ESCR Covenant are clearly capable of immediate application
without real costs to the State. An example is trade union freedoms. Many of the rights in the
ESCR Covenant can be attained through redistributive measures such as land reform or more
progressive taxation. Conversely, as recent experience has shown in developing countries and
transitional economies, it can be a costly process to establish an enabling environment for the
full realisation of civil and political rights. A functioning judiciary to underpin the rule of law,
and regular democratic elections, can involve significant investment and choice over scarce
It is still the case that the provision of universal primary education, or an inclusive
system of social protection, will require resources beyond the reach of many developing
countries today. So the realisation of economic and social rights in the poorest countries has to
be - as it increasingly is - linked to the question of overseas assistance. In all countries however,
an important issue at stake is the allocation of existing resources and the State's role in this area.
As observed by the principal human rights adviser to the Government of Sweden, "The
controversy is of course about the role of the State. Those who prefer a small government tend
to have problems with economic and social rights and be satisfied with "negative" liberties only.
They may welcome social security, employment, education, health care and an adequate
standard of living for all, but still feel that the authorities should not be obliged to ensure these
United Nations Action in the Field of Human Rights, United Nations, New York, 1980.
Thomas Hammarberg, "The Principles and Politics of Human Rights", Dorab Patel
Memorial Lecture, London School of Economics and Political Science, February 1999.
Revitalising economic and social rights: the concept of the Right to Development
Since the two UN human rights covenants entered into force in 1976, the United Nations
has tried to promote the importance of economic and social rights. It was in the 1970s that
influential donor governments first began to impose negative conditionalities on their aid and
development programmes, restricting or denying assistance to governments deemed to violate
internationally recognised human rights. At this stage, the emphasis was primarily on civil and
political rights. Developing countries in the meantime were pressing for a new international
economic order, including access to more financial and technical assistance from the
industrialised world, and more access to their markets.
It was in this context that as of the late 1970s the United Nations embarked on a series
of studies on the national, regional and international dimensions of the right to development,
leading to the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development in 1986. Some of
the key practical objectives of the right to development approach induced: formal international
recognition of the role of human rights in the development process; recognition of the
indivisibility of the two sets of rights; recognising the concept of participation as an essential
human right; relating human rights to the policies and programmes of the international financial
institutions; and increasing aid flows from North to South. It also aimed to shape an effective
international role in promoting the integration of human rights and development activities at the
The concept of the right to development - at least as embodied in the Declaration on the
subject - has remained ambiguous. As one prominent international lawyer observes, its
significant contribution is to reflect the idea of entitlement and corresponding duties,
particularly of States. Yet it "fails almost completely to give structure and content to the concept
of economic justice", nor is anything said about specific strategies for achieving economic
justice12. Arguably, this reflects the particular time and circumstances during which the text of
the Declaration on the Right to Development was negotiated. The concept may have had its
genesis in developing country demands for capital and technology transfers. But in the structural
adjustment era of the early 1980s - when demands for fiscal austerity and reduced public
expenditure were so much part of development policy agendas - there was limited scope in an
instrument of this kind for espousing expansionary public policies at either national or
A rights-based approach to development, including the importance of the right to
development, were endorsed by the World Social Summit. This affirmed in its programme of
action that "It is essential for social development that all human rights and fundamental
freedoms, including the right to development as an integral part of fundamental human rights,
be promoted and protected" through a range of actions. The Summit once again affirmed that all
Philip Alston, "Revitalising United Nations work on human rights and development", in
Melbourne University Law Review, Vol. 18, December 1991.
Professor Ian Brownlie, "The Human Right to Development", Study prepared for the
Commonwealth Secretariat, London, November 1989.
human rights, including the right to development, are "universal, indivisible, interdependent and
interrelated". A specific commitment was "Promotion of the realization of the right to
development through strengthening democracy, development and respect for human rights and
fundamental freedoms and through effective development policies at the national level, as well
as equitable economic relations and a favourable economic environment at the international
level, since sustained action is indispensable for fostering a more rapid development of
developing countries". The concept of the right to development thus continues to enjoy political
support in international fora, strengthening the emphasis on economic and social rights in their
national and international dimensions.
The concept of a rights-based approach to development, perhaps still in its early stages
of formulation, needs to be appraised critically. What "value-added" is provided, over and above
the basic needs and human needs approaches that have placed their emphasis on people-centred,
participatory and also redistributive models? A recent assessment by the UK's Overseas
Development Institute13 observed that the debates on the two sets of rights are "far from
settled", but suggests that a number of working principles can be put forward. They include the
following. It is legitimate and worthwhile to take a comprehensive approach to human rights,
including both civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights. States have the duty
to respect and help promote rights, even if all they can do is make a start with progressive
realisation. Because rights are universal, the wider international community has at least a moral
duty to support rights, including financially, in partnership with states. The moral obligation
may extend to non-state actors, particularly international financial institutions, transnational
companies and NGO's. This review concludes that a rights-based approach does overlap to a
considerable extent with the priorities of a poverty reduction or human development approach.
