The ILO works for promoting internationally recognized human rights for the workers. They have three primary principles which are based on freedom of association, the abolition of child labour, and promoting social justice. The International Labour Organization was created in 1919 by Part XIII of the Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I. It grew out of nineteenth-century labour and social movements which culminated in widespread demands for social justice and higher living standards for the world’s working people. Founded in October 1919 under the League of Nations, it is the first and oldest specialised agency of the UN. The ILO has 187 member states: 186 out of 193 UN member states plus the Cook Islands. ILO International Labour Standards (ILS) are legal instruments, drawn up by the ILO constituents (governments, employers and workers), that set out basic principles and rights at work.  They are either Conventions, which are legally-binding international treaties that may be ratified by ILO Member States, or Recommendations, which serve as non-binding guidelines. In many cases, a Convention lays down the basic principles to be implemented by ratifying countries, while a related Recommendation can also be autonomous (not linked to any Convention).

The ILO Governing Body has identified the following eight Conventions as “fundamental”, covering subjects that are considered as fundamental principles and rights at work: Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948; Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949; Forced Labour Convention, 1930; Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957; Minimum Age Convention, 1973; Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999; Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951; and Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958.

Why are ILS relevant to business?

ILS are addressed to governments. Nevertheless, they are also relevant to business in the following ways:

  • Business is affected by ILS through national legislation. When a country ratifies a Convention, this instrument sets the framework for national law and practice on a certain subject. If existing national law or practice does not comply with the Convention, new labour laws, amendments of existing laws, or new implementation directives may result. As a consequence, business may be required to change its labour practices, which can involve significant administrative measures and costs.
  • Even if ILS are not taken up by national law, the contents of collective agreements may be inspired by them.
  • ILS can be a relevant source of practical guidance for business in areas not covered by national law or collective agreements. Many companies operating internationally has considered ILS, or the 1998 ILO Declaration, in developing their codes of conduct or other responsible business conduct initiatives. Global initiatives for voluntary business engagement, such as the UN Global Compact, draw on these sources in their labour principles and the Global Compact business stakeholders engage to work towards their realisation in their business strategies and day-to-day operations. International Framework Agreements (IFAs) negotiated between Global Union Federations (GUFs) and multinational enterprises usually make specific references to the ILO’s fundamental Conventions.

Given the above, employers must play a key role in the ILO and at national level in formulating, implementing and supervising ILS, and in ensuring that due account is taken of the business perspective, including the needs of enterprises of all sizes operating in different geographical areas, economic sectors and social frameworks. Together with governments and workers, employers are responsible for making ILS and their implementation balanced, realistic and meaningful.

What is IOE’s position on ILS?

ILS are not the answer to every problem in the workplace and should only be used to address fundamental labour issues where they can have a high impact. ILS should only be adopted where unchanging principles are involved and where there is broad consensus among the ILO constituents that regulation at international level is necessary.

In IOE’s view, ILS will lead to social and economic benefits only when they:

  • Concentrate on setting worldwide relevant minimum rules, rather than seeking international harmonisation at an ideal level;
  • Provide realistic and practicable orientation to countries which lack experience in labour standards;
  • Are flexible enough to accommodate differences of development levels and changing needs, in particular, in the context of the Future of Work debate;
  • Are based on a thorough assessment of their likely impact.

The beneficial effects of ILS depend to a large extent on a balanced application and the reasonable exercise of rights contained in them. The exercise of these rights has to respect the social and economic environment, the common good and the higher rights of other individuals and groups. In particular, the competitive needs of enterprises must receive adequate attention in the implementation of ILS since enterprises are the source of employment and, thus, the very place for the application of ILS.

Aims and objectives of ILO

The main aims of the ILO are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.

Private sector development (PSD) policy and strategy

The ILO promotes a people-centred and sustainable approach to enterprise development, which aligns enterprise growth and the creation of productive employment and decent work with sustainable development objectives. It builds its approach around three mutually reinforcing pillars:

  1. Creating an enabling environment for sustainable enterprises and employment, which encourages investment and entrepreneurship;
  2. Helping entrepreneurs to start and build successful enterprises;
  3. Linking productivity improvements to better working conditions, good industrial relations and good environmental practices.

Based on a range of tested products and solutions applied internationally on a large scale, the ILO has consolidated its expertise in 11 distinct areas classified according to the following five groups:

  • Small and Medium Enterprises, entailing a standardised assessment tool for the Enabling Environment for Sustainable Enterprises (EESE), an approach to help small businesses to identify and exploit market opportunities through Value Chain Development, a set of Management and Entrepreneurial Training, a programme to foster Women’s Entrepreneurship Development (WED), a training and in-factory counselling programme to increase SME productivity through better workplace cooperation, Sustaining Competitive and Responsible Enterprises (SCORE);
  • Multinational Companies, responsible for the promotion and follow-up of the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration), which is the ILO’s key tool for cooperating with the corporate world;
  • Cooperatives, promoting the cooperative business model with its specific regulatory and institutional requirements as well as social enterprises, which pursue both economic and social aims and foster solidarity;
  • Creation of Green Jobs, helping businesses to successfully shift towards a greener economy and adapt to economic and environmental crisis and change.
  • Social Finance, supporting efforts to extend financial services to excluded persons by promoting better employment and reducing the vulnerability of the working poor.

