International Legal Regime on Workers’ Rights | Page 2 | Daily News

International Legal Regime on Workers’ Rights

Industrial relations systems are founded on a framework of labour laws which exert an influence on the nature of the industrial relations system. Employment is a matter of vital importance to a worker. Not just employment they seek but employment commensurate with his or her education, training and experience.

Workers play a significant role in the economy and unrest among workers can lead to economic difficulties. It is essential therefore for the government to address workers’ grievances to ensure that their rights are properly safeguarded and that unrest does not threat economic growth and stability.

International Bill of Human Rights and Workers’ Rights

The foundation of human rights can be considered the transformation and development of the notion of human dignity into modern social and political conditions. The human rights recognized by the international law today are the standards set out by the UN system in its various instruments.

The adoption of the United Nations Charter in 1945 marked the beginning of a new stage in international law regulation of economic, social and cultural rights (ESC Rights). The UN Charter states that one of the primary goals of the United Nations is the higher standard of living, full employment and conditions of economic and social progress and development. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948 contains an extended and specific list of ESC rights. These rights are regulated more fully in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966). Similar is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966). The above mentioned three international documents constitute the International Bill of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 22 provides that ‘everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organisation and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality’.

The Declaration further provides in Article 23(1) that ‘everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment to just and favourable conditions of work and to protect against unemployment.’

The Declaration recognizes that ‘everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work’. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights accords to ‘everyone who works….the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.’ The Declaration also recognizes the right of all workers ‘to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests’ and their ‘right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay’.


Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressly recognized livelihood or the right to earn a living, in the following manner –

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.

2. The steps to be taken by a State Party to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include technical and vocational guidance and training programmes, policies and techniques to achieve steady economic, social and cultural development and full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual.

The Covenant also recognized the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with:

(a). Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work;

(b). A decent living for themselves and their families in accordance with the provisions of the present Covenant.

The Covenant also guaranteed safe and healthy working conditions, equal opportunity for everyone to be promoted in his employment to an appropriate higher level, subject to no considerations other than those of seniority and competence, as well as rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays. States Parties to the Covenant also undertook to ensure the right of everyone to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, for the promotion and protection of his economic and social interests. The Covenant in Article 8 expressly provided that no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public order or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The States Parties to the Covenant in Article 9 also recognized the right of every one to social security, including social insurance.

ILO and Workers’ Rights

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is one of the most important agencies of the United Nations which promotes industrial and social peace through more humane conditions of work. It was created as a tripartite body under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and outlived that body to become in 1946, the first specialized agency associated with the United Nations. Sri Lanka has been a member of the ILO since June 1948, shortly after gaining Independence in 1948.

The preamble to the ILO Constitution states that ‘universal and last in peace can be established only if it is based on social justice’. Its main objective, therefore, is to ensure the social and economic wellbeing of the working people all over the world and to guarantee to them dissent living standards, adequate employment opportunities and satisfactory conditions of work and pay. ILO has brought governments, employers and trade unions together for united action in the cause of social justice and better living conditions everywhere in the world on the premise, that the promotion of social justice in the field of labour could be achieved only if the social partners themselves were involved in the appropriate solutions.

The ILO engages in such activities as

* The formulation of international policies and programmes to help improve working and living conditions, enhance employment opportunities and promote basic human rights;

* The creation of international labour standards to serve as guidelines for national authorities in putting these policies into action;

* An extensive programme of international technical co-operation to help governments in making these polices effective in practice.

* Training, education, research and publishing activities to help to advance all these efforts.

International Labour Code

The values enshrined in the ILO Constitution and the declaration of Philadelphia also find expression in a body of international instruments comprising Conventions and Recommendations that together form International Labour Code.

Both Conventions and Recommendations define standards and provide a model and stimulus for national legislation and practice in member countries. The formulation and implementation of International Labour Standards and Technical Co-operation are the two principal means of action available to the ILO to make the objectivities of social justice established by its constituent bodies a reality.

