Workers' Rights in a Global Economy

11 Apr 2016, 08:37 AM

Notes on Chapter 1: History and concept of workers rights


1.1: History and concept of workers’ right

What does the ILO do?

  1. The ILO sets international standards through a democratic process.
  2. Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) sets the absolute basic standards that must be followed and prescribes: o Abolition of Child labour o Abolition of Forced labour o Prevention of Discrimination
    o The Freedom of Association and Right Collective Bargaining
  3. Other important standards that should be maintained [not mentioned in the Declaration]: o Minimum Wage o Social security o Health and Safety It should not come to a situation where “Workers have nothing to lose but their chains”

Why are global labour standards important?

  1. Their importance is recognised by the ILO preamble
  2. It is a basic condition of Human Rights
  3. Lasting peace requires social justice
  4. Prevention of a race to the bottom

Why was the ILO made?

  1. After the Industrial Revolution there was the emergence of the urban working class. Living and working conditions were bad. Labour Unions/movements became a powerful force though they were not integrated, in fact they were often penalised.
  2. De facto recognition was given due to the necessity of their support for World War I.
  3. Post WWI: Revolutions swept through Europe: Russia, Germany, etc.
  4. Changes: Universal Suffrage [women], Right to Strike/Associate, Unions right to represent, Welfare State, Labour Rights recognised
  5. Class war replaced by class cooperation by bringing people together.

1.1.1 Workers’ Rights in the context of other human rights
The International Bill of Rights are extremely important instruments that set out universal human rights. HR are inalienable and universal but not immutable- they evolve over time.
Once adopted, the rights cannot be denied by any government: they limit the sovereignty of states over their citizens and provide basic protection.
The argument that it is a ‘Western concept’ does not hold [just like a reversed, and equally ignorant and ridiculous concept as the Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, refer arguments of Amartya Sen, Noam Chomsky]. The existence of conflict between the ‘traditions’ [read prevailing practices] of a society and the aspirations of HR are not an argument against universality. Injustice cannot be excused or justified on the basis that it exists.
The credibility of human rights suffers most when double standards are applied. When governments for the sake of realpolitik are silent about human rights abuses in one case and vigilant where it fits their wider policy agenda.
ILO core conventions are applied HR aspirations. The conventions, recommendations and surrounding jurisprudence play an important role in international law and as material for policy debates.

1.1.2 International Labour Standards and Human Rights: Approaching the year 2000

The ILO constitution was signed in 1919, decades before the UDHR, as part of the peace treaty of Versailles. It was the first instance of a contractual foundation for “international law regarding fundamental individual freedoms.” All ILO conventions contribute to promoting and protecting human rights, to varying degrees.

1.2: Functions of the ILO and Tripartism.

  1. Bodies of the ILO: a. Annual International Labour Conference: sets international standards b. Governing body: Oversees work of the Director general and the international labour office
  2. The ILO is the only international org. with non-government actors have institutional representation.
  3. Plenary of ILC a. Composition: 50% Govt., employers/workers: 25% b. Functions: Negotiate and adopt international standards; assess the application of the standards by member states
  4. Governing body: a. Composition: 28 govt. reps, 14 and 14 employers and workers i. 10 seats are permanent [they represent half the global population and more than >2/3rd GDP]. The others are chosen on a rotating basis b. Functions: Decides budget of ILO, elects the Director general, sets the agenda of the ILC, determines the policy priorities of the office.
  5. The aim of ILO is to come to broadly shared consensus solutions OR resolution through a majority vote
  6. Trade Union Reps are nominated by the government, in agreement with the industrial organisation which are most representative of the workers/employers of the country
  7. If not there is actually no agreement OR there were no consultations, an objection can be presented before the ILC.
  8. TRIPARTISM is corporation between governments, employers and workers
  9. Though there are political dictatorships and cases of hostility of employers to any dialogue, there are several functioning forms of tripartism of various degrees.
  10. The indispensable components of tripartism are: a. Independent workers and employers organisations that have mobilising authority over an economically significant part of the workers and employers respectively b. Mutual recognition of the legitimacy of trade unions and private capital c. Government regulation that supports cooperation and avoids capital or labour achieving an overwhelming degree of power: limit power of money in favour of the power of the many

1.3: Do international workers’ rights undermine competitiveness? Does their enforcement harm development?
[Prof. Dr. Christoph Scherrer]

  1. The contention is that if production costs go up, companies lose their competitive advantage in the market, the products cannot be sold, companies are pushed out of the market, there will be less employment and less chances for development
  2. Text books largely agree with the proposition that with higher costs, sales prospects are harmed
  3. But this does not capture reality: the EFFICIENCY WAGE THEORY a. Efficiency wages are higher wages that motivate the workers to expend more labour and allow them to be healthier [better access to the health care system]. Healthier workers are also better workers [but takes time]. b. Employers will also think more and will employ labour more carefully and efficiently and organise the labour process in a more efficient ways and increase productivity which is a positive cycle. c. Implementation of core worker rights will only increase costs in the short run. According to the efficiency wage theory, in the long run, there will be ‘efficiency gains.’
  4. If wages are above market clearing price [what the consumers would pay] and competitiveness is threatened, companies then source from another place. The competition to attract this business is governed by factor endowment [distribution of capital, skilled labour force and labour intensive industries in an economy]. The competition is higher among places with comparable factor endowment. Also, the more unskilled labour, the more competition [easily substituted].
  5. If developing countries want to raise social standards and implement core labour rights, they cannot do so in isolation but in conjunction with other countries by a multilateral agreement. Need collective action, else countries will be undercut, lose out on capital and access to markets.


  1. Countries in the southern hemisphere produce rather similar products and thus, the question of competitiveness is more South-South and less with the North.
  2. Buyers exercising monopsonistic powers is problematic and exacerbates competition: ex.: De Beers having almost a monopoly on purchase of diamond from producers means that the latter have no other avenue to sell their product or demand higher prices. The same applies to small towns where there is only one major employer and analogous situations.

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