The International Diffusion of Fundamental Labour Standards: Contemporary Content, Scope, Supervision, and Proliferation of Core Workers’ Rights Under Public, Private, Binding, and Voluntary Regulatory Regimes

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S.J. Rombouts is Associate Professor (International Labour Law and Human Rights Law), Tilburg University, Tilburg Law School, Department of Labour Law and Social Policy.

This article analyzes the scope and content of the International Labour Organization’s fundamental labour standards and tracks the way in which they are increasingly included and applied in the context of different international instruments with a public, private, binding, or voluntary character. The contemporary proliferation of these standards can lead to improved protection of workers’ rights. Nevertheless, the fragmentation and diversification of instruments may also include a risk of incoherent application. Securing fundamental labour standards—the prohibition of child labour, the prohibition of forced labour, non-discrimination and equal treatment, and freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining—is immensely important for vulnerable groups that are affected by the negative effects of economic globalization. This article charts the diversity of instruments and their relation to human rights law. Furthermore, it provides an examination of the different supervisory or enforcement mechanisms attached to these instruments. It argues that the increased diversity of initiatives that contain fundamental labour standards may expand the protective scope of core workers’ rights, especially if they are applied consistently and in line with the original ILO standard-setting. This assessment of public international sources such as ILO Conventions, UN Human Rights Treaties, free trade agreements, and voluntary guidelines in the context of the business and human rights discourse, as well as private instruments, such as corporate codes of conduct, multi-stakeholder initiatives, and global framework agreements—all of which refer to and apply fundamental labour standards – hopes to contribute to a more coherent understanding of the fundamental labour standards, which is urgently needed if they are to provide effective protection for those worst of in today’s global workplace.

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