International labor standards
International labor standards refer to conventions agreed upon by international actors, resulting from a series of value judgments, set forth to protect basic worker rights, enhance workers’ job security, and improve their terms of employment on a global scale. The intent of such standards, then, is to establish a worldwide minimum level of protection from inhumane labor practices through the adoption and implementation of said measures. From a theoretical standpoint, it has been maintained, on ethical grounds, that there are certain basic human rights that are universal to humankind. Thus, it is the aim of international labor standards to ensure the provision of such rights in the workplace, such as against workplace aggression, bullying, discrimination and gender inequality on the other hands for working diversity, workplace democracy and empowerment.
While the existence of international labor standards does not necessarily imply implementation or enforcement mechanisms, most real world cases have utilized formal treaties and agreements stemming from international institutions. The primary international agency charged with developing working standards is the International Labour Organization (ILO). Established in 1919, the ILO advocates international standards as essential for the eradication of labor conditions involving "injustice, hardship and privation". According to the ILO, international labor standards contribute to the possibility of lasting peace, help to mitigate potentially adverse effects of international market competition and help the progress of international development.
Implementation, however, is not limited to the ILO nor is it constrained to the legislative model that the ILO represents. Other alternatives include direct trade sanctions, multilateral enforcement, and voluntary standards. In addition to controversies that arise over each of these models, greater issues have also been raised concerning the debate over the need for international labor standards themselves. However, while critics have arisen, the international community has largely come to a consensus in favor of basic protection of the world’s labor force from inhumane practices.
Associated with the development of successful international labor standards is proper monitoring and enforcement of labor standards. Most monitoring occurs through the ILO, but domestic agencies and other NGOs also play a role in the successful monitoring of international labor standards.
- 1 History
- 2 Models
- 3 Monitoring
- 4 Violations
- 5 Criticisms
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The concept of protecting workers from the perils of labor environments dates all the way back to 14th-century Europe. The first example of the modern labor rights movement, though, came in response to the brutal working conditions that accompanied the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1802, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed what is now known as the English Factory Act. The act sought to regulate the workday of apprentices by restricting work hours to 12 per day. In doing so, the English Factory Act served as a precursor to the models of international labor standards seen today. Minimal regulations similar to those found in English legislation subsequently became increasingly commonplace among 19th century industrializing nations. Early attempts at the provision of labor standards were limited in scope, though. Such conventions focused primarily on improving working conditions in relation to hours of work, women's and children's labor, and the use of hazardous materials. While it was evident that support for workers’ rights was inconsistent across international boundaries, activists originally only employed the use of moral suasion to deal with differences in labor standards. It was not until the latter parts of the 19th century that efforts were made to implement uniform standards on an international scale.
Creation of ILO
In 1919, following the end of the First World War, the agenda on international labor standards reached a new level of prominence as a result of the founding of the International Labour Organization. As mandated by Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles, the ILO was created as a branch of the League of Nations in order to address all conceivable aspects of labor rights. Preliminary efforts focused primarily on the eradication of slavery and all forms of forced labor. The agenda quickly expanded, however, to include the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, nondiscrimination in employment, and the elimination of child labor. The ILO’s creation marked the first instance of multiple major international actors coming together in an attempt to reach a consensus on universal workers’ rights. Despite a lack of any formal means of coercion, the ILO then urged its 44 original member countries to adopt and ratify conventions limiting oppressive labor market practices.
The early years of the ILO
In the first two years of the ILO’s existence, 22 international labour conventions were adopted. Some of the topics that the first conventions addressed were “hours of work in industry, unemployment, maternity protection, night work for women, minimum age, and night work for young persons in industry.” In 1930, the ILO adopted the first future fundamental convention: the Forced Labour Convention (No.29), which prohibited all forms of forced labour unless exempted by certain conditions. With the onset of the Great Depression, the United States joined the ILO in 1934 noting that complex labor issues would require an international response. Throughout the history of the League of Nations, the ILO is the only League-affiliated organization that the United States joined. With the backdrop of World War 2, the ILO broadened its mandate with the Declaration of Philadelphia, signed during the 26th general conference session in 1944. The Declaration of Philadelphia, which is attached to the general constitution of the ILO, foreshadows some of the ILO’s earliest future fundamental conventions including the freedom of expression and association which was adopted in 1948 as Convention 87, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention.
Globalization and changing divisions of labor
In the first half of the 20th century, global divisions of labor were shaped largely by the practices of colonialism. Poorer countries exported natural resources to richer countries, which then manufactured and produced specialized goods. As many colonized nations achieved independence, developing nations in the global South took on increasingly protectionist policies in attempts to build up the manufacturing sectors of their economies, thus marking a shift in the global division of labor. However, toward the latter part of the 20th century, a number of factors saw protectionist measures fall. Such factors included rising labor costs in the north, advances in transportation and communication technologies, the liberalization of trade, and the deregulation of markets. In the midst of a changing international labor landscape, developing nations in the south took on a previously unseen domination of the labor-intensive manufacturing industry.
With the deregulation of major markets and significant increases in the volume of international trade, attempts to make manufacturing sectors more attractive to retailers saw extreme downward pressure placed on the quality of working conditions in lower income regions of the world. This gave rise to growing concerns about a global Race to the bottom, in which governments take part in the iterative loosening of labor protections in attempts to aid the international competitiveness of export-oriented industries. Fears of this nature consequently produced the notable increases in the discourse on international labor ethics that characterize the contemporary international human rights arena.
The traditional model of labor standards regulation has been, for most of history, within-country or within-jurisdiction legislation and enforcement. However, this model may not be appropriate when competitors in a product market are located in different countries or jurisdictions with dissimilar labor standards. This concern opens up the discussion for the establishment of international labor standards, which, in turn, require international regulation, particularly in the context of global trade. However, determining an effective method of implementation of international labor standards has been an area of difficulty and an area that is highly contested. The following sections outline several existing models for the regulation of international labor standards based largely on work by Richard N. Block, Karen Roberts, Cynthia Ozeki and Myron J. Roomkin in their paper titled "Models of International Labor Standards".
The legislative model for implementing a set of international labor standards is the best known. This model involves the enactment and enforcement of labor standards by a legislative body across a union of countries. Social policies regarding employment and labor typically fall into three areas: free movement of labor, prevention of social dumping via low labor standards, and dialogue between labor and management. This model has been adopted by the European Community, part of the European Union, and is also the model taken by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Organizations, such as these, are given the authority, through a series of procedures, to then issue directives in any of these areas of labor policy. Member states must comply with these directives; however, what compliance actually means and entails is left to the discretion of each member state.
European Community (EC)
The European Community (EC) is a multigovernmental legislative structure that, through the Treaty of European Union (Maastricht) in 1992, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, and various other agreements has promoted full economic integration of its member states. While it has issued a number of directives in nonlabor areas, the same cannot be said for matters concerning social policy and labor. However, some restrictions regarding health and safety have been adopted by the EC in an attempt to mitigate any inhumane practices, involving low health and safety standards, used for the sake of a competitive advantage.
For those members within the EC who favor the implementation of labor standards, there has been a push to ease the decision-making barriers to social legislation. On February 7, 1992, the signing of the Maastricht Treaty made it easier to pass legislation on less controversial issues, such as health and safety, nondiscrimination, and consultation with workers.
While the EC provides a structure for enacting legislation that applies across counties, the extent to which it can actually create international labor standards, even within its own confines, is limited. While these directives allow for labor concerns to be brought above the national level, the presence of philosophical differences among member states as well as constraints on state autonomy demonstrate barriers to this model. However, despite these difficulties and a complex decision-making structure designed to include consultation with the governments of all member states, the various EC policy-making institutions and the related parties have succeeded in creating cross-national legislation for labor standards under its social policy umbrella. Consequently, this model, as demonstrated by the EC, is a viable one for establishing labor standards on a cross-national basis. The difficulty lies in the duplication of this model elsewhere, due to the EC’s unique, integrated community that is the only such general multinational standard system in the world today.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations, consisting of 183 member countries, that deals with labor issues. The ILO, by its existence, is the recognized international vehicle for raising international labor standards issues in a worldwide forum. No other model in existence is capable of performing this role. This organization establishes labor standards by means of both conventions and recommendations and has a tripartite governing structure – representing government, employers and workers. While ILO recommendations take more of the role of providing mere guidance to member states, the stronger form, ILO conventions, have the status of a treaty, which, in principle, is binding on the member countries that voluntarily ratify them. These represent benchmarks of strong labor standards towards which countries can strive by promulgating and enforcing national laws that comply with the conventions. It is through these means that the organization works to enforce international labor standards.
