How International Labour Standards are created

International labour standards evolve from a growing international concern that action needs to be taken on a particular issue, for example providing working women with maternity protection, or ensuring safe working conditions for agricultural workers. Developing international labour standards at the ILO is a unique legislative process involving representatives of governments, workers and employers from around the world. As a first step, the Governing Body agrees to put an issue on the agenda of a future International Labour Conference. The International Labour Office prepares a report that analyses the laws and practices of member states with regard to the issue at stake. The report is circulated to member states and to workers' and employers' organizations for comments and is discussed at the International Labour Conference. A second report is then prepared by the Office with a draft instrument for comments and submitted for discussion at the following Conference, where the draft is amended as necessary and proposed for adoption. This "double discussion" gives Conference participants sufficient time to examine the draft instrument and make comments on it. A two-thirds majority of votes is required for a standard to be adopted.

The International Labour Conference recently started using an "integrated approach" with the aim of improving the coherence, relevance and impact of standards-related activities and developing a plan of action that embodies a coherent package of tools to address a specific subject. These tools may include conventions, recommendations and other types of instruments, promotional measures, technical assistance, research and dissemination of knowledge, and inter-agency cooperation. First used in 2003 for the purpose of developing a global strategy to improve occupational safety and health worldwide, this approach was used in 2004 to examine the issue of migrant workers and will be applied to several further topics (such as youth employment) at future International Labour Conferences.


ILO member states are required to submit any convention adopted at the International Labour Conference to their national competent authority for the enactment of relevant legislation or other action, including ratification. An adopted convention normally comes into force 12 months after being ratified by two member states. Ratification is a formal procedure whereby a state accepts the convention as a legally binding instrument. Once it has ratified a convention, a country is subject to the ILO's regular supervisory system responsible for ensuring that the convention is applied.

Universality and flexibility

Standards are adopted by a two-thirds majority vote of the ILO's constituents and are therefore an expression of universally acknowledged principles. At the same time, they reflect the fact that countries have diverse cultural and historical backgrounds, legal systems, and levels of economic development. Indeed, most standards have been formulated in a manner that makes them flexible enough to be translated into national law and practice with due consideration of these differences. For example, standards on minimum wages do not require member states to set a specific minimum wage but to establish a system and the machinery to fix minimum wage rates appropriate to their economic development. Other standards have so-called "flexibility" clauses allowing states to lay down temporary standards that are lower than those normally prescribed, to exclude certain categories of workers from the application of a convention, or to apply only certain parts of the instrument. Ratifying countries are usually required to make a declaration to the Director-General of the ILO if they exercise any of the flexibility options, and to make use of such clauses only in consultation with the social partners. Reservations to ILO conventions, however, are not permitted.

Updating international labour standards

At present there are 188 conventions and 199 recommendations, some dating back as far as 1919. As can be expected, some of these instruments no longer correspond to today's needs. To address this problem, the ILO adopts revising conventions that replace older ones, or protocols which add new provisions to older conventions. The International Labour Conference may approve the withdrawal of recommendations or conventions which have not entered into force. Between 1995 and 2002 the Governing Body reviewed all ILO standards adopted before 1985, with the exception of the fundamental and priority conventions, to see if they needed to be revised. As a result of that review, 71 conventions - including the fundamental conventions and those adopted after 1985 - were designated as being "up-to-date" and recommended for active promotion. As for the remaining standards, the Governing Body decided that some needed to be revised, some had an interim status, some were outdated, and for some others further information and study were required. No conclusion was reached regarding the Termination of Employment Convention (No. 158) and Recommendation (No. 166), 1982. A further two conventions were designated for promotion following the discussion of migrant workers at the International Labour Conference in 2004. Furthermore, in 1997 the International Labour Conference adopted an amendment to the ILO Constitution which would allow for the abrogation of a convention in force but recognized as obsolete if two-thirds of delegates voted for such a measure. This amendment has been ratified by more than 90 states but still falls short of the requirements for it to come into force.