The Need for a UN Mechanism to Enforce International Labour Law Standards



by Hugh McDermott

Globalisation is an important and vital element of the new world economy.  Not only does it allow companies to access competitively priced labour markets, it redistributes employment opportunities and can provide significant economic benefits to workers in emerging markets.

Offshore outsourcing which began in the 1990s is now the norm in most manufacturing companies. However, advances in internet technology is triggering a rise in offshoring white collar positions at a level never seen before. Companies like Virtual Employee and People in the Cloud offer skilled labour across a wide range of business functions in developing countries at competitive prices. This is opening up new labour markets for companies in developed economies and new opportunities for educated workers in developing nations.

In this climate, the role of the International Labor Organisation (ILO) in promoting labour rights is more relevant than ever before.

Labour law and rights are a basic and fundamental human right.  They permeate every part of an individuals’ life, regardless of occupation, gender, race or sexual orientation.

Yet most organisations, governments and lawyers have the perception that we should be flexible about labour rights.  That labour rights are not an essential element of human rights but are more social or economic in their nature. Many are happy to sit and negotiate compromise agreements, to often have time consuming and long-winded discussions in Geneva.  Secure in the belief that through compromise and eventual consensus we can slowly try to progress labour rights in a piece meal manner.  To sit in Geneva, at the ILO, and have ‘experts’ make recommendations which cannot be enforced if the abuser says ‘no’ and continues with the abusive behaviour.

This does not assist workers struggling against workplace oppression. Nor does it help the vast majority of employers who uphold labour standards yet have to economically compete with those employers that do not.

National governments and corporations rarely follow international standards unless it is in their personal economic and political best interest. Presently, ratification of ILO conventions in domestic labour legislation only occurs when there is a supportive, usually left leaning, national government.  This needs to change.

International labour regulation needs to be given an enforcement mechanism.  It is recognised in international treaties that labour is not a commodity and thus breaches of labour standards must be seen under international law as equal to any type of violence against the person.

There is a need for the ILO and international bodies to move forward to the next stage – an international tribunal for labour standards and law. Not reliance on voluntary discussions and agreements but compulsory conciliation, arbitration, judicial decision and review.   A court perhaps similar to the International Criminal Court or the WTO disputes panel. A body with the legal power to hear cases of abuse but also with the power to intervene when allegations of abuse become known to the international community. National governments, management of corporations, Boards of Directors, and individuals should be prosecuted, fined and/or imprisoned when they breach international labour standards.

While it is fashionable to attack UN processes, most attacks on the ILO and other UN agencies are generally unfounded and politically motivated rather than commercially or economically focused.

Globalisation has the potential to bring increased incomes and standards of living to emerging countries.  But we must ensure that labour law provides the framework.  The only way to ensure equal bargaining power and limit exploitation of workers and employers is to have an independent international tribunal to review and enforce labour standards.  The challenge to labour lawyers and human rights activitists is to develop the way to achieve the establishment of this enforcement mechanism, to create the debate, structures and jurisprudence.