Workers Rights


All workers have rights

Today's globalisation is not providing the resources needed for living and working conditions to improve for the mass of the world's people. Rather, governments are all too often undermining workers' rights and conditions so that business can minimise its labour costs.

Yet all workers have rights, as has been repeatedly agreed by the same governments over the past half a century. Four decades after signing the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, governments at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995 again committed themselves to:

"safeguarding and promoting respect for basic workers' rights, including the right to organise and bargain collectively; the prohibition of forced and child labour; equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value, and non discrimination in employment."

International Labour Organisation

The body of the United Nations which oversees labour issues is the International Labour Organisation (ILO), based in Geneva, Switzerland. The ILO is the only international body that is tripartite, having representatives of governments, employers and workers. They come from 182 countries. At the ILO, the ICTU represents workers on the island of Ireland.

One of the ILO's most important functions is the development of international labour standards. The ILO agrees Conventions which aim to create binding obligations on governments, and Recommendations which give guidance to governments on policy, legislation and practice.

There are over 180 ILO Conventions and even more Recommendations. As well as basic trade union rights and freedom from harassment, coercion and discrimination, they cover many issues such as safe and healthy workplaces, hours of work, paid leave for agricultural workers, or contracts of employment for seafarers, etc.

Establishing standards is one thing. Making sure they are observed is quite another. The ILO examines how governments are putting the standards into practice through legislation and activities. It can shame governments in the eyes of the international community. In the end, though, the ILO can only persuade governments; it cannot force them.

The Fundamental Rights

In 1998, the ILO adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This says that certain rights are so fundamental that they apply to all workers, irrespective of whether or not their governments have signed up to the relevant Conventions, and no matter how rich or poor their country is. They are called the 'core labour standards'. They are:

  • The right to form trade unions ('freedom of association')
  • The right to effective collective bargaining between workers and management
  • Freedom from forced or compulsory labour
  • An end to child labour
  • Freedom from discrimination in the workplace.

All ILO member states are obliged to promote and realise these fundamental rights. It is clear, however, that many governments are ignoring their duties. They are instead undermining workers' fundamental rights in the interests of attracting investors in the global economy.

Core labour standards are basic human rights that help people break out of the poverty trap. They are the building blocks of democracy, and crucial to the empowerment of working people, especially the poor and marginalised.

Respect for the fundamental rights of people at work is essential if there is to be economic, social and political development for the whole world.


More information