Fundamental Rights at Work

The world needs a floor of social rights. This became clear in the beginning of the 1990s with the emergence of a universal market economy, globalization and the information technology revolution. Debate intensified as it became apparent that economic growth did not guarantee social progress. Amongst several means of action by the ILO to promote a floor of social rights, is the campaign to promote fundamental principles and rights at work and the universal ratification of the eight ILO Conventions covering these principles and rights. The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up, adopted in 1998, aims to ensure that social progress goes hand in hand with economic progress and development. It covers four principles and rights:
  • Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining;
  • The elimination of forced and compulsory labour;
  • The elimination of discrimination in the workplace; and
  • The abolition of child labour.
The fundamental rights at work constitute a central plank of decent work.

The principles and rights contained in the Declaration have been articulated in international human rights instruments and declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and at major international fora such as the World Summit on Social Development in 1995 and at the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in 1996. They are also gaining wider recognition among organizations, communities and enterprises. These fundamental principles and rights provide benchmarks for responsible business conduct and are incorporated into the ILO's Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. The OECD's Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises emphasize the principles and rights found in the ILO Declaration and the UN Global Compact promotes them as universal values to be achieved in business dealings around the world. A growing number of private sector codes of conduct and similar initiatives also refer to the fundamental principles and rights at work. The Follow-up to the Declaration, also adopted in 1998, helps to determine the needs of ILO member States in improving their application of the principles and rights of the Declaration. Member states that have not ratified one or more of the fundamental Conventions, are required to submit annual reports, identifying where assistance may be required. In addition, the ILO prepares a Global Report each year on one of the four categories of fundamental principles and rights to analyse the situation around the world, both for ratifying and non-ratifying states. It serves as a basis for assessing the effectiveness of the assistance provided by the ILO and for determining priorities for the following period.

1. Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining
ILO Convention No. 87 - Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948
ILO Convention No. 98 - Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, 1949

The right of workers and employers to form and join organizations of their choice is an integral part of a free and open society. It is at the core of ILO's values and also a right proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It is a basic civil liberty that serves as a building block for social and economic progress. Linked to this is the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. Sound collective bargaining practices ensure that employers and workers have an equal voice in negotiations and that the outcome will be fair and equitable. Voice and representation are an important part of decent work.

The existence of independent organizations of workers and employers serves as a foundation to the ILO's tripartite structure, and their involvement in ILO actions and policies reinforces freedom of association, directly and indirectly. From advising governments on labour legislation to providing education and training for trade unions and employers' groups, the ILO is regularly engaged in promoting freedom of association. The ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association was set up in 1951 to examine violations of workers' and employers' organizing rights. The committee has examined more than 2000 cases, including allegations of murders, disappearances, physical attacks, arrests and forced exile of trade union officials. The committee is tripartite and handles complaints in ILO member States whether or not they have ratified freedom of association Conventions. Through the Committee on Freedom of Association and other supervisory mechanisms, the ILO consistently defends the rights of trade unions and employers' organizations. In many cases, these organizations have played a significant role in their countries' democratic transformation.

2. Forced labour
ILO Convention No. 29 - Forced Labour, 1930
ILO Convention No. 105 - Abolition of Forced Labour, 1957

Although forced labour is universally condemned, millions of people around the world are still subjected to it. It takes different forms, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. The victims are the most vulnerable - women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage. The ILO is also pressing for effective national laws and stronger enforcement mechanisms, such as legal sanctions and vigorous prosecution against those who exploit forced labourers. By raising public awareness, the ILO seeks to highlight such human and labour rights violations.

3. Discrimination
ILO Convention No. 100 - Equal Remuneration, 1951
ILO Convention No. 111 - Discrimination (Employment and Occupation, 1958

Millions of women and men around the world are denied access to jobs and training, receive low wages or are restricted to certain occupations simply on the basis of their sex, skin colour, ethnicity or beliefs, without regard to their capabilities and skills. Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental human right and is essential for workers to choose their employment freely, to develop their potential to the full and to reap economic rewards on the basis of merit. Combating discrimination is an essential part of promoting decent work, and success on this front is felt well beyond the workplace. ILO standards on equality provide tools to eliminate discrimination in all aspects of the workplace and in society as a whole. They also provide the basis upon which gender mainstreaming strategies can be applied in the field of labour.

4. Child Labour
ILO Convention No. 138 - Minimum Age Convention, 1973
ILO Convention No. 182 - Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999

There are more than 200 million children working throughout the world, many full-time. They are deprived of adequate education, good health and basic freedoms. Of these, 126 million – or one in every 12 children worldwide – are exposed to hazardous forms of child labour, work that endangers their physical, mental or moral well-being.

As with other aspects of decent work, eliminating child labour is a development as well as a human rights issue. ILO policies and programmes aim to help ensure that children receive the education and training they need to become productive adults in decent employment.