It is not entirely correct to say that international labor standards do not exist as such. In fact, the globalized world has achieved some progress during the last 100 years in boosting labor protection around the world. Despite limited material scope and shortcomings in the legal force, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has promoted several nearly global conventions that have set specific standards on working conditions. In addition, international labor standards are often subject to soft regulation, which should not be disregarded in the discussion either. (Chau)Being typical international law instruments, ILO conventions are subject to ratifications by member states in accordance with national rules. As a result, national remedies for enforceability and compliance control can vary quite considerably. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the fact that international labor standards are no unique in this: virtually any international treaty is subject to national reservations as well as different levels of implementation and meaningful use. Hence, it is not incorrect to conclude that national governments do have the final say in implementing regulations on working conditions; however, there is a genuine move towards global harmonization in enhancing the level of protection. (Chau)

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International machinery is not entirely powerless when it comes to enforcement. ILO has three very specific mechanisms to facilitate compliance. First, this international organization has developed a complex system of supervision with reporting mechanisms and evaluation tools. Secondly, ILO can offer technical and financial assistance for implementation, which is essential for least developed countries. Finally, upon non-compliance with recommendations the ILO Governing Body can even resort to a sanction that would ensure compliance of a particular country. (Chau)

Immigration and weak labor protections are strongly interconnected phenomena. Globalization has enabled an exponential increase in the free movement of workers by eliminating barriers for trade, investment, and logistics. At the same time, this process has triggered numerous challenges in protecting rights of most vulnerable migrant workers. (Wishnie)
International law has achieved very firm prohibitions of forced labor and involuntary servitude. No human being can be forced to work, unless it is a penal punishment prescribed by law and imposed by a court. Involuntary servitude, including its most appalling form – slavery, is not allowed under any circumstances. Likewise, immigrant workers, like any other workers, must have protection from inhumane or degrading treatment at work. It is an absolute prohibition that does not provide room for any justifications. Moreover, it is important to note that the obligation is not addressed uniquely to the employer – it also requires the state to comply with a positive obligation to prevent and prosecute abusive practices. However, from the point of view of international law, the enforceability of these prohibitions in the case of private parties is more difficult than when it comes to public entities. Thus, it is primarily the job of national remedies to ensure compliance. (Wishnie)

Involuntariness of labor is a broad notion. It covers situations ranging from debt bondage to serfdom to human trafficking and sex slavery. But even a wide material scope of this prohibition can hardly ensure effective labor protection for immigrants and other vulnerable groups. The question of safe working conditions and non-discrimination is just as essential to the quality of compliance with labor standards. Long hours, low pay, inadequate benefits, and harassment are the reality for a migrant worker. All of these abuses also constitute labor exploitation and must be punishable and preventable. (Wishnie)

The ethical code of conduct for managers and employers must be based on fundamental premises of human rights. All people are equal is a crucial guiding principle, as it provides a firm foundation for implementing mechanisms against discriminatory treatment. Likewise, the idea of the existence of social, economic, and environmental rights must be the driver of ethics. Just as firms engage in corporate social responsibility projects for communities, they must adhere to similar principles for their employees. Managers must be guided by the idea of creating a safe environment for their workers who can fully realize their human development potential within their organization. Obviously, this means that labor exploitation of vulnerable groups like underprivileged communities, ethnic minorities, children, and immigrants is a grave violation of the idea of the universality of human rights. (Kapstein)

  • Chau, Nancy H., et al. “The Adoption of International Labor Standards Conventions: Who, When, and Why?[with Comments and Discussion].” Brookings trade forum. Brookings Institution Press, 2001.
  • Kapstein, Ethan B. “The corporate ethics crusade.” Foreign affairs (2001): 105-119.
  • Wishnie, Michael J. “Immigrant Workers and the Domestic Enforcement of International Labor Rights.” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor & Employment Law 4 (2002): 529.