ILO: Workers’ Rights in a Globalized Economy

Have You Ever?

Imagine your ideal work environment. What kind of protections would you want? What is the maximum number of hours you want to work each week? Do you want certain benefits from your employer, such as healthcare or higher education funding? How about the right to participate in a union where you can organize for higher wages? 


These are all examples of labor rights, and might vary from country to country. Depending on a nation’s internal politics as well as its role in the international economy, the relationship between employers and workers, and the extent to which these rights are protected, may differ. However, the International Labor Organization, or the ILO, is a governance body that seeks to regulate working conditions and promote decent work globally. 

International Labor Organization 

The ILO is a specialized United Nations agency that works to protect human rights and foster economic development by setting international labor standards. 

The History

Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the ILO was created in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles, the same agreement that ended World War I. The decision to establish an organization that would focus on labor came out of the idea that world peace should be based on social justice. The group’s formation was also inspired by 19th century social movements that sought better living conditions for working class people. In 1946, it became the first specialized agency in the United Nations system. Unlike other world agencies, the ILO followed a tripartite system, which meant that representatives from the government, workers, and employers from each member state participated in decision making processes. The ILO’s three main tasks are adopting international human rights standards related to labor, assisting countries, especially those with developing economies, in implementing these standards, conducting research, and running training and education programs.  

During its early years, the ILO focused mostly on setting key principles and standards for issues such as maximum weekly work hours, minimum age, protections for working mothers, and unemployment. As time went by and newly independent and industrializing countries joined the ILO, the agency expanded their work to promote economic coordination among member states and advocacy to prevent workers from being exploited. In order to set labor standards, the ILO has passed over 180 conventions and 200 recommendations. Conventions are international treaties that are legally binding, while recommendations are non binding, but provide general guidance. The agency has passed agreements on topics including forced labor, workplace safety and health, discrimination, child labor, and more. After signing a convention, member states are required to send reports updating their progress. They can also raise disputes against others who are failing to uphold standards. In the 21st century, the ILO is focused on promoting the Decent Work Agenda, based on the four pillars of employment creation, social protection, rights at work, and social dialogue. 

Despite the agency's goal to promote workers’ rights, it still faces criticisms and challenges. Its work is often slow moving and bureaucratic, a common complaint about many UN agencies. Some critics have stated that the ILO must play a larger role in actually implementing the standards it sets. Many actors in the international community, including corporations, do not put into practice the workers’ rights set in conventions. Even some countries that vote in favor of conventions don’t enforce them through their national laws.  

So What

Although the agency faces challenges, it plays a key role in creating human rights norms in the workplace. Today, its work helps 187 countries set standards for fair working conditions in their federal legislation. However, workers around the world still face many issues, including modern slavery, unsafe or unsanitary working conditions, unfair or withheld wages, exclusion from unionization, and countless more. The ILO’s work, in conjunction with labor organizations, is important because it seeks to protect people’s livelihood, which is directly tied to their financial well being.

Think Further

  1. What are the benefits of having a tripartite system (as opposed to one in which there are only government representatives)? 
  2. Many specialized UN agencies set standards for international human rights. What are the benefits of doing this? What are drawbacks? 
  3. One of the biggest challenges the ILO faces is that many countries do not implement the standards they agree to in conventions. Can you think of ways to ensure that countries can be held accountable?


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Learn More

  1. Global Legal Group. “Employment & Labour Law 2021: Global Development Of ILO International Labour Standards: ICLG.” International Comparative Legal Guides International Business Reports, Global Legal Group,
  2. International Labour Organization,–en/index.htm.
  3. Maul, Daniel. International Labour Organization: 100 Years of Global Social Policy. 2019.