Occupational Safety and Health – A New ‘Human Right at Work’?

Guest entry written by Bas Rombouts – Associate Professor in International Labour Law and Human Rights at Tilburg University

Workers’ rights are at the centre of the debates and developments related to CSR and business ethics policies. A number of these rights are regarded as Fundamental Labour Standards (FLS), which means they are seen as extremely important to protect and respect, in order to secure decent work for everyone in our globalised economy. Recently, the ILO decided to add a new right to this list.

In 1998 the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work identified four core areas of workers’ rights that are “recognized as fundamental both inside and outside the organisation.” These areas are the abolition of child labour, the elimination of all forms of forced labour, the elimination of discrimination in relation to employment, and freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. These four areas correspond to eight conventions of the ILO – binding international treaties – that are labelled ‘Fundamental Conventions’. These areas are of such importance that even when ILO members (187 states) have not ratified these Fundamental Conventions, they still have a constitutional obligation, derived from their membership, to respect, promote and realise these principles in good faith. This terminology shows that these fundamental labour standards are integrated in human rights law and therefore we commonly refer to them as ‘human rights at work’. 

At the International Labour Conference – the legislative body of the ILO – in June this year, the tripartite constituents decided to adopt a resolution to include Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) in the ILO framework of fundamental principles and rights at work and to give two additional international labour standards the status of Fundamental Convention: the Occupational Health and Safety Convention, 1981 (no. 155) and the Promotional Framework Convention for Occupational Safety and Health, 2006 (no. 187)

Safe and healthy workplaces and working conditions have been at the centre of ILO action since its creation in 1919 and many Conventions, Recommendations, guidelines, and codes of practice deal with this topic. While ILO Conventions entail binding obligations for ratifying states, they also have important implications for businesses. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights refer explicitly to the FLS, most corporate (supplier) codes of conduct include references to them, and many Free Trade Agreements include these core workers’ rights. Additionally, recent domestic and forthcoming European legislation concerning mandatory due diligence requirements for corporations is based on international normative guidelines that include FLS. This newest addition to the fundamental principles and rights at work therefore means that corporate actors will be strongly encouraged and – in some situations – even required to carefully consider how their activities impact the health and safety of their employees and workers in their (global) supply chain and to effectively deal with problems that may arise.

Remarkable ⚠️

Even though it took a long time and a lot of discussion before occupational safety and health was included in the ILO framework of fundamental principles and rights at work, and the related conventions were given the status of fundamental conventions, it is remarkable that it has already proven to be of great importance. In the last few years, and especially the last few months, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 has been talked about a lot, mainly because of their occupational health and safety violations. The technical cooperation  programme between the ILO and the Government of Qatar as a result of these violations aimed to strengthen occupational safety and health standards. This shows the importance of the newest addition to the fundamental principles and rights at work since it, as mentioned in the blog above, creates the possibility to effectively deal with problems like these. Click here for our blog post about the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

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