In 1998, the ILO International Labour Conference adopted the “Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work” defining certain rights as “fundamental.” The Declaration commits member states to respect and promote these main principles, referred to as the core conventions, which are grouped into the following four categories (total of eight ILO conventions): freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced or compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor, and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. The Declaration claims these rights to be universal, applying to all people in all States – regardless of level of economic development. The International Labour Conference regards these principles as so important that all member counties are obligated to comply with them, regardless of ratification status.
Alongside the fundamental conventions, the ILO has also identified four priority conventions or governance conventions. Crucial to the running of the international labour standards systems implemented by the ILO, the ILO recommends that member states ratify the following priority conventions: the Labour Inspection Convention (1947), the Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention (1969), the Triparte Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention (1976), and the Employment Policy Convention (1964).
Issues with the ILO’s approach to implementing international labor standards come down to a question of universality amongst the conventions and member countries, with some arguing that flexibility is necessary to meet the needs of developing countries. These concerns gather around the idea that the race to expand exports or attract foreign investment can cause competition on the basis of labor costs, leading to a decline in international labor standards as governments either dismantle national laws that protect workers or weaken the enforcement of these laws. The underlying issue here is the connection between national incomes and the standards a country can feasibly support while remaining competitive. Other issues involve enforcement of these standards following ratification. The ILO provides a vehicle for investigating cases of noncompliance through representations, filed by employer or worker organizations, or complaints, lodged by another member that also ratified the convention. These are then sent to a committee that launches an investigation and report. This is followed by either acceptance of recommendations on steps the government may take to address the complaint or the request to submit the case to the International Court of Justice. Failure to comply may result in an incurred sanction from the organization.
Overall, the ILO structure essentially created a system of voluntary compliance with labor standards based on ratification of the established conventions. In general the enforcement system of representation and complaints has been successful – success being measured by the fact that only one representation or complaint has reached the most severe sanction. On the other hand, due to the absence of strong sanctions, the ILO lacks a strong enough deterrent factor for countries inclined to violate the standards the ILO upholds. Further, the “flexibility” of standards allows too much leeway for adaptation based on independent circumstances, diminishing the force of the conventions.
Direct trade sanctions
For over 25 years, there have been links between labor standards and international trade, particularly for specific commodities. The earliest and broadest-based example of linking international labor standards with trade is found in U.S. legislation under the Trade Act of 1974, creating the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). Under the GSP, the United States was allowed to grant nonreciprocal tariff preference to less developed countries, based on certain country and product eligibility criteria, in order to promote their economic growth and development. Among the country eligibility criteria is affording workers in a country certain internationally recognized rights, similar to the four core conventions established by the ILO. If a complaint or petition was filed against a GSP beneficiary, these are processed through the Office of the United States Trade Representative. Since 1988, eight countries have been suspended or terminated from the GSP program: Burma, Liberia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan (several products), Sudan and Syria. Four countries have been suspended but subsequently reinstated: Central African Republic, Chile, Paraguay, and Romania. Additionally, Section 2202 of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 requires that the Secretary of State submit to Congress an annual report on the economic policy and trade practices of each country with which the United States has an economic or trade relationship.
The trade sanctions model in the United States, also working as an incentives approach of sorts, appears to have been successful in forcing U.S. officials to encourage countries that are the subject of complaints to address severe violations of labor standards, as defined in the legislation. This model, however, is not designed to be a broad-based guarantee of labor standards among trading partners because it is based on external complaints not the results of monitoring. While it is effective in providing procedural rights, a lower percentage of trading partners provide substantive standards, so this measure has had mixed success. Some hope that implementation in competitor developing countries along with support by complementary domestic policies would allow this model to overall, raise the global social floor.
Another example of the various methods of implementation of international labor standards is the multilateral enforcement model. The model, embodied in the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), is different from other compulsory methods in that it opposes any imposition of common standards schemes. Instead, the multilateral enforcement model requires that signatories to agreements like the NAALC make firm commitments to existing labor standard structures within their respective domestic spheres. The unique aspect of the NAALC, however, is that it does not in any way dictate policy. This includes a strong aversion to uniformly adopted standards on the international level. Rather than encouraging the inclusion of a baseline set of workers’ rights, the multilateral enforcement model merely requires that its members strive to create unbiased administrative bodies that judge whether or not appropriate measures are being taken to ensure the continued support of domestic labor standards. In this manner, the multilateral model is not international in its adoption of a common set of principles, but rather in its level of required commitment to an unspecified group of standards. In enforcing such commitments, agreements like the NAALC primarily utilize recommendations and publicity to make decision makers accountable for their actions. Multilateral enforcement models like the NAALC have experienced mixed results in terms of effectiveness due to their limited powers of influence.
The voluntary standards model makes reference to a system of implementation for labor standards based on a corporate code of conduct. Corporate codes of conduct are adopted when various organizations join together in agreement to operate under a set of socially responsible labor rules. Therefore, this model generally involves voluntary behavior and self-regulation. An example of voluntary corporate adoption of labor standards is given by the Sullivan Principles in South Africa that were taken on by a group of U.S. companies. Additionally, U.S. apparel retailers, such as Nike, the Gap, and Liz Claiborne, have recently attempted to put in place a system of regulations to prevent their products from being produced under sweatshop conditions.
For this model to be successful, there must be incentive for compliance. The problem, however, is that in the case of labor standards, there are usually high economic incentives to disregard these standards, which are viewed as rises in production costs. For this reason, the monitoring system plays a crucial role in the success and effectiveness of such conditions. In some cases, like the aforementioned Sullivan Principles in South Africa, monitoring has demonstrated the codes’ success. In this case, investors rewarded adherence to the code, as a sign of corporate citizenship. On the other hand, consumers can also punish firms they see as socially irresponsible by means of boycotts or the individual decision to avoid purchase of certain products. The main point of these examples being: where there is strong pressure from investors and consumers to support certain standards, companies may benefit by being seen as upholding accepted morals.
Now, while this is true, it is also true that where costs of complying with stringent standards are high and the sources of consumer pressure diffused, codes are likely to be ineffective. It takes the active involvement and interest of the company, in response to whatever actions have been taken, for this model to be successful. When they choose to respond to outside pressures, companies use means such as public announcements, local religious leaders, human rights activists, university professors, and labor representatives, among others, to implement compliance and a system of monitoring. Another difficulty has been that, while pressure has been effectively pressed on individual firms, it has been difficult to find agreement at an industry level, in terms of corporate codes.
Finally, a variation of the voluntary standards models is one of certification, which began in October 1997 with the issuance of SA (Social Accountability) 8000 by the Council on Economic Priorities Accrediting Agency (CEPAA). SA8000 is an example of a corporate certification process for social responsibility and labor standards. This certification process has the purpose of identifying corporations that comply with certain criteria based on social accountability requirements, including criteria for child labor and worker health and safety. The resulting certification then serves the purpose of assuring customers that goods and services provided by certified firms have been produced by workers who are offered labor standards that meet at least a minimally acceptable level.
A crucial element to the success of international labor standards is proper monitoring and enforcement. When monitoring international labor standards, agencies rely on three major types of information: information from international organizations, like the ILO, information from national agencies, and information from non-governmental organizations. Upon locating and determining the necessary data, monitoring agencies then need to process and sift through the results to analyze compliance with certain international labor standards. Finally after compliance analysis, recommendations and required adjustments are then communicated to the concerned party.
One of the major sources of data necessary for the monitoring of international labor standards is the International Labour Organization. According to Article 22 of the ILO Constitution, “each of the members agrees to make an annual report to the International Labour Office on the measures which it has taken to give effect to the provisions of Conventions to which it is a party.” Specifically, countries are mandated to prepare a report every two years for the Core Labour Standards of the ILO and every five years for all other active conventions that the country has ratified, which are submitted, to the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations and the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards. For conventions that have not yet been ratified by the country, Article 19 of the ILO Constitution mandates countries to demonstrate on regular intervals steps “they have taken to give effect to any provision of certain conventions or recommendations, and to indicate any obstacles which have prevented or delayed the ratification of a particular convention.” All of the above combine to form the ILO’s regular system of supervision.
The ILO also has a special procedures type of supervisory mechanism where complaints leveled against member states and freedom of association complaints are dealt with. Under articles 24 and 26 of the ILO Constitution, different groups of people may indicate to the governing body that a certain state is not complying with an international labor standard that they have previously ratified. Within the ILO framework, the labor standard regarding the freedom to associate has also received a special priority which allows complaints to be brought up to the governing body even if the state has not ratified the conventions regarding the freedom of association.