Each Convention is a legal document, regulating some aspects of labour administration, social welfare or human rights. A country which has ratified a Convention must report regularly on its application in law and in practice. The ILO keeps a careful eye on the way governments carry out their obligations under the ratified Conventions. It operates two types of procedures for ensuring compliance with these Conventions: (a) procedures based on the submission of a complaint; and (b) procedures based on a regular supervision of application of a ratified Convention. International Labour Code is now a vast document, the main principles of which can only be summarised with extreme difficulty. A total of over 180 Conventions and Recommendations have been adopted so far.

By subject matter they have been broken down into 14 separate areas namely: basic human rights, employment, social policy, labour administration, labour relations, conditions of work, social security, employment of women, employment of children and young persons, old workers, migrant workers, indigenous workers and tribal peoples, workers in non-metropolitan territories and particular occupational sectors.

ILO also has attached particular importance to certain basic human rights which constitute an essential element in all actions designed to improve the conditions of workers. These are dealt with in the Conventions and Recommendations on freedom of association, freedom from forced labour and freedom from discrimination. The basic ILO Conventions on freedom of association are the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No.87), and Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No.98). The forced labour Convention (1930) No.29 provides the progressive abolition of forced labour in all its forms and pending his abolition its use only for public purposes and as an exceptional measure, subject to the conditions and guarantees set out in various articles of the Convention. In 1958 the International Labour Conference adopted both a Convention (No.111) and a Recommendation (No.111), on discrimination in employment and occupation. Both instruments refer to grounds of discrimination as race, sex, or political opinion for example. They cover discriminatory laws or acts in very general terms such as ‘any discrimination exclusion or preference which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment and which can be the result not only of legislation but also of existing factual situations or practices. They reached into all sectors of employment and occupation, public and private, and extent to vocational training and access to employment and to particular occupations as well as to conditions of employment in general. The methods proposed in these texts to combat discrimination range from direct intervention through legislation to educational activities and from action by the State to action by employers and workers organisations; individual countries are left a fairly wide margin of discretion. The ILO approach to the practical implementation of human rights is based on three guiding concepts: laying down standards by way of Conventions and Recommendations, promotional and educational activities, inquiring into complaints and practical assistance in involving in applying policy standards and procedures. The corpus jurist of social justice represented by the Conventions and Recommendations adopted by the ILO Conference constitutes a unique body of objectivities and standards, giving a precise form and context to a wide range of economic and social rights proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and embodied in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic and Cultural Rights. The ILO had promoted freedom of association, collective bargaining, equality of treatment at work and the abolition of forced and child labour as fundamental principles and rights at work over the period of time since its inspection.

Migrant workers

A number of international instruments seek to protect the rights of migrant workers. The most important among them are:

(a) ILO Convention No.97 – Migration for employment (Revised) of 1949;

(b) ILO Convention No.143 on Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) of 1975;

(c) UN Convention on the Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families of 1990.

ILO Conventions No 97 contains a series of provisions designed to assist migrants for employment.

The Convention requires the ratifying States to put migrants within their territory on the same putting on their nationals in applying a wide range of laws and regulations and relating to their working life without discrimination on the grounds of nationality, race, religion or sex.

ILO Convention No.143 deals mainly with the prevention of clandestine migration for employment and arrest of man power trafficking activities.

Further, the State must declare and pursue a policy to ensure of equality of treatment in respect of matters such as employment and occupation, social security and trade unions and cultural rights.

Sri Lanka acceded to the UN Convention on the Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families of 1990 in 1996.

The main thrust of the Convention is to ensure that persons who qualify as migrant workers under its provisions are entitled to enjoy their human rights regardless of their legal status. Part VI of the Convention imposes a series of obligations on State Parties in the interest of promoting the sound, equitable, humane and lawful conditions for the international migration of workers and members of their families. These requirements include: the establishment of policies on migration; the exchange of information with other State parties; the provision of information to employers, workers and their organisations on policies, laws and regulations and assistance to migrant workers and their families.

With the constant changes in social conditions and technical knowledge, new needs arise, gaps appear, outdated rules have to be rejuvenated and new rules drawn up. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect that standard setting with regard to workers rights will continue to be an important aspect of the work of the international institutions such as UN and ILO.

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law) 


Add new comment