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 is 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.


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 pre- scribed, 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, the ILO has adopted 189 Conventions, 205 Recommendations and 6 Protocols, 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 sometimes adopts revising Conventions that replace older ones, or Protocols which add new provisions to older Conventions. Furthermore, the ILO constituents have recently decided to implement a standards review mechanism with the objective of ensuring that the ILO has in place a clear and robust body of up-to-date international labour standards that responds to the needs of the world of work, the protection of workers and promotion of sustainable enterprises. For more information on the Standards Review Mechanism and its Tripartite Working Group, see the following webpage: