Core labour standards


Rationale | Key considerations | Policy practices | Resources | Next

8.6  What mechanisms are being put in place to promote and enforce core labour standards?

Rationale for the question

Core labour standards are a series of rules and principles regarding the minimum standards recognised by the international community for treating workers humanely. Although many kinds of labour standards exist, the ones referred to as the four core labour standards are those that the international community has agreed are applicable to all countries because they protect basic human rights. Enforcement of these standards benefits a country as a whole, not only its workers, because the core labour standards are central to the healthy functioning of market economies. They create a level playing field for both foreign and domestic investors thereby improving economic performance.


Adopting the core labour standards serves countries’ economic self-interest. A number of studies find no evidence to support the belief that multinational enterprises favour countries with lower respect for basic human and worker rights. On the contrary, evidence suggests that multinational enterprises are more likely to invest in countries with stricter safeguards and enforcement of basic human and worker rights than in those countries where such rights are absent or poorly enforced.


Key considerations

The core labour standards are fundamental principles that protect basic human rights in the workforce. The international community, largely through the International Labour Organization (ILO)—a United Nations agency bringing together representatives of governments, employers and workers—has developed a consensus with respect to the definition of the core labour standards. As stated in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) the core labour standards aim to: (1) eliminate all forms of forced or compulsory labour; (2) effectively abolish child labour; (3) eliminate discrimination in respect of employment and occupation; and (4) ensure the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Specific definitions of these principles are spelled out in eight ILO core labour standard conventions, also known as the fundamental human rights conventions. These are:

  • Elimination of forced and compulsory labour
    (Conventions 29 and 105) where forced labour is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
  • Abolition of child labour
    (Conventions 138 and 182). Aside from violating children’s basic human rights, sending children to work rather than to school perpetuates poverty and compromises economic growth. Each signatory, regardless of level of economic development, agrees to design and implement a course of action, effectively monitor implementation and apply appropriate sanctions.
  • Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation
    (Conventions 100 and 111) is central to achieving greater social justice while also promoting development through a more efficient allocation of resources. Discrimination includes “any distinction, exclusion or preference” made “on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin, which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation...”.
  • Freedom of association and collective bargaining
    (Conventions 87 and 98). The right for workers and employers to freely create and participate in organisations to promote and protect their interests is a fundamental principle behind the ILO’s work.  Signatories must give workers and employees the right freely to establish and join organisations of their choice, without any type of prior authorisation. Signatories further agree to establish mechanisms to ensure the right to organise and to encourage the practice of negotiating between employers and workers’ organisations.

Policy practices to scrutinise

The PFI user should assess the country’s effective implementation and enforcement of each of the four core labour standards by using the following criteria and indicators.

  • Ratification of the eight core labour standard conventions
    As a first step, the PFI user should determine whether the government is a member of the ILO and whether it has ratified the eight core labour standard conventions. While it is possible to respect all the core labour standards without ratifying any of the conventions, ratification sends a positive signal to the international community and foreign investors. This may in part explain why as of November 2007, over two thirds of the ILO’s 181 member states had ratified all 8 of the fundamental conventions. In addition, since the ILO’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work made respect for the core labour standards an inherent requirement for all ILO members, a member country’s ratification of these conventions is essentially an active affirmation of an obligation.

  • Laws and regulations enforcing and complying with the core labour standards
    Second, and more importantly, the PFI user should look into whether laws are in compliance with the four core labour standards. This means not only having laws and regulations that explicitly protect each of the human rights covered by the core standards, but also eliminating any laws or regulations that violate them. For example, regarding non-discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, the PFI user will need not only to investigate whether the law prohibits discrimination, but also whether there are any discriminatory provisions already in force, such as a law that prohibits women from performing certain types of work. The PFI user should also determine whether the government has waived any components of the core labour standards within special export processing zones.

    To be effective, laws and regulations must (1) be specific enough to cover clearly the intended violations without being so specific as unintentionally to exclude certain behaviour; (2) punish violations in a manner appropriate to the offense; yet at the same time (3) not render compliance with the law unnecessarily burdensome. For example, laws to combat forced labour should be specific enough to include a definition of forced labour that clearly covers newer forms of forced labour such as human trafficking. Those laws should also make violations such as human trafficking a criminal offense, not merely a civil offense. However, appropriate punishment may also include rehabilitation when it can help deter future violations. An example of an overly burdensome law might be an anti-discrimination provision that requires employers to file monthly reports with the labour inspection office detailing the race, gender and salary of all its employees. There are less burdensome and more effective means of fighting discrimination which ultimately are more likely to be respected.
  • Public outreach
    Third, the PFI user should evaluate what action the government has taken to ensure public awareness of the laws and regulations to defend the core labour standards. The PFI user should assess whether existing outreach communicates the necessary information in a manner that is clear and complete yet user-friendly, and which reaches its intended audience, i.e. workers, employers, potential local and foreign investors, and organisations representing each of these groups.

