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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 (or Protocols), 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 a Convention.

Conventions and Recommendations are drawn up by representatives of governments, employers and workers and are adopted at the annual International Labour Conference. Once a standard is adopted, member states are required under article 19(6) of the ILO Constitution, to submit it to their competent authority (normally Parliament) within a period of twelve months 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 undertake to apply the Convention in national law and practice and to report on its application at regular intervals. Technical assistance is provided by the ILO, if necessary. In addition, representation and complaint procedures can be initiated against countries for violations of a Convention that they have ratified (see applying and promoting ILS).

Fundamental Conventions

The ILO Governing Body has identified eight “fundamental” Conventions, covering subjects that are considered to be 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 by the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) (see applying and promoting ILS). As of 1st January 2019, there were 1,376 ratifications of these Conventions, representing 92 per cent of the possible number of ratifications. At that date, a further 121 ratifications were still required to meet the objective of universal ratification of all the fundamental Conventions.

The eight fundamental Conventions are:

Table of ratifications of the fundamental conventions

Governance (priority) Conventions

The ILO Governing Body has also designated another four Conventions as governance (or priority) instruments, thereby encouraging member States to ratify them because of their importance for the functioning of the international labour standards system. The ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, in its Follow-up, emphasizes the significance of these Conventions from the viewpoint of governance.

The four governance Conventions are: