International labour standards evolve from a growing international concern that action needs to be taken on a particular issue, such as providing working women with maternity protection, or ensuring safe working conditions for agricultural workers. The development of international labour standards at the ILO is a unique legislative process involving representatives of governments, workers and employers from throughout 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 law and practice of member States with regard to the issue at stake. The report is communicated to member States and to workers’ and employers’ organizations for comments and is then submitted to the International Labour Conference for a first discussion. A second report is then prepared by the Office with a draft instrument, which is also sent for comments and submitted for discussion at the following session of the Conference, where the draft instrument is discussed, amended as necessary and proposed for adoption. This “double discussion” procedure 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.
Ratification of Conventions and Protocols
ILO member States are required to submit any Convention or Protocol adopted by the International Labour Conference to their competent national authority for the enactment of relevant legislation or other action, including ratification. An adopted Convention or Protocol normally comes into force 12 months after being ratified by two member States. Ratification is a formal procedure whereby a State accepts the Convention or Protocol as a legally binding instrument. Once it has ratified a Convention or Protocol, a country is subject to the ILO regular supervisory system, which is responsible for ensuring that the instrument is applied. For more on the ILO supervisory system, see section “Applying and promoting International Labour Standards”.
Universality and flexibility
Standards are adopted by a two-thirds majority vote of ILO 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 level of economic development. Other standards contain 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. However, reservations to ILO Conventions are not permitted.
Updating international labour standards
There are currently 190 Conventions and 206 Recommendations, some dating back as far as 1919, and six Protocols. As may 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.
Standards Review Mechanism (SRM)
The SRM is a mechanism that is integral to the ILO’s standards policy with a view to ensuring that the the ILO has a clear, robust and up-to- date body of standards that respond to the changing patterns of the world of work, for the purpose of the protection of workers and taking into account the needs of sustainable enterprises.
The SRM was set up by the Governing Body in November 2011, but became operational later, in 2015, as a result of two decisions:
- a decision by the Governing Body in March 2015 to establish under the SRM a tripartite working group composed of 32 members (16 representing Governments, eight representing Employers and eight representing Workers);
- a decision taken in November 2015 to approve the terms of reference of the Tripartite Working Group of the SRM.
The Tripartite Working Group of the SRM is mandated to review the ILO’s international labour standards with a view to making recommendations to the Governing Body on:
- the status of the standards examined, including up-to-date standards, standards in need of revision and outdated standards;
- the review of gaps in coverage, including those requiring new standards;
- practical and time-bound follow-up action, as appropriate.
The SRM Tripartite Working Group meets once a year and reviews the different instruments based on a thematic approach. In parallel with the launching of the SRM, the entry into force of the Instrument of Amendment of the Constitution of the International Labour Organization of 1997 reinforced the ILO’s efforts to ensure that it has a clear and up-to-date body of international labour standards that can serve as a global point of reference. With the entry into force of the Instrument of Amendment of the Constitution, the Conference is now empowered, by a majority of two-thirds and on the recommendation of the Governing Body, to abrogate a Convention that is in force if it appears that the Convention has lost its purpose or that it no longer makes a useful contribution to attaining the objectives of the Organization. At its Session in June 2017, the Conference held its first discussion following the entry into force of the Instrument of Amendment and examined and decided to abrogate two international labour Conventions. At its Session in June 2018, the Conference decided to abrogate six other Conventions and withdraw three Recommendations. In addition, on the basis of the work of the SRM, the Governing Body decided to place an item on the agenda of the 2021 session of International Labour Conference regarding the possibility of a new standard on apprenticeship in order the fill the gap at the international level in this regard.