Moreover, ILO’s close contact with governments, employers’ organizations and trade unions of its member countries provides unique access to the actors in the real economy supported by a global network of enterprise specialists. Capacity development programmes are, designed and delivered worldwide in cooperation with the ILO’s International Training Centre in Turin, Italy.

Cooperation with the private sector

Recognizing the pivotal role they play, the ILO works with individual companies and foundations and with employers and their organizations to tackle important global labour market issues; to support sustainable enterprises and entrepreneurs; to enhance value in supply chains; to promote social protection; and to resolve specific problems in the world of work.


India is a founder member of the International Labour Organization, which came into existence in 1919. At present the ILO has 186 Members. A unique feature of the ILO is its tripartite character. The membership of the ILO ensures the growth of tripartite system in the Member countries. At every level in the Organization, Governments are associated with the two other social partners, namely the workers and employers. All the three groups are represented on almost all the deliberative organs of the ILO and share responsibility in conducting its work.

The three organs of the ILO are:

  • International Labour Conferences: – General Assembly of the ILO – Meets every year in the month of June.
  • Governing Body: – Executive Council of the ILO. Meets three times in a year in the months of March, June and November.
  • International Labour Office: – A permanent secretariat.
  • The work of the Conference and the Governing Body is supplemented by Regional Conferences, Regional Advisory Committees, Industrial and Analogous Committees, Committee of Experts, Panels of Consultants, Special Conference and meetings, etc.

Except for the interruption caused by the Second World War, the International Labour Conference (ILC) has continued, since its first session in 1919 to meet at least once a year. The Conference, assisted by the Governing Body, adopts biennial programme and budget, adopts International Labour Standards in the form of Conventions and Recommendations and provides a forum for discussing social, economic and labour related issues. India has regularly and actively participated in the Conference through its tripartite delegations.
The Conference has so far had 4 Indian Presidents viz., Sir. Atul Chatterjee (1927), Shri Jagjivan Ram, Minister for Labour (1950), Dr.Nagendra Singh, President, International Court of Justice (1970) and Shri Ravindra Verma, Minister of Labour and Parliamentary Affairs (1979). There have also been 8 Indian Vice Presidents of the International Labour Conference, 2 from the Government group, 3 from the Employers and 3 from the Workers’ Group. Indians have chaired the important Committees of the Conferences like Committee on Application of Standards, Selection Committee and Resolutions Committee.

The Governing Body of the ILO is the executive wing of the Organization. It is also tripartite in character. Since 1922 India has been holding a non-elective seat on the Governing Body as one of the 10 countries of chief industrial importance. Indian employers and workers’ representatives have been elected as Members of the Governing Body from time to time.
Four Indians have so far been elected Chairmen of the Governing Body. They are Sir Atul Chatterjee (1932-33), Shri Shamal Dharee Lall, Secretary, Ministry of Labour (1948-49), Shri S.T. Merani, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Labour (1961-62) and Shri B.G. Deshmukh, Secretary, Ministry of Labour (1984-85).
Earlier, the Governing Body of ILO functioned through its various Committees. India was a member of all six committees of the Governing Body viz. (i) Programme, Planning & Administrative; (ii) Freedom of Association; (iii) Legal Issues and International Labour Standards; (iv) Employment & Social Policy; (v) Technical Cooperation and (vi) Sectoral and Technical Meetings and Related issues. Now the Governing Body of ILO functions through its various Sections and India takes part in all the proceedings of the Sections during the sessions of the Governing Body viz. Institutional Section (INS); Policy Development Section (POL); Legal Issues and International Labour Standards Section (LILS); Programme, Financial and Administrative Section (PFA); High-level Section (HL); and Working Party on the Functioning of the Governing Body and the International Labour Conference (WP/GBC)


The International Labour Office, Geneva provides the Secretariat for all Conferences and other meetings and is responsible for the day-to-day implementation of decisions taken by the Conference, Governing Body etc. Indians have held positions of importance in the International Labour Office.