The value-added lies particularly in the fact that a rights-based approach provides a legal basis
for basic needs advocacy, and identifies legal mechanisms for public service accountability.
All of this provides some basis for examining the ILO's emerging approach to human
rights and development, in particular the linkage between its normative activities and the
realisation of economic, social and cultural rights.
4. INTERNATIONAL LABOUR STANDARDS, HUMAN RIGHTS AND
DEVELOPMENT: PAST EXPERIENCE
The ILO has had a very clear mandate to influence social policy worldwide. Under the
ILO Constitution it is its responsibility to consider all economic and financial policies and
measures in the light of the fundamental objective of ensuring the material well-being and
spiritual development of all human beings.
To what extent have ILO standards been used, as a benchmark for influencing global
economic and social policies? Many might argue that this has not been the purpose of
"What can we do with a rights-based approach to development?", Op. cit., as above.
international labour standards in themselves. Most standards are highly technical. Few of the
standards have a short, sharp message that can be translated easily into a central message of
social and economic policy. The ILO has had other instruments and mechanisms for achieving
this. A key moment was of course the 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia, whose emphasis on
economic and social security greatly extended the ILO's original mandate. As has been
observed, this was eventually translated into attempts to influence structural adjustment and
stabilization policies during recent crisis periods14. And it was the Declaration of Principles and
Programme of Action of the 1976 World Employment Conference that really oriented the ILO's
future employment programme, in particular its basic needs approach to employment and
development over the next decade. Other declarations can be seen as of most relevance to
particular sectoral concerns. For example the 1977 Tripartite Declaration of Principles
concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy is generally seen as the main instrument
whereby the ILO can encourage the positive contribution of multinational enterprises to
economic and social progress.
The regular application of ILO standards has for the most part been seen as a bilateral
process or dialogue between the ILO supervisory organs and the governments concerned, with
the participation of the social partners. There have also been complaints and representation
procedures, used rather sparingly in the first 75 years though - at least in the case of
representations - more frequently in recent years. Some efforts have nevertheless been made to
use ILO standards to promote broader social policy objectives. This has been mainly by
reference to "fundamental human rights" standards in the case of trade issues; and the
Employment Policy Convention, No. 122 of 1964, in the case of adjustment and stabilization
Here we are concerned with two main issues. First, which of the standards have been
classified as fundamental human rights standards, and to what purpose and in what context?
Second, what practical use has been made of these or other ILO standards to influence social
ILO Standards and the concept of fundamental human rights
When the ILO was created, it was probably never envisaged that it would adopt as many
as 180 separate standards in the first 80 years of its existence. This sets the ILO apart from the
United Nations and all of its other specialized agencies. An advantage is the richness and
diversity of its jurisprudence, to guide labour and other social legislation in individual countries.
The possible disadvantage is that the process can become mechanical, with a new standard or
standards being adopted at almost every session of the annual Conference, and making it
increasingly difficult to derive basic principles from this vast gamut of international labour
legislation. The burgeoning number of standards can lead to a predictable decline in the rate of
new ratifications, and the supervisory machinery can become bogged down under its own
weight. These concerns - as will be seen later - have been amply reflected in Decent Work.
Eddy Lee, "The Declaration of Philadelphia: Retrospect and prospect", in International
Labour Review, Vol. 133, No. 4, 1994.
Until the mid 1990s, there had never been any truly formal distinction between different
categories of standards. Various typologies were attempted over the years, for example between
"fundamental human rights" standards, promotional instruments, sectoral and technical
Conventions, and others.
Thus the terms human rights or human rights instruments have been used somewhat
flexibly over the years. Almost three decades ago, in response to a Conference call for the co-
ordination of the ILO's human rights activities into a concerted programme, its field of action in
human rights was defined as covering freedom of association, freedom of labour, elimination of
discrimination and promotion of equality of opportunity, the right to work, the right to a
minimum income, the right to social security, the right to adequate conditions of work and life,
and participation of individuals in measures to promote and safeguard human rights. In other
words, virtually all areas of activity. A decade ago, the Director-General's report on human
rights to the Conference covered freedom of association, equal opportunity and treatment, the
right to full and freely chosen employment, the right to just and favourable remuneration, the
right to just and favourable conditions of work, and the right to social security.
Altogether, the ILO has prided itself as being the oldest of the United Nations agencies
concerned with human rights, and as pioneering many of the human rights - in particular
economic and social rights - recognised in universal standards. As observed in one ILO
publication, "Where human rights are concerned, the contribution of ILO standards has been
immense. Initially, these standards helped to secure recognition from 1919 onwards of the
importance of economic and social rights as an integral part of human rights....The entire
standard-setting work of the ILO has sought to bring out the complementary aspect of the two
main categories of human rights, economic and social rights on the one hand and civil and
political rights on the other"15.
There has nevertheless been a tendency to distinguish between basic and fundamental
human rights Conventions on the one hand, and more promotional instruments on the other. The
argument, reflecting some distinctions in the two United Nations human rights covenants, is that
the former are capable of immediate application in full, while resources can be required for the
realisation of the latter. The explanation is given in a 1991 general survey by the Committee of
Experts on the application of Conventions on human resource development: "When it
introduced the concept of "promotional Conventions" a few years ago, the Committee used the
term to describe a number of Conventions which, rather than laying down precise standards
which a State binds itself to apply on ratification, set objectives to be attained by means of a
continuing programme of action....becoming a party to this type of Convention does not imply
that all of the prescribed objectives have already been achieved or must be achieved in the
immediate future, but involves a commitment to implement them gradually by adopting
appropriate policies, attitudes and measures...the designation of a Convention as promotional in
no way implies that it is not a legal instrument containing concrete obligations"16.
The Impact of International Labour Conventions and Recommendations, ILO, 1976.
Human Resources Development: Vocational guidance and training, paid educational
leave, International Labour Conference, 78th. Session, 1991.
The concept of fundamental human rights standards has of course been most important
in the context of demands for fair labour standards in international trade agreements. Within the
ILO this was first discussed quite extensively in the 1970s. It first became a major issue during
the negotiation of the second Lome Convention between the then European Economic
Community and developing countries, under which it was originally proposed that trade benefits
should be subject to the observance of certain international labour standards. At that time, at the
Commission's request, the ILO prepared a draft drawing on a number of ILO instruments and
also the United Nations ESCR Covenant. The ILO then put forward a broad range of standards,
considered to be relevant to the commodities involved in international trade. They covered non-
discrimination, employment and its free choice, working and living conditions, occupational
health and safety, employment of children and young persons, social security, industrial
relations and labour protection17.
A distinction between fundamental human rights Conventions and others was approved
by the ILO Governing Body in 1994. This formalised the status as fundamental human rights
instruments of Conventions now covered by the declaration, in the areas of freedom of
association and collective bargaining, forced labour, discrimination and equality of rights, and
child labour. Other instruments were now classified as priority Conventions, including the
Employment Policy Convention (No. 122), and Conventions on labour administration and
tripartism. In practice, this affected mainly the regularity with which Government reports had to
be issued under the Article 22 procedure of the Constitution, for examination by the Committee
of Experts. The supervisory mechanisms were considered to be overburdened. The new
classifications permitted reports under other Conventions to be made only once every five years,
unless requests were otherwise made by the Committee of Experts. Thus the new procedures
could streamline an excess of routine. It clarified the Conventions to which the ILO attached
particular importance. Otherwise, circumstances and the degree of problems detected could
determine the use of the supervisory procedure.
ILO standards and social policy objectives
ILO procedures and regulations, including its Constitution and the 1944 Declaration of
Philadelphia, have never spelled out the purpose of different standard-setting instruments.
Article 19 of the Constitution recognises that the Conference should have regard to national
differences in the framing of Conventions and Recommendations. The Declaration of
Philadelphia - though expanding the ILO's mandate to cover issues of poverty and social justice,
including international policies of an economic or financial character - does not relate these new
challenges to the ILO's standard-setting work. In practice however, much of the ILO's standard-
setting in the postwar decades was related to such
issues as employment and social policy, social protection, human resources development, and
special protection for indigenous and tribal minorities.
The purpose of international labour standards has been discussed by Professor Nicolas
Valticos, a leading specialist in the area and former Chief of the ILO's International Labour
Human Rights-A Common Responsibility, Report of the Director-General, International
Labour Conference, 1988.
Standards Department18. Valticos finds that the main ideas advanced in favour of international
conventions in the field of labour are: international competition; social justice; the consolidation
of peace; the social and human objectives of economic development; international movement of
workers and goods; consolidation of national labour legislation; and a source of inspiration for
national action. In the social and economic area, the function of international labour standards is
to "promote balanced economic and social progress and to contribute the necessary element of
precision to international action for social development".
