International labour standards are legal instruments drawn up by the ILO's constituents (governments, employers and workers) and setting out basic principles and rights at work. They are either conventions, which are legally binding international treaties that may be ratified by 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 supplements the convention by providing more detailed guidelines on how it could be applied. Recommendations can also be autonomous, i.e. not linked to any convention.
Conventions and recommendations are drawn up by representatives of governments, employers and workers and are adopted at the ILO's annual International Labour Conference. Once a standard is adopted, member states are required under the ILO Constitution to submit them to their competent authority (normally the parliament) for consideration. In the case of conventions, this means consideration for ratification. If it is ratified, a convention generally comes into force for that country one year after the date of ratification. Ratifying countries commit themselves to applying the convention in national law and practice and reporting on its application at regular intervals. The ILO provides technical assistance if necessary. In addition, representation and complaint procedures can be initiated against countries for violations of a convention they have ratified (see ).
The ILO's Governing Body has identified eight conventions as "fundamental", covering subjects that are considered as fundamental principles and rights at work: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. These principles are also covered in the ILO's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998). In 1995, the ILO launched a campaign to achieve universal ratification of these eight conventions. There are currently over 1,200 ratifications of these conventions, representing 86% of the possible number of ratifications.
The ILO's Governing Body has also designated another four conventions as "priority" instruments, thereby encouraging member states to ratify them because of their importance for the functioning of the international labour standards system. Since 2008, these conventions are now referred to as Governance conventions as they were identified by the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization as the standards that are the most significant from the viewpoint of governance.