Human resources professionals must understand an increasingly large body of laws – federal, state and local. Some also must understand the law in various foreign jurisdictions. But what about international law – should HR professionals understand international law too?
Yes. HR professionals should have a basic understanding of international labor standards. While they are not well known in the US, they are in most other countries and are of increasing importance in the United States.
What are international labor standards?
An international labor standard is promulgated by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations’ labor and employment relations agency. Most standards are in the form of Conventions, which are treaties ratified by member nations. Recommendations are also technically standards, but are not ratified and just serve as guidance.
There are 190 Conventions and 204 Recommendations. Of those, eight Conventions are considered “core” international labor standards. Those core standards deal with the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, eliminating forced or compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor and eliminating discrimination regarding employment and occupation.
By ratifying an international labor standard, a nation agrees that it will incorporate the standard into its internal laws so the laws comply with the mandate set forth in the standard. For example, the United States has ratified ILO Convention 182, a core standard on the worst forms of child labor. That standard is primarily implemented in the United States through the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
In 1998, the ILO adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which commits all member nations to respect and promote principles and rights in the four core categories, whether or not they have ratified any of the core standards.
How do international labor standards work with U.S. law?
The United States has ratified very few international labor standards – only 14, which is the fewest of any major industrialized nation. The United States has only ratified two core standards. However, all ILO member nations, including the United States, must respect and promote the principles embodied in the core standards whether or not they have ratified them. To that point, U.S. law mostly complies with the core international standards but may differ in one or two key areas. For example, the United States has not ratified one of the core forced labor standards, ILO Convention 29, in part because of issues with private prisons where prisoners perform work. Otherwise, U.S. law generally complies with Convention 29.
Where the United States has ratified a standard, then that standard is encompassed in existing law – the Fair Labor Standards Act, National Labor Relations Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, etc.
Why are international labor standards important in the United States?
Other than U.S. law incorporating some international labor standards and respecting and promoting others, here are four reasons why international labor standards are becoming increasingly important in the United States:
- First, corporate codes of conduct increasingly incorporate international labor standards, sometimes purposefully; sometimes, not.
- Second, U.S.-based companies can be and have been called to task before ILO supervisory bodies for engaging in practices that, while compliant with U.S. law, do not comply with an international standard that the United States is charged with respecting.
- Third, creative plaintiffs’ lawyers have recently used a company’s violation of an international labor standard as a breach of a duty allegedly owed to individuals by the company and then sued the company over that breach.
- Finally, U.S. free trade agreements increasingly require that signatory nations comply with the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. If you have employees in those countries or do business with companies in those countries, then knowing something about international standards puts you a step ahead.