Hesperian Health Guides

International labor laws

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > APPENDIX A: Laws and the struggle for decent, healthy, and fair work > International labor laws

The United Nations (UN) is an international institution made up of national governments. The UN is responsible for setting the standards regarding people’s basic human rights, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN has also proposed and approved many conventions that describe the rights people have won through organizing and struggle.

Two important UN documents that are particularly helpful when organizing around labor and work health issues are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has also been used by groups supporting migrant women workers and domestic workers.

Wgthas black-un.png Two UN covenants to inspire labor organizing

The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), especially articles 6, 7, 8, and 10, focuses on the right to work. People have the right to:

  • earn a living from their work and get a fair wage.
  • have working conditions that are safe, healthy, and dignified.
  • be free from discrimination at work, including the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • have paid holidays.
  • organize and bargain collectively.

The UN International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) makes the case that worker rights are human rights. The articles most relevant to workers affirm:

  • the right to equality between men and women in the workplace.
  • freedom from inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • freedom of association.
  • the right to peaceful assembly.

The UN’s International Labour Organization

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the part of the UN dedicated to workers’ rights. It is an organization representing workers, employers, and governments that sets guidelines that every workplace, company, and country should implement and enforce to protect workers. ILO labor standards, conventions, and recommendations must be ratified and signed by each participating country. Not all countries ratify all conventions, and a country can choose which parts of each convention it will accept and which it rejects. See the Ratification by Country page on the ILO website (ilo.org) to learn which conventions your country has signed, and what "adaptations" they have made to the conventions. Once a country has signed a convention, its government is expected to make its labor law match or exceed the standards set by the ILO.

a group of 6 people meeting near a large sheet of paper with writing on it.

ILO 40-Hour Week
work week
--> 40 hours
working hours

Unfortunately, the ILO has no means to enforce these labor standards. The only way to ensure that labor rights are enforced is for workers to organize and pressure their governments, the brands, and the employers to accept their responsibility to improve and enforce labor standards.

The "workers’ rights" boxes included throughout this book highlight basic workers’ rights as recognized by the ILO and UN. (They are listed by name in International agreements in this book.) Use them to compare your current working conditions with international labor law. The ILO and UN conventions can be motivational tools for organizing and demanding changes in your workplace that international agreements and your government say you should have.

Some ways to use international labor law

  • Educate workers about how their desires and demands for a healthy, safe, and fair workplace are supported by international law. People often feel more justified in organizing when they know this is true.
  • Push local officials to enforce already existing labor law. If national laws are backed by international law, then workers have twice as much right to demand enforcement.
  • Compare your national labor laws to international standards to show how they do not meet them and why it would be good if they did. Governments do not like to be embarrassed, especially in front of other governments.
  • If your government has not signed international conventions on labor rights, organize with other labor and community groups to influence the government to do so. They might agree to sign a convention because it would make them look good. But you will probably have to organize further to get them to create systems to enforce these conventions.

a group of workers meeting outside a factory that has armed guards.

See more about organizing a campaign and how to find allies and supporters in Chapter 3.
  • Convince your employer that complying with labor laws will make workers healthier, happier, and more productive. The international companies the factory sells to will value the good reputation they earn by following the laws, and their ability to meet production schedules because their workers are happier, more efficient, and less likely to strike or stop production.
  • Let the international companies ("brands") who purchase from your factory know when and in what ways their suppliers are breaking international laws. Brands often worry a lot about their image and reputation and do not want to jeopardize that. Also, they may be breaking laws in their home country if they ignore labor rights where their goods are made.

ILO Core Labor Standards

If your country does not have a labor law or the national labor law does not address your concerns, you can propose that the government use the ILO’s Codes of Conduct as guidelines to create new labor law. The Codes of Conduct are based on the 4 Core Labor Standards (CLS):

  1. The right to free association and collective bargaining
  2. The elimination of forced labor
  3. The abolition of child labor
  4. The elimination of discrimination in the workplace

By themselves, the Core Labor Standards are not sufficient to protect workers. Other ILO Conventions cover hours and wages, health and safety, working conditions, and dozens of other workrelated situations.

The commitment to equal rights for men and women in economic, social, and political matters is also clearly stated in many ILO, UN, and other agreements. Governments are obligated to make sure women have the right to work in any profession and have the same rights at work as men. These rights include the right to receive equal pay for similar work, equal training and promotions, and freedom from discrimination as women or mothers.

How to influence the ILO

Each year, the ILO holds an International Labour Conference (ILC) where delegates from each member-country, as well as representatives from employer and worker groups, meet to discuss complaints, draft new conventions, and change existing conventions. If there is a convention you would like to add or change, you can submit a proposal to the ILC or the representative of the workers’ group from your country for review. But be prepared: it can take many years, many lawyers, and a lot of financial resources for a proposal to become a Resolution or Convention. Because it is so expensive, difficult, and time-consuming, for the most part only global union federations take this on.

But change does happen. In 2011, the ILO adopted a new Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) setting the first global standards for domestic work. This convention is providing workers support and leverage to push their national governments to adopt similar changes to national labor law in many countries, including the United States, the countries of the European Union, the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere.

