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International Workers’ Rights

Today, most nations around the world have child labor laws that set 14 or 15 as the minimum age for work, and prohibit children under 18 from doing hazardous work. In addition to national legislation regulating child labor, many international human rights and labor standards focus on the issue of child labor.

Why are international workers’ rights important in today’s economy?

  • We live in a global economy that is characterized by an unprecedented rise in global trade, global investment, global distribution of production, and global (multinational) corporations.
  • Globalization affects workers and labor standards. Labor unions are often concerned that current trade rules encourage a “race to the bottom” in which companies cut costs by seeking the lowest possible wages and labor standards.
  • Workers in every sector are affected by globalization and international competition. For example, trade in services is growing even faster than trade in goods.
  • The rewards of globalization have been unevenly distributed. United Nations organizations have documented declining incomes, increasing income disparities, increasing poverty, and rising unemployment in many nations.

International Labor Standards

International labor standards are embodied within a range of international organizations and institutions. The International Labor Organization (ILO) is generally acknowledged for its central role in creating and promoting international labor standards.

Since its creation in 1919, the ILO has adopted 184 Conventions that establish standards for a range of workplace issues including (but not limited to):

Market vendor

Market Vendor

Mexico, 1992

Photo: David Parker

  • Pensions
  • Maternity
  • Child Labor
  • Weekly Rest
  • Forced Labor
  • Hours of Work
  • Discrimination
  • Social Security
  • Minimum Wage
  • Safety and Health
  • Right to Organize
  • Disability Insurance
  • Collective Bargaining
  • Education and Training
  • Unemployment Benefits
  • Rights of Rural Workers
  • Vacations and Holidays
  • Family Responsibilities
  • Migrant Labor Protections
  • Workers’ Compensation

Two of the most fundamental ILO Conventions regarding child labor are Conventions 138 and 182:

ILO Convention 138
Sets minimum age of 15 for employment
ILO Convention 182
Prohibits the “worst forms” of child labor and requires countries to act toward eliminating “worst forms”

Core Labor Standards

Photo: David Parker

In 1998, the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted a “Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work” in response to growing concerns about the effects of global competition on workers. The Declaration affirms that all ILO member nations have an obligation to respect, promote, and realize the most fundamental workers’ rights:

  • Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
  • Elimination of all Forms of Forced or Compulsory Labor
  • Effective Abolition of Child Labor
  • Elimination of Discrimination in respect of Employment and Occupation

Unfortunately, existing laws and international standards are often violated.

Many countries and states:

  • lack effective laws to protect children
  • include exemptions that make laws unenforceable or only cover children in certain industries
  • rarely enforce existing laws on child labor, or are under pressure from employers or local governments not to enforce laws
  • lack funds or trained personnel to enforce laws

Educational materials containing information on International Workers’ Rights regarding Child Labor, including Workshop Materials—International Workers’ Rights and Child Labor and K-12 Teachers’ Materials, are available through this web site. These materials include Power Point presentations, instructors’ manuals, activities, and handouts. You may adapt these materials to your group’s needs.