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Labour regulation

Addressing the complex realities of post-crisis employment

Several hundred experts meeting at the ILO Regulating for Decent Work Conference call for robust labour regulation to help deliver decent work and look to innovation to tackle unacceptable forms of work.

Comment | 14 July 2015
By Deirdre McCann

Deirdre McCann, Durham Law School, United Kingdom
GENEVA (ILO News) – Prior to the economic shock which began in 2008, the capacity of labour market regulation to respond to the demands of twenty-first century working life was in doubt. In the aftermath of the crisis, which persists in one form or another in a number of countries, it has become clear that new models are urgently needed.

The crisis has triggered and magnified changes in working life that pose profound challenges to policy-makers around the world: spiralling unemployment, in particular among young people; growth of highly insecure work; an increase in the working poor; the destructive effects of inequality; and enduring and burgeoning informality, often in very low-quality jobs.

Such trends have meant that the true experience of many in the labour force differs from the employment models assumed by regulatory frameworks. Moreover, austerity policies demand that labour protections be dismantled without recognizing the social and economic benefits of these frameworks.

Regulating for decent work

The 2015 Regulating for Decent Work Conference, which was held at the International Labour Organization (ILO) from 8-10 July 2015, has brought together experts from across the world to debate the future of labour regulation in the wake of the crisis.

Questions at the frontline of global debates on the future of work, including inequality, insecurity and the impact of austerity policies, were explored at the Conference. The participants – more than 300 researchers and policy-makers from all regions – agreed that labour regulation, in conjunction with sound macroeconomic, trade and investment policies, is crucial to delivering decent work.

Rather than deregulation, what is needed are robust regulatory frameworks coupled with meaningful implementation and enforcement mechanisms. The focus should be on identifying the most effective forms of regulation, which protect all workers yet accommodate, as necessary, the particular needs of traditionally disadvantaged groups such as women, migrants and young workers.

The research projects showcased at the Conference confirm that labour regulation is vital. However, they also suggest that regulatory regimes should be reformed to merge traditional forms of regulation with innovative mechanisms.

Methods discussed, for example, included those that ensure income security for vulnerable segments of the population; promote new ways of organizing, including in informal work; extend labour rights across global value chains; and effectively integrate labour market regulation into development strategies.

Unacceptable forms of work, innovative regulation

A key challenge for modern labour regulation, confirmed by the Conference debates, is the global significance of unacceptable forms of work (UFW), defined by the ILO as “work performed in conditions that deny fundamental principles and rights at work, put at risk the lives, health, freedom, human dignity and security of workers or keep households in conditions of extreme poverty.”

Matt Paish / Flickr
Among the central problems in tackling UFW, however, is that many of its forms are beyond the reach of the traditional regulatory toolkit. Legal and enforcement mechanisms that can extend labour rights to unprotected groups are therefore needed. These institutions must couple conventional regulation with innovative and targeted mechanisms that offer the kinds of protections needed by neglected workers.

Yet the methods that can realize these goals are yet to be determined. Experimentation is needed to design and test innovative forms of regulation in local contexts, research their effects, and make adjustments as needed.

Domestic workers and the future of labour law

An important area of experimentation is the series of new laws that have been enacted in the wake of the ILO’s landmark Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) in countries as diverse as Argentina, China, India, and Japan.

These legal frameworks emerged as a topic of intense discussion at the Regulating for Decent Work Conference, not only on their promise for heightened protection of domestic workers, but also on the broader lessons that can be derived for the future of labour regulation.

The most significant and innovative of these new regimes embrace the idiosyncrasies of domestic work: they recognize the particular needs of ‘live-in’ domestic workers; reform social protection systems to encompass domestic labour; revamp enforcement mechanisms to cover private homes; and offer creative ways to reconfigure representative mechanisms, working time frameworks and the payment of wages.

This spirit of innovation should be more widely adopted, as suggested by debates at the Conference. Techniques drawn from domestic work laws can be incorporated into initiatives to protect other neglected groups, such as casual or informal workers. More expansively, the experience of regulating domestic work is offering crucial ideas for the effective implementation of universal norms.

Absorbing such lessons on the complexity of post-crisis employment – and of effective regulation – is essential if labour regulation’s future is to secure decent work.