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A Universal Labour Guarantee for the 21st century

Written by Ruwan Subasinghe, ITF legal director

The International Labour Organization’s Global Commission on the Future of Work has sounded a clarion call for the universal application of fundamental workers’ rights. With more than 60 percent of the world’s employed population in the informal economy and an ever-increasing number of workers engaged in non-standard forms of employment, the proposal for a Universal Labour Guarantee (ULG) is most welcome.

ITF research has shown that the majority of informal transport workers lack basic rights at work, adequate working conditions and social protection. Many transport workers, including those in the ‘gig economy’, continue to be misclassified as independent contractors. Misclassification not only impacts on workers’ incomes, but it also deprives them of essential workplace protections and social security benefits.

A ULG can help address these decent work deficits.

The Global Commission recommends in its report the establishment of a ULG that includes:

  • fundamental workers’ rights: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining and freedom from forced labour, child labour and discrimination
  • a set of basic working conditions: (i) “adequate living wage” (ii) limits on hours of work, and (III) safe and healthy workplaces

Limb A effectively restates the fundamental principles and rights at work as defined in the ILO’s eight core conventions. Limb B elevates three other sets of rights referred to in the Preamble of the ILO Constitution[1] and protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the status of labour rights applicable to all workers irrespective of employment status.

If the concept of a Universal Labour Guarantee can be reflected in the ILO centenary outcome document, which will hopefully be in the form of a Declaration, there will be significant normative and practical implications. ILO Declarations are resolutions of the International Labour Conference designed to make authoritative statements on important principles and values.

It is in this context that the Global Commission’s call for safe and healthy workplaces to be recognised as a ‘fundamental principle and right at work’ should be considered. It is entirely possible that by means of a Declaration member states could have obligations relating to occupational safety and health placed on them by the very fact of membership as per the formulation of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998).

This would be extremely significant as only 67 member states have ratified the Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 155) and merely 46 have ratified the more recent Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 187). Furthermore, such obligations would extend to all workers, including informal and platform workers.

In terms of its application to all workers, a ULG is meant to reinforce the employment relationship while broadening the scope of labour protection beyond it. In holding that the employment relationship remains the cornerstone of labour protection, the Global Commission refers explicitly to the Employment Relationship Recommendation (No. 198).

This is a crucial intervention at a time when companies are resorting in “documentation to fictions, twisted language and even brand new terminology” to avoid creating an employment relationship. Indeed, Recommendation 198 stipulates that the existence of an employment relationship should be guided primarily by the facts relating to the performance of work, not artificial constructs.

Although ILO Declarations are not subject to ratification, they are intended to have a wide application and contain symbolic and political undertakings by member states. In fact, it has been widely argued that the fundamental principles and rights embodied in the 1998 Declaration have now become part of customary international law.

A Declaration containing a Universal Labour Guarantee is likely to spur on member states to, among other things, expedite the process of transition from the informal to the formal economy and remove legal and practical barriers for the exercise of fundamental workplace rights, including the right to collective bargaining of workers in non-standard forms of employment.

A Universal Labour Guarantee coupled with other interlinked proposals, including coverage of social protection from birth to old age, can provide the necessary basis for the delivery of social justice in the 21st century.

Let us all get behind it.

[1] See also Article 427 of the Treaty of Versailles (General Principles), which enumerated nine fundamental principles, including freedom of association, a living wage and adequate rest.