16. Labour Standards

Sustainable Development

Decent work

Economy Social Environment Employment Protection Rights Dialogue
Relevant SDG Targets
8.8, 16.3, 16.5, 16.b
Relevant Policy Outcomes
2, 7, 8, 10

On this page: DWA-SDG Relationship | Cross-cutting policy drivers | Partnerships | ILO Capacity | Resources

When adopting the 2030 Agenda the world’s leaders declared that “In doing so [implementing the agenda], we reaffirm our commitment to international law and emphasize that the Agenda is to be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the rights and obligations of states under international law.” Indeed, the 2030 Agenda “has a strong normative character and sets a truly human rights centred path for sustainable development. (…) that underlines the correspondingly central role of international labour standards in its realization.” (52)

Rights at work are addressed in international labour standards, which include binding Conventions and non-binding Recommendations, Codes of Practice and guidelines. International labour standards are debated, constructed and adopted by means of a tripartite process involving governments, workers, and employers, thus reflecting broad support for those standards from the social partners, who are the key actors in the economy. 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. Other standards have so-called “flexibility clauses” allowing states to lay down temporary standards that are less stringent than those normally prescribed, to exclude certain categories of workers from the application of the Convention or to apply only certain parts of the instrument.

Since 1919, the ILO has adopted 189 Conventions, 6 Protocols34 and 204 Recommendations covering a wide range of issues related to the world of work. In addition, dozens of Codes of Practice have been developed. As can be expected, some of these instruments no longer correspond to today’s needs. The ILO Governing Body has reviewed all ILO standards adopted before 1985 and determined that some 71 conventions, including the fundamental conventions and those adopted after 1985 remain fully up-to-date and should be actively promoted, and that the remainder require revision or withdrawal. This work is ongoing, and the Governing Body decided in 2016 to review 235 international labour standards organized into 20 thematic sets of instruments.

Conventions, even if not ratified by a member State, and Recommendations which do not need to be ratified, both provide solid policy directions for a wide range of employment and labour issues and therefore serve as a major resource for action in any of these areas. They must be considered when tackling any economic, social or developmental issue, inevitably linked to productive activity. The tripartite nature of the discussions leading to Conventions and Recommendations provides a sound basis for the provision of advice or the promotion of policies in support of the international agenda, including the 2030 Agenda. As Conventions are binding international treaties, once ratified, they enable the establishment of agreements and partnerships to carry out any development strategy at the local and national levels. The ILO’s unique supervisory bodies engage governments in dialogue on the application of standards35 and serve as useful sources of information on law and practice in particular countries.

International labour standards are being used for a number of purposes:
  • As models for national labour law : International labour standards serve as templates for developing national law and practice in a particular field. Even if a country does not ratify a particular Convention, it may still bring its legislation into line with it;
  • As sources of international law applied at the national level : In many countries, ratified international treaties apply automatically at the national level. Their courts are thus able to use international labour standards to decide cases on which national law is inadequate or silent or to draw from definitions set out in the standards, such as “forced labour” or “discrimination”.
  • As guidelines for social policy : International labour standards can provide guidance for developing national and local policies, such as work and family policies. They can also be used to guide improvements in administrative structures such as labour administration, labour inspection, social security administration, employment services, etc. Standards can also serve as a source of sound industrial relations applied by labour dispute resolution bodies, and as models for collective agreements.
  • As a legal or policy basis for other areas : For example, increasing consumer interest in the ethical dimensions of products has led multinational enterprises to adopt voluntary codes of conduct to improve labour conditions along global supply chains. Reports on the application of standards are regularly submitted to the United Nations human rights bodies and other international entities. Advocacy groups and NGOs draw on international labour standards to call for changes in policy, law or practice. A number of countries and regional organizations have incorporated respect for international labour standards into their bilateral, multilateral or regional trade agreements36.

DWA-SDG Relationship

In addition to the explicit commitment to human rights cited above, the 2030 Agenda Preamble, Declaration, Goals and Targets contain many references to human rights. Among them are two of particular importance to the world of work, SDG target 8.8: “protect labour rights of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment” and target 16.3 “promote the rule of law at the national and international levels, and ensure equal access to justice for all”.

For the ILO, being a standard-setting organization, the development, promotion and supervision of international labour standards is at the core of its mandate. Labour standards cover a broad range of subjects related to the world of work, and every aspect of the Decent Work Agenda. The promotion of relevant labour standards is a work item under each of the ten policy outcomes; of those, four outcomes, namely PO 2 (labour standards), PO 7 (compliance), PO 8 (unacceptable forms of work) and PO 10 (workers and employers) are particularly concerned with the application of standards in general, not focusing on a specific Convention or Recommendation. The application of standards, in particular the design of an appropriate review mechanism and of an authoritative supervisory system, is the subject of the Office’s “Standards Initiative”, which is one of the seven Centenary Initiatives.

Cross-cutting policy drivers

The promotion of labour standards is both an outcome in its own right and a means of achieving the other policy outcomes, and therefore recognized as a cross-cutting policy driver of the P&B 2016–17 and 2018–19.

As pointed out above, several ILO labour standards are related to issues of gender equality and non-discrimination, and support those areas from the normative side.

The development and supervision of labour standards is a fully tripartite process based on social dialogue. At the national level, tripartite social dialogue processes are being applied to translate ILS into national laws, and to supervise the effective application of those laws.


Each particular labour standard requires partnerships for its promotion, implementation and translation into national law. Some of those partnerships have been highlighted in the sections on child labour, forced labour, working conditions and non-discrimination. In addition, the ILO maintains active partnerships with a great number of international organizations; these partnerships enable the Office to promote certain standards, or the body of standards as a whole, in concert and with the support of like-minded agencies. Outside the UN the ILO maintains partnerships with non-state actors and civil society organizations which are often particularly active in promoting certain ILO instruments.

ILO Capacity

The ILO’s work on standards is driven and coordinated by the International Labour Standards Department (NORMES), which supervises standards specialists working in all 14 ILO technical teams. In addition, the various technical units responsible for the promotion of particular Conventions and Recommendations add their expertise and capacity to the Office’s standard-related work. The International Training Centre in Turin offers numerous courses related to international labour standards (see the updated list here).


The most comprehensive compilation of resources relating to International Labour Standards and the Supervisory mechanism can be accessed here. The ILO Information System on International Labour Standards (NORMLEX) provides up-to-date information on the ratifications and the full text of all ILO instruments.

34 - A Protocol has the purpose of updating, supplementing or complementing the provisions of an existing ILO Convention.

35 - The Conference Committee on the Application of Standards, a permanent tripartite body of the International Labour Conference and an essential component of the ILO supervisory system, offers the representatives of governments, workers and employers the opportunity to undertake a joint examination of the manner in which States comply with their obligations deriving from the Conventions and Recommendations adopted by the ILO.

36 - The above section of the present publication was adapted (with minor updates end edits) from the “CEB Toolkit” (UN CEB, 2007).

52. ILO. The End to Poverty Initiative: The ILO and the 2030 Agenda; Director-General's Report. Geneva : ILO, 2016.