Filing a complaint

If your country has signed an ILO convention but does not make or enforce changes in national labor law, filing a complaint is one way to pressure the national government, the brand, and your employer to improve labor conditions. A workers’ group can submit a complaint directly to the International Labor Conference to be reviewed by the ILO, or can reach out to delegates from the organizations of your country that attend the Conference and ask them to ensure your complaint is reviewed there.

The ILO’s governing body will then decide whether to review your complaint. If it does, a Commission of Inquiry will be appointed to investigate the complaint in your country, review your labor law and its implementation, and inspect factory conditions. After the investigation, the ILO will write a report encouraging the national government to accept the ILO’s recommendations, improve the law, and to enforce it.

Filing a complaint and receiving international support to enforce national labor law is useful, but the process of investigation and writing a report usually takes five to seven years. You may want to consider other ways of using international labor law to apply pressure for change that are more effective and time efficient. And if you do decide to file a complaint with the ILO, or another international governing body, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, you will want to continue to push for enforcement of labor law and negotiate for better working conditions and rights by approaching your employer directly, appealing to the brand, and confronting your government.

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ILO Better Work program

What would happen if a factory was run according to the ILO core labor standards? The ILO created the Better Work (BW) program to find out. Based on its pilot project, Better Factories Cambodia, BW inspects and monitors member factories in 8 countries to see if they follow basic ILO conventions that protect workers, and reports the results. BW also trains workers, union leaders, and factory managers on workers’ rights, health, and safety, and coordinates with the government, manufacturers’ association, and the brands.

The factories in the BW programs tend to be safer than before, and safer than other local factories. However, many challenges remain:

a woman shouting.
No power to make a difference!
  • Worker participation and empowerment is downplayed, and workers are discouraged from taking action to improve health and safety in the factory.
  • Factory inspections are often known ahead of time, and workers fear losing their jobs if they speak with inspectors.
  • Violations are not made public.
  • BW and its inspectors have no power to enforce suggested changes.
  • BW does not target brands that contract factories to make their clothes but ignore their responsibility for working conditions.
  • BW does not report on wages (many factories do not pay a living wage), too many hours, violations of labor and union rights, or mass faintings (a big problem in Cambodia).

To achieve its goals of achieving a healthier, sustainable workplace, the ILO Better Work program must change to:

  • Encourage worker participation and empowerment.
  • Support the formation of factory-level health and safety committees with elected worker representatives.
  • Give health and safety committees power to make improvements and stop dangerous work.
  • Address labor rights issues such as respecting unions, negotiating contracts, and paying a living wage.

International conventions on workers’ rights

There are many international workers’ rights conventions and agreements. We have chosen to include in this book some of the most important and relevant to the topics we cover. You can find all the UN Conventions by going to this website: treaties.un.org. You can find all of the ILO Conventions here: ilo.org/global/standards. It might be helpful to do more research on the convention you want, to see how it is implemented, how it can be useful for your campaign, and if your country has ratified it.

Wgthas black-un.png International agreements in this book Wgthas black-ilo.png

UN conventions

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
Learning and teaching about health at work, and Discrimination, and Access to Health, and Sexual and Reproductive Health

Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families
Workers who migrate

Convention on the Rights of the Child
Children who work

International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
Appendix A

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
Appendix A

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Working too much, and Working too much, and Workers who migrate, and Discrimination, and Violence, and Workers who migrate

ILO conventions

ILO conventions 40-Hour Week Convention (No. 47)
Working too much

Abolition of Forced Labor Convention (No. 105)
Working too much

Chemicals Convention (No. 170)
Chemicals, and PPE, and Sexual and Reproductive Health

Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No. 111)
Discrimination, and HIV

Employment Injury Benefits Convention (No. 121)
Access to Health, and Access to Health

Equal Remuneration Convention (No. 100)

Forced Labor Rights Convention (No. 29)
Working too much

Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (No. 87)
Organize to improve worker health

HIV and AIDS Recommendation (No. 200)

Holidays with Pay Convention (No. 132)
Working too much

Home Work Convention (No. 177)
Doing factory work at home

Labor Inspection Convention (No. 81)
Learning and teaching about health at work

List of Occupational Diseases Recommendation (No. 194)
Access to health

Maternity Protection Convention (No. 183)
Access to health, and Reproductive and sexual health

Medical Care and Sickness Benefits (No. 130)
Access to health

Medical Examination of Young Persons Convention (No. 77)
Children who work

Migrant Workers Convention (No. 143)
Workers who migrate

Migration for Employment Convention (No. 97)
Workers who migrate

Minimum Age Convention (No. 138)
Children who work

Minimum Wage Fixing Convention (No. 131)
Working too much

Night Work Convention (No. 171)
Working too much

Occupational Cancer Convention (No. 139)

Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 155)
PPE, and HIV

Protection of Workers’ Health Recommendation (No. 97)

Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (No. 98)
Organize to improve worker health

Social Security Convention (No. 102)
Access to health, and HIV

Weekly Rest Convention (No. 14)
Working too much

Working Environment (Air Pollution, Noise, and Vibration) Convention (No. 148)
Ventilation, and PPE

Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (No. 182)
Children who work

Other international agreements

EU Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS)
Electronics factories