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ILO and its impact on Indian Labour Legislations

The International Labour Organization (ILO) was established in 1919, following World War I, as a social engineering project to protect workers' rights and ensure that freedom, equity, and dignity in working conditions are universally observed. It is the UN's first and oldest specialised agency, having been established as part of the League of Nations. The ILO currently has 187 of the United Nations' 193 member states as members.

The emphasis on tripartism, which aims to ensure that any dialogue on labor-related issues involves the three main stakeholders, namely employers, workers, and states, is a fundamental aspect of the ILO's functioning.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) achieves its goals through three main bodies made up of the aforementioned stakeholders, which are as follows:

  1. The International Labour Conference
    It is an annual gathering of governments, workers, and employers from ILO member countries. The conference's goal is to discuss the organization's broad policies, establish and adopt international labour standards, and elect the governing body.
  2. Governing Body
    It is the ILO's executive body, responsible for policy decisions, setting the agenda for the International Labour Conference, adopting a budget, and electing the Director-General. It is made up of 56 titular members, of which 28 are held by governments and 14 by employers and workers, respectively. Ten of the titular government seats are non-elected, permanent seats held by states with the greatest industrial importance; India is one of these nations.
  3. International Labour Office
    It is the International Labour Organization's permanent secretariat, and it is in charge of the organization's administration as well as the implementation of technical cooperation activities, as well as programmes for awareness, advocacy, and information sharing.
Key Documents:
Before delving into the major conventions that comprise the framework of International Labour Law, we must first examine the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The Declaration categorises fundamental principles and rights into four categories: freedom of association and effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the abolition of forced or compulsory labour, the abolition of child labour, and the abolition of employment and occupation discrimination. The ILO's core conventions can be classified into these categories, which are considered universal rights that apply to all individuals in all countries.

While international labour standards are revised on a regular basis, with new Conventions, Protocols, or Recommendations being drafted, the ILO Governing Body has identified eight conventions that it considers fundamental in terms of the subjects they address, which are as follows:
  1. Freedom of Association and Protection of the right to Organise Convention (1948):
    The most fundamental labour rights, such as the right of workers to form and join organisations of their choice without the approval of their employer, the right of workers' and employers' organisations to draught their own constitutions and rules, and the right of workers' and employers' organisations to form and join federations, were crystallised. It imposes a duty on ILO members to ensure that workers and employers can freely organise without undue interference from administrative authorities.
  2. Right to organise and collective bargaining convention (1949):
    This document seeks to protect workers and workers' organisations from anti-union discrimination in the workplace. For example, requiring non-union membership as a condition of employment. It seeks to promote voluntary bargaining between employers or employers' organisations and workers' organisations and calls for the development of machinery to facilitate such bargaining.
  3. Forced Labour Convention (1930) and its Protocol (2014)
    This document is one of the primary international instruments responsible for the worldwide reduction in forced/compulsory labour. It criminalises the use of forced labour and requires ratifying countries to ensure that it is strictly enforced. Ratifying States must also ensure that forced labour legislation is covered and enforced for all workers, regardless of the nature of their work or the sector of the economy in which they work. This includes taking all necessary steps to end all forms of forced labour, as well as identifying and rehabilitating all victims of such labour.
  4. Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (1957)
    This Convention expands on the general prohibition in the preceding document by prohibiting the use of forced labour for political coercion, education, punishment, mobilising labour for economic development, labour discipline, as punishment for strike participation, and as a means of racial, social, national, or religious discrimination.
  5. Minimum Age convention (1973):
    This document requires ratifying countries to implement a national policy aimed at effectively eliminating child labour. It also requires states to raise the minimum age for employment/work to a level consistent with young people's physical and mental development. To that end, ratifying states must submit a declaration stating the minimum age for employment, which cannot be less than 15 years in any case. States whose economies are insufficiently developed to specify a minimum age of 14 years are exempted.
  6. Worst forms of child labour convention (1999):
    The term "child" refers to all persons under the age of 18 for the purposes of this Convention. Each member who ratifies this convention is obligated to take immediate steps to eliminate the most heinous forms of child labour. This term refers to practises such as slavery, human trafficking, serfdom, and the use of child soldiers, among others. Member States are required to implement similar programmes in collaboration with employers' and workers' organisations.
  7. Equal remuneration convention (1951):
    The ratifying states are required by this convention to promote the application of the equal remuneration principle for work of equal value. This means that pay rates for comparable work are established without regard to gender.
  8. Discrimination (employment and occupation) convention (1958):
    This convention addresses discrimination based on race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social origin. Other distinctions that have the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity are included. Ratifying states must prevent such discrimination through legislation, educational programmes, and collaboration between employer and worker organisations.