    Effective forms of outreach include maintaining an easily navigable, regularly updated website which summarises legal protections and public resources in easily understood language. Websites have the advantage of being simple to update and accessible to anyone anywhere, whether a local worker or an overseas investor. In evaluating a website’s effectiveness the PFI user should examine whether it (1) summarises in plain language relevant laws and regulations defending core labour rights, (2) includes links to the texts of those laws and regulations, (3) provides a government hotline for reporting violations, and (4) indicates whom to contact for further information.

    Although a website is a powerful tool, it alone is not enough. In countries where a significant segment of the population lacks ready access to the internet, additional forms of outreach are particularly important. The PFI user should examine what other means of public education the government has pursued, including the distribution of written material and cooperation with chambers of commerce and employer- and employee-representative groups to disseminate information.

    Where violations of core labour standards are deeply rooted in a cultural acceptance of certain views, such as sexism or racism, it is particularly important to organise public education campaigns. Employers must be aware of their duties and workers of their rights. In some cases enduring success can only be achieved by changing pervasive attitudes. This is particularly important for combating discrimination.
  • Effective enforcement of the core labour standards
    Fourth, the PFI user should examine the effectiveness of the enforcement of the laws and regulations upholding core labour standards. Enforcement is effective when existing violators are consistently brought before the law, successfully prosecuted, and punished in a manner commensurate with the offense. Part of this assessment is to determine whether there is an effective way for private citizens to inform the relevant government agency of a breach. For example, is there a government-operated hotline to report violations? If, yes, are most people aware it exists? Has it been well publicised? Are reported incidents promptly and properly investigated? Are there government instruments in place to respond to an alleged breach? What protections are available to persons who report violations? Does the labour inspector’s office have adequate resources to carry out effective inspections and properly sanction violations? The PFI user should obtain some independent measure of the level of incidence of actual violations and then compare that against the number of cases investigated and prosecuted.
  • The role of non-governmental actors
    Fifth, the PFI user should examine whether non-governmental actors, either in conjunction with or independent of the government, have taken action. Examples of this are the inclusion of respect for the ILO core labour standards in collective agreements, public campaigns by NGOs to raise awareness of the core labour standards, and the introduction of codes of conduct by individual employers requiring compliance with the core labour standards. While a country should not depend entirely on independent actors, the PFI user can better understand the situation in a country by taking into account the contributions of these independent players.


An excellent additional resource for better understanding the core labour standards is the Core Labour Standards Handbook. The result of a collaboration between the ILO and the Asian Development Bank, it is a practical guide for policymakers and others, providing clear, in-depth explanations of all four of the core labour standards and the eight fundamental conventions. 

  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) website ( is the main resource for accessing information on core labour standards and the eight fundamental conventions. Some of ILO's subsidiary sites are listed below:
    • ILOLEX database on International Labour Standards (, listing the texts of all ILO conventions and information on which countries have ratified each convention. The information is searchable both by convention and by country.
    • ILO NATLEX database on labour law (, listing labour laws organised by both country and topic. Each of the 4core labour standards is listed separately. This is useful, first, to identify the relevant laws of a particular country and, second, to compare across-country laws on a specific topic.
    • NATLEX Country Profiles Database, bringing together information on a country’s application of international labour standards and national labour law. The profiles include: information on a country’s convention ratifications, ILO reporting requirements, comments of the ILO's supervisory bodies, and a link to the NATLEX database listing a country’s basic laws.
    • ILO Fundamental Principals and Rights at Work website is dedicated specifically to the fundamental principles and rights at work. It features a link to the text of the Declaration of the Fundamental Principals and Rights at Work and includes a number of other resources, such as a page specifically dedicated to forced labour issues. Also of interest are the annual Global Reports accessible on the site covering on a rotating basis one of the four core labour standards. They provide in-depth explanations and detail the status of progress in securing compliance.
    • ILO International Training Centre in Turin ( provides training to governments and other organisations in the area of labour rights and compliance with labour standards, particularly the core labour standards.
    • The US Department of State Human Rights Country Reports cover a series of human rights issues, including core labour standards. It features useful headings such as “Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons” and “Worker Rights”.
  • The Human Rights Watch ( website covers a broad range of human rights issues, including core labour standards. Information on labour rights is not usually listed separately, but the site does include a page on labour and human rights – although not by country.
  • The International Trade Union Confederation website ( provides information on issues related to the core labour standards such as forced labour, equality in the workplace, and trade union rights.



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