This latter objective has been proclaimed by many occasions by the ILO, but apparently
proved difficult to render operational. A mid 1970s assessment of the impact of ILO
Conventions and Recommendations claimed that ILO standards had influenced international
activities in the fields of human rights, social policy and development policy, but provided little
in the way of practical examples19. In his report on international labour standards to the 1984
Conference, the Director-General urged that the "ILO's standard-setting activities should also
command the attention of the other international agencies especially those responsible for
economic, financial or monetary questions such as the International Monetary Fund and the
World Bank"20. Yet when the ILO convened a high-level meeting on employment and structural
adjustment three years later - an ideal opportunity to familiarise the Bretton Woods institutions
with its standard-setting framework, as relevant to these issues - there was no mention of
standards in the background documentation prepared for the meeting21. Despite the efforts of
the Committee of Experts (see below), standards on employment and social protection never
became a major part of the policy dialogue between the ILO and the Bretton Woods institutions.
Application of the Employment Policy Convention
Of the "promotional" instruments, the Employment Policy Convention has tended to
enjoy special treatment by the Committee of Experts. As one of the ILO's most widely ratified
Conventions, it was also one whose application at the national level - at least in the case of
developing countries - was most likely to be affected by international policies and factors. Thus,
apart from its bilateral dialogue with ratifying member States, began to include general
comments in its annual report on the application of this Convention22. More recently, the same
procedure was applied to other Conventions, including those on labour inspection and some of
the fundamental human rights instruments.
Professor N. Valticos, International Labour Law, Kluwer, The Netherlands, 1979.
The Impact of International Labour Conventions and Recommendations, ILO, Geneva,
Report of the Director-General, International Labour Conference, 70th. Session, 1984.
Background Document, High-Level Meeting on Employment and Structural
Adjustment, November 1987, WEP 2-46-04-03 (Doc.2).
See generally, Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions
and Recommendations: General Report and Observations concerning Particular Countries
(annual report submitted to the International Labour Conference).
While the Committee of Experts' general comments over the years cannot be reviewed
in any detail here, they clearly provided some important elements of jurisprudence on economic
and social rights. While drawing on country reports, they also made a series of observations on
international factors, including ways in which the ILO should pursue its dialogue with the
Bretton Woods institutions by reference to the goals of full employment.
Over the past decade the ILO has also pursued its advocacy on employment, and its
dialogue with other institutions, by a variety of different means. One has been to issue an annual
World Employment Report, covering different thematic issues, as the ILO's main public policy
contribution on the issue. Another has been to establish a Governing Body Committee on
Employment, again to formulate basic policy recommendations with the involvement of the
normal social partners.
However, the logic of a rights-based approach would be that the ILO's main reference
point for its advocacy on full employment should be its Employment Policy Convention. From
his earlier experience regarding the technical application of this Convention, this author knows
that Government reporting on its application can generate a wealth of information, concerning
new approaches to employment, training and retraining measures, adaption to new technologies,
statistical information, and often the implications of international policies and the environment
for national employment policies.
Yet the ILO has not so far found the means to digest and disseminate this information,
and place the findings on national and international policy agendas. And a key recommendation
of Decent Work is that the ILO should now find the means of achieving this, through a rather
different approach to the application of standards. This point will be taken up again in the final
5. ILO STANDARDS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT POLICIES
Over the past decade, considerable strides have been made in placing ILO standards on
the agenda of international development policies and programmes. This is true not only for
public sector initiatives, whether multilateral or bilateral. It is also the case for the private, with
multinationals increasingly concerned to demonstrate that their investments promote economic
and social development in the South and are consistent with internationally recognised human
rights. The proliferation of private sector codes of conduct, many of which make explicit
reference to ILO standards, are an indication of this trend.
So which of the ILO's principles and standards are seen as most relevant here? To what
extent is the emphasis on core labour standards, or on wider groups of standards covering
health and safety concerns, or issues of employment promotion and social protection?
Of the multilateral institutions, the World Bank has of late given much attention to
labour standards and development. An earlier study for the ILO by the present author23, on the
basis of interviews with World Bank labour specialists in 1993, observed that labour standards
were simply not included within the World Bank's analytical framework on governance issues.
The overriding tendency had still been to see labour market institutions as rigidities, and certain
aspects of protective labour legislation were consistently opposed if they were seen as providing
major constraints to a favourable business environment. The main concerns in this respect were
with regulations on wage fixing, job security, and government monopolies on recruitment and
dismissals. Yet it was also observed that the World Bank's concern with industrial relations,
including the most appropriate systems of collective bargaining, were growing; and that greater
attention was likely to be paid to the role of labour institutions in adjustment and development.
Moreover, although labour market reforms were often a key aspect of the World Bank's country
dialogue with member countries, the study detected little evidence that labour law conditionality
involved derogation from ratified ILO Conventions. It nevertheless observed that some
countries were being required to amend their labour laws or systems of social protection, by
criteria that appeared to differ from those in the ILO's social philosophy. The study thus pointed
to the need for a comprehensive statement on principles to be taken into account in the design of
adjustment programmes, based not only on the ILO's basic human rights Conventions but also
on those dealing with employment promotion and the role of the state in providing social
protection for all citizens at a time of economic restructuring.