The principal means of action in the ILO is the setting up the International Labour Standards in the form of Conventions and Recommendations. Conventions are international treaties and are instruments, which create legally binding obligations on the countries that ratify them. Recommendations are non-binding and set out guidelines orienting national policies and actions.
The approach of India with regard to International Labour Standards has always been positive. The ILO instruments have provided guidelines and a useful framework for the evolution of legislative and administrative measures for the protection and advancement of the interest of labour. To that extent the influence of ILO Conventions as a standard of reference for labour legislation and practices in India, rather than as a legally binding norm, has been significant. Ratification of a Convention imposes legally binding obligations on the country concerned and, therefore, India has been careful in ratifying Conventions. It has always been the practice in India that we ratify a Convention when we are fully satisfied that our laws and practices are in conformity with the relevant ILO Convention. It is now considered that a better course of action is to proceed with progressive implementation of the standards, leave the formal ratification for consideration at a later stage when it becomes practicable. We have so far ratified 41 Conventions of the ILO, which is much better than the position existing in many other countries. Even where for special reasons, India may not be in a position to ratify a Convention, India has generally voted in favour of the Conventions reserving its position as far as its future ratification is concerned.

 Core Conventions of the ILO: – The eight Core Conventions of the ILO (also called fundamental/human rights conventions) are:

 Forced Labour Convention (No. 29)

 Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No.105)

 Equal Remuneration Convention (No.100)

 Discrimination (Employment Occupation) Convention (No.111)

 Minimum Age Convention (No.138)

 Worst forms of Child Labour Convention (No.182)

(The above Six have been ratified by India)

 Freedom of Association and Protection of Right to Organised Convention (No.87)

 Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (No.98)

International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and Forced Labour (IPEC+)

According to the ILO, there are 152 million children performing child labour, 40 million men, women, and children in “modern slavery,” 24.9 million people in forced labour, and 15.4 million people in forced marriages. This program hopes to put an end to these scourges. It is a relatively new program that combined two older ones on child labour and forced labour.

 IPEC+ collaborates with governments, employers, and workers to:

  • Strengthen technical and governance capacity to create transformative change in public institutions, laws, and practices at all levels
  • Encourage effective engagement and cooperation between the constituents and other stakeholders
  • Significantly expand knowledge and policy-oriented advice and information

The goals are to eliminate child labour by 2025 and end forced labour and human trafficking by 2030, in accordance with the U.N.’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which was adopted in 2015.

Safety + Health for All

Originally known as the Global Action for Prevention on Occupational Safety and Health (GAP-OSH) program, this was meant to “improve the health and safety of workers in small and medium-sized enterprises through fostering a global culture of prevention.” Created in 2016, it has been active in 15 countries and globally.

According to the ILO, 2.78 million workers die every year from work-related injuries and illnesses and 374 million more suffer nonfatal ones. The lost workdays account for nearly 4% of the world’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). Its particular targets are:

  • Hazardous sectors, such as agriculture and construction
  • Workers with higher vulnerability to occupational injuries and diseases, including young workers (15-24), women, and migrant workers
  • Small and medium enterprises
  • Global supply chains

With the advent of COVID-19, it has been repurposed to offer “a tailored set of interventions to address the immediate and longer-term safety and health needs of constituents related to COVID-19.”

The Future of the International Labour Organization (ILO)

In 2019 the ILO convened for the Global Commission on the Future of Work. In preparation for the conference, about 110 countries participated in dialogues at the regional and national levels. The ensuing report made recommendations for governments on how best to approach the challenges of the 21st-century labour environment. Among these recommendations were a universal labour guarantee, social protection from birth to old age, and entitlement to lifelong learning.

The ILO also assessed what impact a transition to a green economy would have on employment. According to the ILO, if the right policies are put in place, a transition to a greener economy could create 24 million new jobs around the world by 2030.


The ILO should adopt a participative, flexible and dynamic policy of drawing upon the experience of decentralization and regional programmes of the 1970s and 1980s and upon the new global, socio-economic developments. It must be sensitive and responsive, above all, to regional diversity and the specificity of national needs within, of course, the framework of the four strategic objectives and the promotion of the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The unique composition of the ILO within the United Nations family as a body made up of trade unions, employers. Organizations and governments, is a real strength which can be used to advantage in core labour issues. This advantage must be used more systematically and more effectively. Specific programmes requiring autonomy is excepted, the ILO needs to draw the tripartite constituents into all aspects of technical cooperation. When pursuing the four strategic objectives and when implementing the InFocus programmes, it is crucial to secure that gender aspects and questions of equal opportunity are being mainstreamed in all the programmes, thus ensuring that issues of vital importance to women all over the world are not neglected or under-resourced.

At the country level, the ILO must be active in the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) to ensure that its constituents. Priorities are effectively pursued, while optimizing the potential capacities of the United Nations system as a whole. All these partnerships must be built on a realistic perception of both the common objectives and the specific interests of the partners concerned, so that the ILO can uphold the values and concerns of its own constituents more effectively in a wider arena. As a knowledge, service and advocacy organization, the ILO should, without weakening tripartism, develop relations with other actors in civil society that share its values and objectives.

Author: Sankhasubhra Banerjee

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