Other international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank also monitor international labor standards. The United Nations largely relies on self-reported data from member states. These data points are used to determine whether or not member states are meeting the requirements of international treaties agreed to by the United Nations. Given that the ILO is a subset of the UN, generally, more detailed labor standards data and compliance records are located within the realm of the ILO. The World Bank incorporates the international standards set by the ILO as one of the factors behind assistance to member states.
National agencies and NGOs also monitor international labor standards. National agencies generally report on domestic compliance of international labor standards while NGOs are much more diverse in their scope.
Several challenges, however, exist in the monitoring of international labor standards. The ILO and other international organizations generally rely on self-reporting data from countries. Some analysts have questioned the quality and neutrality of these sources of data. For example, definitions of what constitutes unemployment vary from country to country making it difficult to compare data and to judge data quality. Additionally, despite the large amount of data, there are still gaps in their coverage. Coverage is greatest in the urban environments and the formal sector. Conversely, gaps exist in the coverage of rural environments and informal sectors which can positively skew the labor statistics that countries report.
Challenges also exist in the usage of data to assess compliance with various international labor standards. As interest continues to grow in the monitoring and enforcement of international labor standards, an assessment, according to the National Research Council, “requires careful analysis of what the core labor standards mean and imply, how to determine when a country is or is not in compliance, what indicators of compliance and which sources of information to use, and limitations of the sources of information.” Standardization will be necessary to allow proper and effective monitoring of labor standards.
Workplace discrimination, overt and covert, is an example of violations of international labor standards. The ILO defines workplace discrimination as “treating people differently because of certain characteristics, such as race, colour, or sex, which results in the impairment of equality and of opportunity and treatment.” An overt example of workplace discrimination is unequal pay, especially between men and women. Though recognized as an example of workplace discrimination since 1919, the gender pay gap, often a measurement of unequal pay, is estimated to be 22.9%, which means that for every dollar earned by a man, a woman, in the same position would earn 77.1 cents. Despite the fact that the ILO proposes that there are many benefits to reducing and eliminating the gender pay gap, at the current, slow rates of gender pay reduction, the ILO estimates that “another 75 years will be needed to bridge this gap.”
Job security is another arena where workplace discrimination can be found. In some developing countries, like Bangladesh, job insecurity reflects patriarchal societies that have diminished women’s options. Currently in Bangladesh, of the 1.8 million workers in garment factories, 1.5 million are women. From the perspective of the factory owners, the advantage of hiring woman is the “docility that comes with disadvantage.” Women have fewer opportunities than men when it comes to decent, respectable employment. For many of these women, if they were to lose their jobs at the garment factories, they would be forced into poverty or work in the informal sector, like prostitution.
Other forms of discrimination, outside of gender discrimination, include discrimination based on race & ethnicity, age, religion, political opinions, social origins, disabilities, sexual orientations, genetics, and lifestyle. The ILO identifies all these forms of discrimination as violations of international labor standards.
According to the ILO, child labor is “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” The ILO classifies work conducted by children into three categories: children in employment, child labor, and hazardous work. The ILO condemns both child labor and hazardous work with the goal of eliminating hazardous child labor by 2016. In 2012, the ILO estimated that 168 million children (11% of the world’s children) were engaged in child labor, of which, 85 million engaged in hazardous work. ILO Convention No. 5 adopted in 1919 and entered into force in 1921 was the first ILO convention regulating child labor. Specifically, the main provision of the article stated “children under the age of fourteen years shall not be employed or work in any public or private industrial undertaking.” Since its inception in 1919, several other ILO conventions had been adopted that have modified and expanded the initial 1919 convention. Today, the C138 Minimum Age Convention, 1973 and C182 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 1999 have replaced all the previous conventions. The Minimum Age Convention defines the minimum age children are allowed to work. Children, unless under special allowances, are not allowed to engage in hazardous work until the age of 18. The basic minimum age for child labor is 15 (14 for developing countries), and the minimum wage for light work, which may not interfere with education or vocational orientation and training, is 13 (12 for developing countries). C182 urges all governments to take immediate action to identify and eliminate the worst forms of child labour.  The following are defined as hazardous work according to the ILO:
- “Work which exposes children to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse
- Work underground, underwater, at dangerous heights, or in confined spaces
- Work with dangerous machinery, equipment, and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads
- Work in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents, or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations, damaging to their health
- Work under particularly difficult conditions such as work for long hours or during the night or work where the child is unreasonably confined to the premises of the employer” 
The majority of UN Member States has ratified both C138 and C182. The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (C182) has been ratified by 177 nations, while 8 countries (Cuba, Eritrea, India, Marshall Islands, Myammar, Palau, Somalia, Tuvalu) have yet to ratify it. The Minimum Age Convention (C138) has been ratified by 166 countries, while 19 countries have yet to ratify it. Notably, Australia, the United States, Canada, Mexico, India, and Bangladesh, are all member states that have not ratified the Minimum Age Convention (C138). 