The World Bank has now addressed labour standards more systematically, committing
itself to seek a joint approach on the issue with the ILO. It has also been requested by the World
Bank/IMF Development Committee to address labour standards in the formulation of its social
policy principles. The main emphasis now appears to be on the core labour standards covered by
the ILO Declaration. Yet debate continues within the organisation as to whether all the core
labour standards covered in the Declaration can be justified in economic terms. The Bank's
current position is reportedly that, whereas the prohibition of child labour and forced labour can
be endorsed, freedom of association and collective bargaining cannot necessarily be endorsed on
The OECD has also endorsed the concept of core labour standards, in a 1996 publication
examining the linkages between labour standards, trade and employment25. The approach was a
novel one, in that it aimed to examine the actual economic effect of core labour standards in
developing countries. The results implied that the concerns expressed by certain developing
countries, that core standards would negatively affect their economic performance or
international competitive position, were unfounded. Rather, it was theoretically possible that the
observance of core standards would strengthen the long-term economic performance of all
countries. A weak positive association was detected between the degree of enforcement of the
Roger Plant, Labour Standards and Structural Adjustment, ILO, Geneva, 1994.
Sarah Ladbury and Stephen Gibbons, "Core Labour Standards: Key Issues and a
Proposal for a Strategy", consultancy report prepared for the UK Department for International
Development, London, January 2000.
Trade, Employment and Labour Standards: A Study of Core Workers' Rights and
International Trade, OECD, 1996.
right freedom of association, and economic development. However, the study expressed doubt
that market forces alone would automatically improve core standards, and therefore stressed the
importance of more direct promotion mechanisms. Enhancing the role of the ILO was seen as
important in this respect.
Bilateral donor experience, together with NGO initiatives: European examples
For most bilateral donor organisations, specific endorsement of labour rights and
standards in development strategies is a fairly recent phenomenom. It can be seen as part of
overall efforts to promote human rights and democratisation, and transparent governance. Some
governments disburse aid through agreements with their national trade union organisations,
which may maintain an overseas presence. Thus trade unions freedoms, and the promotion of
free and independent trade unions in aid recipient countries, tend to figure high among the
A pioneering role has been played by the Government of Denmark, many of whose
programmes have been carried out in collaboration with the ILO itself. For the Danish
International Development Agency (Danida), human rights is a cross-cutting issue in all
development programmes, and support for labour market and interest organisations is an
important aspect of this26. The main Danish trade unions receive a substantial budget, through
regular framework agreements with Danida's NGO department, for strengthening trade unions
in selected partners countries. In South Africa for example, under a Danish transitional
assistance programme, Danida provided key support for COSATU and other national trade
In Central America, promotion of ILO standards has been identified as a specific priority
for Danida's human rights assistance. The emphasis has been on the application and
enforcement of the core labour standards of the Declaration, which have been widely ratified
throughout Central America In addition, specific emphasis has been given to the ILO's
Indigenous and Tribal Peoples' Convention, No. 169. Target groups have been identified the
assistance, including indigenous labourers, migrant and maquila workers. In addition, the main
Danish trade unions have their own programmes in the region. Thus Danish support for the
promotion of ILO standards, beyond the core labour standards, reflects the particular importance
attached by this country to indigenous peoples' concerns. Thus since 1996 Danida has funded a
specific ILO project, managed from its Geneva headquarters, to promote the contents and
principles of the ILO's Convention No. 169 worldwide.
The present government of the United Kingdom has endorsed a rights-based approach to
development through its Department for International Development (DFID), including a
commitment to core labour standards. Its 1997 White Paper on International Development
stressed the importance of core labour standards, also promoting a human rights approach to
"Human Rights and Democracy: Perspectives for Development Co-operation", Ministry
of Foreign Affairs, Danida, 1993.
"Danish Transitional Assistance to the Government of South Africa", Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, Danida, 1998.
labour issues. Since then DFID has significantly increased its support for core labour standards,
in both policy and programme work. Much of the emphasis has been on child labour, with some
of the support channelled through the ILO itself. In South-East Asia for example, an ILO
regional programme to deal with traffic in women and children has received DFID support. The
ILO has also received assistance to investigate child labour in the Tanzanian mining industry.
Support has also been provided for research on core labour standards, including a guide on the
ILO's new Convention on the Worst Form of Child Labour.
A second area has been support for ethical business, including an emphasis on labour
rights and standards. DFID has sup[ported the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) - with business,
NGO and trade union representation - aiming to promote agreement on codes of conduct for
monitoring supply chains in the retail industry. The Commonwealth Development Corporation
(CDC) has also adopted a new set of business principles, requiring the application of core
labour standards in all enterprises in which the CDC invests.