In addition, the governing body has designated four other conventions as priority instruments based on their importance in international governance. This is due to their importance in the operation of the international labour standards system.

The following are the governance/priority conventions

  1. Labour Inspection Convention, 1947:
    This document requires ILO members to maintain, to the greatest extent possible, a system of labour inspection in industrial workplaces under the supervision and control of a central authority. It includes provisions defining the functions, qualifications, and strength of labour inspectors that must be maintained, as well as a chapter on labour inspection in commerce.
  2. Employment Policy Convention, 1964:
    This document seeks to ensure that member countries actively pursue the policy goal of full and equal employment for all of their citizens. It outlines the major components of such a policy and states that it must be in accordance with the individual circumstances (stage and level of economic development) of each member state.
  3. Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention, 1969:
    This document is similar to the first one on the list, but it differs in subject matter. It seeks to impose an obligation on ratifying countries to refrain from excluding agricultural enterprises from the national labour inspection system. It defines agricultural enterprises and outlines the system functions that specifically cater to such establishments.
  4. Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976:
    This document defines representative organisations in the context of labour and requires ratifying countries to implement procedures that allow for effective consultations on issues handled by the ILO. These include government responses to questionnaires, proposals to the competent authority in connection with Conventions/Recommendations, re-examination of unratified Conventions, questions arising from reports to the International Labour Office, and proposals to denounce ratified Conventions.

Where India Stands?

India has ratified only four of the eight core conventions, which are as follows:
  1. Forced Labour Convention, 1930, No 29
  2. Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951, No 100
  3. Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958, No 111
  4. Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957, No 105
As a result, from an international perspective, India is effectively implementing only two of the four rights enshrined in the DFPR, namely Freedom from Discrimination and Protection from Forced Labor. There are numerous judgments that demonstrate compliance with international standards and recognise these fundamental human rights, as well as statutory enactments that do the same.

The question now is, why has India not ratified the remaining core conventions?

The answer can be found by examining the implications of ratification and contrasting them with the country's current socioeconomic conditions. This is due to the fact that ratification creates legal obligations and necessitates implementation. This means that after ratifying a treaty, a state incurs an immediate legal obligation at the international level.

The distinction between being a mere signatory to a treaty/convention and subsequent ratification exemplifies this. Being a signatory to a treaty usually means that a state intends to become a party to the treaty at some point in the future. There is no legal obligation on the state to do anything that would obstruct the objects and purposes of the treaty/convention until ratification at that future date. In contrast, once a state has ratified a treaty, it must conform to all the obligations set down in a treaty and it cannot generally avoid them unless there are exceptions provided therein. A state, on the other hand, cannot use the failure of international and domestic law to justify the foregoing.

Relevance of ILO

After reading the preceding section on ratification and the voluntary nature of international obligations, one might wonder why International Labour Law is relevant and what impact it has on domestic labour law and policy. The two questions are intertwined, and the answer can be seen from two different perspectives.

According to one point of view, ILO policies and standards are preferences that nations can adopt through regulatory decisions, giving them a competitive advantage in global trade. This is due to the fact that international conventions provide a universal basis for policy, preventing nations from implementing measures such as deregulation in order to gain trade advantages.

Such measures would be met with international condemnation, sanctions, and trade isolation, and thus positive morality works to make these instruments relevant.

The other approach sees ILO conventions as norm-setting documents that allow states to compare their policies to those of their peers. This means that states can compare their policies to both internationally accepted standards and policies adopted by states in similar socioeconomic situations. As a result, they can assess the need for reform and amendment by identifying policy preferences that fall somewhere in the middle of the two previously mentioned points of reference.

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