Labour Standards Conference 2009

The Role of Labour Standards in Sustainable Development Theory in Practice, 24-25 April  2009. 

British AcademyThe conference was kindly sponsored by the British Academy.



Labour Standards and Sustainable Development

The language of ‘sustainable development’ has become extraordinarily influential. It was once understood to be more narrowly defined, being associated with redistributive policies within states for the alleviation of poverty, or the provision of aid by the international community, such that economic regeneration might take place. More recently, it has been associated with environmental concerns. The work of Amartya Sen has been instrumental in transforming the preoccupation with economic development to the realization of social as well as economic capabilities. All three pillars were reflected in the issues addressed in the Earth Summit held in Johannesburg in 2002. The European Consensus on Development of 2005 states that ‘sustainable development includes good governance, human rights and political, economic, social and environmental aspects’.

The ILO, under the leadership of the current Director-General Juan Somavia, has initiated a ‘Decent Work Agenda’, which has been explicitly linked to sustainable development (Decent Work for Sustainable Development, Director-General’s introduction to the International Labour Conference 2007 (ILC 96-2007/Report I(A) at 1.). The aim is to place an explicit emphasis on the welfare of workers while pursuing social as well as economic development. The ILO has also adopted a Green Jobs Initiative, aimed at achieving an environmentally sustainable process of development, in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other UN agencies.

The Decent Work Agenda consists of essentially four limbs: the protection of fundamental rights, employment promotion, social protection and social dialogue. The latter being an objective in itself, but also instrumental to the effective achievement of the three other objectives. Attention to gender has also cut across these overlapping aspects of the ILO’s project, all of which have been tacitly and are now more emphatically been linked to development objectives. The protection of fundamental rights has come to be associated with the promotion of compliance with ‘core labour standards’ (CLS) identified in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work:

These are labour standards drawn from what have come to be known as the ‘fundamental’ ILO Conventions: Nos. Nos. 87 and 98 on Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining (1948 and 1949); Conventions Nos. 29 and 105 on the Elimination of All Forms of Forced and Compulsory Labour (1930 and 1957); ILO Convention No. 138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment (1973) and Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999); and ILO Conventions Nos. 100 and 111 on the Elimination of Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation (1957 and 1958). However, whereas compliance of ratifying states with ILO Conventions is subject to stricter legal scrutiny, compliance with CLS is subject to a softer follow-up procedure and dedicated programmes of assistance, as indeed are the other aspects of decent work.

A World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalisation, established by the ILO but consisting of independent experts, published its report endorsing ‘Decent Work’ as an international agenda in 2004. (A Fair Globalization: Creating Opportunities for All (Geneva: ILO, 2004). However, the report also stressed the current lack of policy coherence, such that Decent Work has yet to be integrated into the development-oriented activities of other international UN agencies and regional organisations. These findings have since been endorsed by the UN General Assembly (Resolution A/RES/59/57, 2 December 2004) and ECOSOC Ministerial Declaration of the UN Economic and Social Council E/2006/L.8.). In 2008, the ILO has adopted a Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization and a Resolution on strengthening the ILO’s capacity to assist its Members’ efforts to reach its objectives (including a new follow-up procedure).

The World Commission’s report seems also to have prompted emphatic endorsement by the EU Council of Ministers (Council Conclusions on Decent Work for All, 276th Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council Meeting, Brussels, 30 November and 1 December 2006). From a more practical perspective, it is also a feature of the EU Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which makes provision for a special incentive arrangement applicable for ‘sustainable development and good governance’, by requiring ratification and (at least in theory) compliance with the fundamental ILO Conventions identified above. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Finance Corporation have also adopted policies promoting in conjunction social and environmental sustainability, which encompasses the promotion of CLS. (See, for example, International Finance Corporation’s Policy on Social & Environmental Sustainability, April 2006).

There remains however tension between the ILO and the IMF and World Bank Group, which continue to pursue policies at odds with those sought by the Somavia (Report of the Director-General, Changing Patterns in the World of Work (ILO: Geneva, 2006).  

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The Conference

The conference sought to examine these developments from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives. A range of economists, political scientists, international relations experts and legal scholars were invited to discuss critically the role that labour standards can play within a social as well as an economic conception of sustainable development. A key aim was to investigate the purposes serviced by an increased emphasis by policy-makers on the link between work and development. It was a forum within which academics could meet with and test their hypotheses against those involved in policy-making and implementation within international and regional organisations. NGO and trade union representatives were also invited, so that their critical views could be reflected in papers given and discussion.  The conference was open to the general public.

Conference Podcasts

All the presentations given at the conference were recorded, and have been uploaded here as MP3 recordings

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Conference Organisation

The principal organiser of this conference was Tonia Novitz, Professor of Labour Law, University of Bristol.  The co-organisers were: Dr Lisa Tortell (ISCTE), and Dr Jacqui True (University of Auckland)

This event also arises from collaboration more generally within an informal interdisciplinary network of scholars who have arranged the following:

The conference was a natural successor to these two events, and developed issues explored in those contexts, linking these more explicitly to the subject of sustainable development and broadening the focus beyond merely the EU’s role in the world. The conference aimed to provide a novel source of information for those interested in this topic.

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