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What is International Labor Law?

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  • Written By: Terry Masters
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
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  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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International labor law is a type of international law that deals with the rights of workers and employers from a worldwide social justice perspective. The legal basis is embodied in the treaties, rules of international customary law, and the general legal principals of participating nations that enable enforcement of the law by virtue of their agreement to be bound by it. Most of the relevant developments in this area are part of the work of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Labor concerns in the international arena are based on notions of global anti-poverty, economic equality, and workforce competitiveness between developed and less developed countries. The underlying principal of international labor law is one of social justice applied to promote equal protection for the least powerful members of a population. After World War I, the ILO was entrusted by sovereign nations with the mandate to establish international standards that would protect workers and employers from exploitation.

The resulting statement of standards by the ILO established that labor is not a commodity. Workers should have the freedom to join worker groups and associations that would fight for their rights. World populations should have the right to be free from poverty and to enjoy economic equality through the fruits of their labor. Finally, improving the common welfare should be the focal point of labor practices.

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These standards have resulted in real advances in international labor law. Over the years, the ILO has shepherded international agreements that have put an end to forced labor and have acknowledged the right to equal pay for both men and women and the right of workers to use collective bargaining. Participating nations have signed agreements denouncing discrimination of all types in the workplace and have established a minimum age for workers designed to prevent the use of child labor.

Globalization and trade liberalization has added a new dimension to international labor law. Multinational corporations that relocate operations to developing countries to take advantage of cheaper labor and material resources have presented new challenges to the international labor movement. On one side, the ILO seeks to preserve advances in the standard of living enjoyed by workers in developed countries that are threatened by a cheaper workforce. The other side seeks to protect the right of developing countries to benefit from an economic advantage that will improve the standard of living beyond what is available without investments by foreign corporations.

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