Internationally, apart from its support for the ILO and its IPEC programme, DFID has
also aimed to promote core labour standards in organisations like the World Bank.
DFID recently commissioned a study, to examine how it could promote core labour
standards internationally through a more coherent strategy28. Its ambitious set of
recommendations, if adopted, could make labour standards an even more central thrust of the
UK Government's development policy and programmes.
Of the multilateral agencies the World Bank is singled out as a priority partner for
DFID, not least on the grounds that it has the potential to influence all borrower member
countries to analyse and implement core labour standards. Suggested actions for DFID are to
include:- continued support for the Social Policy Principles, ensuring that a commitment to core
labour standards remains central; encouraging the World Bank to include analysis of labour
issues in country assistance strategies; encouraging the Bank to include core labour standards in
all social assessments; and seeking the application of standards in Bank lending projects
involving construction work, through the contracting process.
A further significant feature has been the attention paid to ILO standards, essentially the
core labour standards, by non-governmental organisations and pressure groups concerned with
overseas development. The main reason has certainly been their concern with international trade
negotiations, and their possible impact on equitable development in the South. NGOs have been
noticeably divided on this issue, between those pressing for a social clause in the WTO, and
those who question as protectionist the motives of trade unions in the North. A second and
related reason has been the concern of development NGOs to press for model codes of conduct
for the multinational companies based in the UK. On this issue the major development NGOs
have, together with large employers and trade unions, been represented in the Ethnical Trading
Initiative sponsored by the UK Government.
Sarah Ladbury and Stephen Gibbons, "Core Labour Standards: Key Issues and a
Proposal for a Strategy", report submitted to the United Kingdom Department for International
Development, January 2000.
The importance of the NGO involvement on this issue has been their different
perspective from that of trade unions, in that their range of partners and contacts in developing
countries tends to include home-workers, informal sector, womens' and grass roots
organisations who have tended not to be represented by the trade union movement.
An example is OXFAM, which has regularly disseminated ILO Conventions in its
public policy work concerning employment in the global economy. OXFAM also lobbied on
behalf of the ILO's recent Convention on home-based workers, drawing on its project
experience with subcontracting and homeworking, and with the organisation of homeworkers.
Most recently, OXFAM has issued policy proposals on workers' rights to coincide with the
WTO Ministerial Meeting in Seattle. Main proposals were that an ILO-WTO forum be
established to examine the links between trade liberalisation, employment and human rights,
with the possible inclusion of an enabling rights provision in WTO rules covering the rights of
freedom of association and collective bargaining. OXFAM also urged that the ILO's supervisory
role be strengthened, and that donor countries channel resources to ILO programmes which
strengthen the capacity of countries to comply with core labour standards29.
Private sector initiatives: ILO standards in codes of conduct
Statements of business principle, or the adoption of social codes of conduct, are growing
rapidly among private sector companies. To what extent do the ILO's standards figure in such
codes of business behaviour? And which standards?
The situation is far from uniform, and may be evolving towards greater recognition of
the core labour standards as the principal benchmarks for employee rights. The ILO itself
carried out a detailed assessment of this issue, for the November 1998 session of the Governing
Body30. Out of over 200 operational and model codes reviewed, only one third bore any
reference to international labour standards generally or to the principles enshrined in ILO
Conventions and Recommendations. Moreover, only some 15 per cent of the codes had relevant
references to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and 25 per cent to child labour,
while as many as two thirds referred to freedom from discrimination and three quarters to health
and safety concerns. However, a 1998 review of UK company codes of conduct finds evidence
of an "evolution towards greater detail in codes and more explicit reference to ILO
"Loaded against the poor: World Trade Organisation", OXFAM position paper,
"Overview of global developments and Office activities concerning codes of conduct,
social labelling and other private sector initiatives addressing labour issues", Governing Body,
Working Party on the Social Dimensions of International Trade, 273rd. Session, November
C. Ferguson, "A Review of UK Company Codes of Conduct", DFID, Social
Development Division, August 1998.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, in a recent report on
corporate social responsibility, has advocated the core labour standards of the ILO Declaration
as the principal instrument for promoting employee rights. Several NGOs have taken the same
line. Perhaps the best known of the "model codes" promoted by NGOs is the Social
Accountability 8000 (SA 8000) of the New York-based Council on Economic Priorities
Accreditation Agency. Its social accountability requirements go beyond the rights covered by
the ILO Declaration, also including the issues of health and safety, working hours, and
Yet business codes of statements of practice can cover far more than the rights of
employees as such. Such issues as child labour or long hours of work are of obvious importance
in the garments and retail industries, on which much of the attention of NGO pressure groups in
the United States has been directed. Other companies, notably in the energy sector, can be
concerned more broadly with the impact of their industrial activities on local communities. Land
rights, or relations with indigenous communities, figure among both the model codes developed
for the oil, minerals and other energy sectors, and in some recent statements of business practice
or social reporting by the major companies themselves. A major mining company for example
has specifically singled out the ILO's indigenous peoples Convention, No. 169, in its most
recent social and environmental report, expressing its belief that company approaches are
"wholly consistent with the principles" of this Convention32.