Unsafe labor practices
Operating under the mantra that “decent work is safe work,” the ILO Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment, SafeWork, has the goal of making work safer for all. According to the ILO, someone dies from a work-related accident or disease every 15 seconds.  Unsafe labor practices have a long, sordid history. From the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the 2013 fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, industrial disasters negatively affect the lives of workers and their dependents with high associated economic costs. Since its creation in 1919, ensuring worker safety has been one of the ILO’s fundamental missions.  The ILO has over its history adopted several conventions that have the goal of maximizing worker safety and health. Currently, there are three fundamental conventions that are in effect: the Occupation Safety and Health Convention (C155, 1981), the Occupational Health Services Convention (C161, 1985), and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention (C187, 2006). The most recent convention has the stated aim of “promoting a preventative safety and health culture and progressively achieving a safe and healthy working environment.”  One challenge that the ILO faces is the low ratification levels of the fundamental health and safety conventions. C155, C161, and C187 have been ratified by 60, 31, and 25 nations respectively.  From the perspective of the ILO failing to meet the expectations delineated in the conventions are examples of international labor standards violations.
In addition to disagreements about the appropriate method of implementation for international labor standards, there are dissenting opinions concerning the validity of their existence at all. The two most common arguments raised against international labor standards are that they undermine international competitiveness and erode domestic policy.
Undermines international competitiveness
A critique of international labor standards historically raised by right-of-center economists is that they distort market forces, thus inhibiting employment and income. According to right-wing economists, global free trade allows countries to specialize in those activities in which they have a comparative advantage and to reap mutual gains through exchange. The international competitiveness of countries with large amounts of unskilled labor depends on their ability to provide low-cost workers. Therefore, international standards would undermine any comparative advantage by increasing the cost of labor. According to the conservative argument, international labor standards leave developing nations with a diminished export economy.
Supporters of international labor standards often respond by arguing that this critique only attacks a particular aspect of enforcement rather than the standards themselves. Furthermore, left-of-center economists suggest that higher labor standards do not necessarily undermine competitiveness. Empirical evidence provided by Berik and Rodgers (2006) suggests that any costs of raising labor standards can easily be offset by incentives encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI) and exports. Following this line of argument, not only do higher labor standards improve social and political stability, thus encouraging more foreign investment, but they also provide valuable investments in human capital that can lead to efficiency gains.
Erodes domestic policy
Another prominent argument against international labor standards is the notion that any attempt to harmonize set benchmarks for acceptable working conditions disregards, to some extent, the current state of an individual country’s unique economic and social climates. It is suggested that rather than adopting an internationally agreed upon group of labor standards, sovereign states are better off leaving labor market regulation to domestic policy. In this way, it is argued, a country can tailor a standard such as a minimum wage to the specific situation in that area of the world rather than trying to implement an ill-fitting uniform wage. In a 1996 study, Drusilla Brown, Alan Deardorff and Robert Stern use a variety of theoretical labor models to test the effectiveness of the harmonization of international labor standards. The study concludes that in theoretical cases, market failures that allow a breakdown in working environment conditions are most adequately remedied by labor standards. However, market failures are not uniform across countries and so it stands to reason that labor standards should not be constructed in an international way.
An example of this critique can be seen by looking at the issue of child labor practices. The case against harmonized international labor rights makes the point that the amount of child labor in a country is directly dependent on its level of economic development. Following this line of reasoning, poorer countries have a better chance at abolishing child labor through economic development rather than minimum age requirements. In fact, one study found that children 14 years and younger are not completely withdrawn from the labor force until GDP approaches $5000 per capita. Additionally, it is also argued that international consensuses that disparage child labor practices can actually reduce the likelihood of eradicating child labor altogether by weakening incentives for adult workers to support a ban.
- Labor law
- International Labour Organization
- International law
- Capability approach
- Human rights
- Work Intensity
- International Labour Organization conventions
- Social inequality
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