Global labour standards protect, empower, and promote those who work in the workplace and beyond. Engaging with why and how global labour standards are created and enforced requires a proper understanding of what they are. This, however, is a much more difficult question to answer than expected at first sight and usually not answered by just listing their various types, classes, functions or outcomes. In a nutshell, and in the broadest sense of the term, labour standards can have as many forms as they have origins in practice, substantive matters, political domains and legal jurisdictions.
At one level, following a famous theoretical distinction in organizational sociology about rules and institutions (Scott, 2013), labour standards like all rules have a normative, a cognitive and a regulatory dimension. As for the normative dimensions, rules specify what ought to be appropriate in a certain work environment. Cognitively, rules imply learnt assumptions and frames about how the work is executed properly. And in the regulatory dimension, sanction-based rules specify what must be realized as a standard in the workplace to avoid legal consequences. In practice, all these dimensions usually combine, because societal customs, labour law, and industry- or occupation-specific habits all intersect in the workplace: If you are used to a safe work environment as stipulated in respective labour laws, but also widely accepted among your colleagues on the shopfloor, and also detailed in a collective agreement between your employer and your union, you feel discomfort when you are suddenly placed in a work space where these standards are not met. And you may feel frustrated when there is no one you can send a grievance to about it. You may even get angry if your activities, which you may feel legitimized to undertake in order change the work environment, are oppressed. This already points to another understanding of labour standards that focuses more on how labour standards are created in struggles and bargaining (Campbell, 2004) and other forms of rule-making work (Lawrence et al., 2013).
For further clarification, it is useful to introduce two rather broad distinctions. The first distinction is between substantive and procedural rules (Dunlop, 1958). The substantive rules are about issues such as work, pay, health and safety or non-discrimination in the workplace, whereas the procedural rules are about how these substantive rules are made, called procedural rules. The latter also include who is rightfully entitled to participate in the rule-making process and what issues are legitimate for being placed upon the agenda.
The second distinction has been suggested by Sengenberger and disentangles two overlapping meanings of the term “labour standard” (Sengenberger, 2002):
(1) labour standards as the substantive employment and work conditions including public welfare given in a distinct worksite. These “labour conditions” include wages, hours of work, occupational health and safety, social security, vocational skills and so on, and
(2) labour standards as defining the economic and social rights of workers such as freedom of association, collective bargaining, freedom from forced and compulsory labour, freedom from child labour, and freedom from discrimination in employment and occupation, but also social norms about the contractual forms and the termination of employment, occupational safety and health, wages and work hours.
In a sense, standards of the second meaning are of fundamental importance to lift up the labour conditions of the first understanding (Sengenberger, 1994, 2004). In other words, labour standards as rights aim at improving labour conditions through (1) worker participation, i.e. by guaranteeing freedom of association, collective bargaining, and opportunities to collective industrial action including rules for conflict resolution, (2) worker protection, i.e. by defining minimum conditions of work and employment in a wide sense of the term, and (3) worker promotion, i.e. by enabling workers to develop skills and voice in order to freely chose and engage in productive employment.
As the universal variety of labour standards, the 190 Conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) encapsulate those standards intended to have global coverage within the United Nations framework of human rights (Valticos, 1998). Hence, global labour standards are industrial human rights and influence all aspects of individuals’ working lives from pay and wages, working time, health and safety regulations to non-discrimination and equal opportunity. Of fundamental importance are those conventions that set a universal floor of industrial rights at work as reaffirmed in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. These fundamental rights prohibit child and forced labor (ILO C°29, C°105, C°138, C°182), mandate equal treatment and non-discrimination (ILO C°100, C°111), and respect the right of employees to organize freely into unions and to collectively bargain with their employers (ILO C°87, C°98). Workers’ rights also extend to collective rights such as union representation and collective bargaining. In 2022, health and safe working conditions as stipulated in ILO conventions (ILO C°155, C°187) has been added to this set of fundamental principles (ILO, 2022).
Campbell, John L. (2004). Institutional change and globalization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dunlop, J.T. (1958). Industrial relations systems. Holt: New York.
ILO – International Labour Office (2022). Inclusion of safe and healthy working conditions in the ILO’s framework of fundamental principles and rights at work. 110th International Labour Conference Session – Report VII. Geneva: ILO.
Lawrence, T. B., Leca, B., & Zilber, T.A. (2013). Institutional work: Current research, new directions and overlooked issues. Organization Studies, 34: 1023-1033.
Scott, W.R. (2013). Institutions and organizations. 4th edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Sengenberger, W. (1994). Protection – Participation – Promotion: The systemic nature and effects of labour standards. In Sengenberger, W. & Campbell, D. (Hrsg.). Creating economic opportunities: The role of labour standards in industrial restructuring. Geneva: ILO, 45-60.
Sengenberger, W. (2002). Globalization and social progress: The role and impact of International Labour Standards. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung: Bonn.
Sengenberger, W. (2004). The system of international labour and social standards: How effective is it? Concepts and Transformation, 9(3): 297-304.
Valticos, N. (1998). International labour standards and human rights: Approaching the year 2000. International Labour Review, 137(2): 135-147.