Thus the difficult issues of social codes, or socially responsibly business, relate only in
part to the workplace and the rights of directly recruited workers. As discussed in a recent
international seminar, where does corporate social responsibility end and the role of
governments begin? And as the state withdraws in both developed and developing countries
alike, there is pressure on companies to assume responsibility for social investment and
protection, education and training, social services and infrastructure, and in some cases to
ensure that their investment is sustainable even when they leave.
Once again, this can be an argument for looking beyond the narrower range of core
labour standards, when addressing the "big picture" issues of corporate social responsibility and
the ILO's future involvement in this area. The "negative" aspects of possible labour rights
abuses by companies, and the need to monitor these, may be one issue for attention. But
companies are also struggling to find the formula for productive partnerships with civil society
and governments, in different contexts. The ILO might well aim to feed its more "promotional"
standards into this debate. Examples of possible approaches will be given in the final chapter.
6. RIGHTS-BASED THINKING AND THE CONCEPT OF DECENT WORK:
THE ROLE OF ILO STANDARDS
The main question can now be addressed. What are the implications of all this for
applying the concept of Decent Work? Decent Work is an outward-looking approach, seeking to
harness all the ILO's capabilities and to make it a more effective social pillar of the international
"Minerals and metals for the world": 1998 Social and Environmental Report, Rio Tinto
plc., United Kingdom.
system. What are the implications of rights-based approaches for this concept? And what use
can be made of standards, in consolidating it?
Importance of the Declaration
The Declaration will be a major driving force in the years to come. Externally, the ILO
will be heavily identified with the core labour standards as identified in the Declaration.
Internally, it may well be that reporting on the Declaration receives far more visibility than the
application of all other labour standards.
The ILO's own implementation of the Declaration is really beyond the scope of this
study. A comprehensive structure is now in place for both thematic and country reporting on the
separate rights concerned, and the first results are awaited with interest.
It is the work to promote the Declaration more widely - and to establish the linkages
between these fundamental principles and rights at work - that poses the greatest conceptual and
practical challenges. Beyond the immediate rights issues concerned, judicious promotion of the
Declaration can set the stage for more participatory and people-oriented approaches. In Hilary
Kellerson's words, "A remarkable aspect of this approach is that it represents a collective
decision to pursue social justice by the high road - drawing on people's aspiration for equity,
social progress and the eradication of poverty - rather than by sanctions which can be used for
protectionist purposes of international trade"33.
ILO officials have portrayed the rights and principles enshrined in the Declaration as a
precondition for the realisation of the right to development. It has been observed that once these
rights are in place in a particular country, the realisation of all the other rights involved in
human development will be greatly facilitated34. And as emphasised in the Director-General's
report on Decent Work, the Follow-up to the Declaration also opens the way for a more
substantive policy debate on development issues and rights at work within the ILO. Moreover, a
new programme to promote the Declaration should deepen understanding as to how these
fundamental principles and rights reinforce development, democracy and equity; and promote
policies that implement these principles and rights in practice in the development conditions of
Yet however creatively the Declaration is applied and promoted, there is no automatic
link between rights at work on the one hand, and the responsibilities of both states and the
international community in the area of social and employment policy. It is here that the value-
added of the Decent Work comes into play.
Labour standards and the concept of Decent Work
Hilary Kellerson, "The ILO Declaration of 1998 on fundamental principles and rights: A
challenge for the future", in International Labour Review, Vol. 137 (1998), No. 2.
Lee Swepston, "Economic, social and cultural rights and international trade", in Report
of the Oslo Symposium , October 1998.
The Director General's report contains some critical observations as to the manner in
which international labour standards have been adopted and supervised, and a number of
recommendations for improving both aspects of the ILO's performance. A key message is that
standards must be relevant to changing circumstances, and that in a competitive environment
the ILO should concentrate on high-impact standards to make them stand out from the pack.
Moreover, rather than see the ILO's standards only as instruments for improving national labour
legislation, they should be considered as part of a policy package to incorporate broad social
concerns as natural complements to economic measures.
As regards supervision of standards, Decent Work also contains some important
recommendations. The supervisory system needs to be streamlined, and to move beyond an
examination of legal texts. And the reports of the supervisory bodies, rather than focus on the
application of a particular standard in a particular country, might also review the status of the
standards situation in general by region or by subject area. And finally, Decent Work suggests
that the ILO's standards could have an influence on other normative initiatives, such as the
voluntary codes of conduct which could use ILO standards as reference points and sources of
Decent Work throws out some important challenges for the ILO's work on standards. It
wants the standards to be known more widely, to be assessed critically in accordance with
evolving economic and labour market circumstances, and to be benchmarks for social policy
initiatives outside the ILO itself.
It clearly envisages reforms to the existing supervisory mechanisms. The present Article 22
reporting system is seen as burdensome for governments, and often failing to distinguish
between serious issues and matters of detail.
The Decent Work proposals thus seek to make ILO standards and their supervision as
relevant as possible to global debates and policy thinking on key issues of employment and
social policy, social protection and dialogue, amongst others.
Decent Work does not itself indicate which of the ILO standards deserve priority
attention, beyond those already identified in the Declaration. As observed, the Governing Body
has already identified as priorities a handful of institutional standards, including those on
tripartite consultation, on labour inspection, and on employment policy. Beyond that, it advises
that the social partners may wish to single out others for special attention, and that the ILO's
new InFocus programmes can also be of assistance.
Labour standards as instruments of social policy and development: operational issues
The follow-up to the Declaration, in particular the promotional work around it, could
have a profound effect on ILO supervisory machinery for the application and promotion of its
standards - both those standards covered directly by the Declaration, and others. Apart from
bilateral dialogue between the ILO and individual ratifying States, there will be far more
emphasis on the relevance of these standards for a wide range of social actors.
A concern of this paper is that the result of this should not be a "two-tiered" approach to
the different categories of universally recognised human rights that are covered by different
international labour standards. It would surely be ill-advised for the organization to place almost
all the emphasis on the implications of core labour standards for social policy, to the detriment
of other standards that are more specifically concerned with these issues. And political problems
will derive from this if - despite the good in intentions of the ILO itself - the issue of core labour
standards is increasingly linked with current debates on international trade. The expectation of
many in the ILO is that the core standards of the Declaration can provide a kernel or
centrepiece, from which to address broader ILO concerns of employment and development.
Ideally perhaps, the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work
might eventually be complemented by another similar instrument, in the form of a declaration of
employment and social protection. Embracing the key Conventions in the area of "promotional
human rights", this could achieve the appropriate balance between the two areas of human
rights, and continue to promote the message of the indivisibility and equal importance of all
human rights. Politically, this may seem an unrealistic objective for the immediate future. The
1998 Declaration has to be consolidated, and its follow-up working methods fully refined,
before the ILO can afford to embark on another ambitious objective of this kind.
In the meantime, the 1998 Declaration itself can provide some inspiration formwork on
the other standards. If some of the standards are to be seen as policy-oriented instruments -
guiding operational directives of the international financial institutions, social codes of the
private sector, or donor development policies - then the existing methods for their application
are not really useful. A new format has to be found, from which the major advances and lessons
learned can be put forward in readable basis, the main policy directives can be identified, and
the main difficulties in their application can be addressed.
An immediate task, as mentioned in Decent Work, is to identify the existing
Conventions (or groups of Conventions) for which thematic and policy-oriented reporting on a
regular basis is now most urgently required. The main priority should be on those Conventions
which relate most clearly to the economic, social and cultural rights covered by the principal
United Nations instruments on the subject. Employment policy, human resources and social
security stand out by this criterion. But there are other Conventions which would benefit greatly
from this kind of treatment.
An example is the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, No. 169 of 1989. This is
a complex sectoral Convention, addressing issues of land and resource rights, including
subsurface and mineral resources, to some extent broader than the ILO's traditional remit. But it
has been widely ratified in Latin America, inspiring far-reaching constitutional. legal and
administrative reforms. It has already had considerable influence on the World Bank, regional
development banks and European Community, as well as private sector institutions. An annual
or biennial thematic report by the ILO on the application of this Convention, widely
disseminated in international fora could pay considerable dividends.
For a range of occupational and sectoral Conventions - and also those which are
sometimes questioned as "rigidities" - this could well be the desirable trend for the future.
General reports on each of these Conventions could be produced on a regular basis, with the
input of social scientists as well as legal specialists, produced in readable fashion, and given the
widest possible international coverage. In each of these reports the use of indicators and
measurements of progress should be discussed, making them more useful policy instruments for
national and international development. Moreover - as is already the case for a limited number
of instruments - other international institutions as relevant could be invited to make public
comments on these key Conventions. And the application of each of these Conventions could be
the subject of international as well as national meetings, with wide representation of NGOs and
civil society institutions, particularly those involved in the respective sector, as well as the
normal social partners of the ILO. Government reports and the ILO's subsequent analysis could
provide the raw material for policy deliberations. All of this would appear consistent with the
ILO's new approaches to social dialogue, and would make it a prominent leader in this area on
the international stage.