ILO Supervision: Voluntary But Effective?

An explanation of the ILO’s supervisory system

The International Labour Organization (ILO) works hard to improve labour conditions for workers around the world. To this end, it has created many conventions for states to ratify, containing various important fundamental labour rights. For this to be effective, supervision is necessary. Therefore, the ILO has a detailed and unique supervisory system to ensure countries implement the conventions they ratify, which will be explained in this blog. However, this system functions on a voluntary basis. Does this affect the effectiveness of protecting fundamental labour rights through the system of the ILO?

The ILO’s supervisory system contains various procedures, which will be discussed in the same order as they must be executed. These procedures are divided into two types: the regular system of supervision, and special procedures.

Through the regular system of supervision, periodic reports submitted by Member States will be examined. On the basis of article 19 and 22 of the ILO Constitution, Member States have a duty to make such a report in which they declare what measures are taken to give effect to (ratified) conventions. The examination of these reports is executed by two different ILO bodies. The Committee of Experts (CoE) consists of experts in labour law, who will focus on the technical legal implementation. To that end, the CoE makes two kinds of comments: observations on the application of a particular Convention, and direct requests relating to more technical questions. Annually, the CoE publishes a subject-specific General Survey containing all the observations. Additionally, that General Survey passes the tripartite Conference Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS), made up of government, employer, and worker delegates. The CAS examines the report and makes a list of governments who are invited to respond before the CAS (informally also referred to as ‘the Black List’) which is why this procedure can be seen as a naming and shaming-mechanism. After this, the CAS makes recommendations to those countries, which will be examined before the CAS a year later.

On top of that, three special procedures are part of the ILO’s supervisory system. First of all, employers’ organisations or trade unions can submit complaints to the Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) about issues regarding Freedom of Association (Convention 87) or the right to Collective Bargaining (Convention 98). After examining the complaint, the CFA can issue a recommendation. The second special procedure is the procedure of representations, based on article 24 of the ILO Convention. Employers’ organisations or trade unions have the right to present a representation to the ILO Governing Body against any member State which, in its view, has failed to secure the effective observance of any ratified Convention. This will be examined by an ad hoc tripartite committee which will issue a report including recommendations. The third and most heavy procedure is the procedure of complaints based on article 26 of the ILO Convention. This procedure allows Member States to file a complaint against another Member State for persistent and serious violations of a Convention. When the Governing Body receives such a complaint it may establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate and recommend measures. This is the highest-level investigative procedure of the ILO, and to date only 14 of those commissions have been established.

Even though some of these procedures are seen as heavy, they are officially all non-binding, since the recommendations made by the several committees are not enforceable. However, the power of the ILO’s supervisory system is more significant than it seems. Besides the social pressure of fellow countries, courts like the ECtHR look for common ground for their decisions and often find it in the judgements of the CFA. This means that the ILO’s supervisory system indirectly has more influence than it may seem.

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