The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

An explanation of the basis of our database

The Database of Business Ethics consists of hundreds of codes, in which companies state how they want to enforce rules to which labour practices at work can be evaluated. Each code is different, for each company has a different work environment. However, they more or less live up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, consisting of eight ILO-conventions on the core labour standards. In this blog post, a brief overview of the origin of these core labour standards is presented.


The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is the first and oldest United Nations agency, established by the Versailles Peace Treaty. The end of the First World War resulted in the strong belief that ‘Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice’ (ILO). Social justice would be the key ingredient in securing peace, especially in a work environment of economic interdependence and competing markets. Due to that, cooperation in the field of working conditions became crucial.

International Labour Standards

To establish effective cooperation, the ILO set up International Labour Standards: legal instruments which set out basic principles and rights at work. These International Labour Standards can be divided into conventions and recommendations.

A convention is a legally binding treaty that member states can ratify. ILO member States are not obliged to ratify, it is a voluntary action. Once ratified, member States have to implement the convention in national legislation.

A recommendation is a non-binding guideline, often serving as a supplement to the Convention. A Recommendation gives a more detailed description of how Conventions can be applied. However, they can also stand on their own, independent from the Conventions.

Both conventions and recommendations are formulated and adopted at the annual International Labour Conference (ILC), held in Geneva in June of each year. The adoption of a standard has consequences for the Member States: article 19 (6) of the ILO Constitution states that they need to submit the standard to their component authority within one year. If ratified, this Convention needs to be enforced for one year after the date of ratification.

Fundamental Labour Standards

The trend of globalisation, the information technology revolution, the end of the Cold War, and the emergence of a global market economy at the beginning of the 1990s were initially seen as a trend toward growth, employment, and well-being. Nothing turned out to be less true: poverty and social injustice remained. Therefore, the ILO decided to strengthen the International Labour Standards by adopting the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in 1998. These principles and rights, divided into five categories, must be respected by the Member States, whether they have ratified the relevant conventions or not. The categories now include freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced or compulsory labour, the abolition of child labour, and the elimination of discrimination. In June 2022, a fifth category was added to the list: occupational health and safety.

In the upcoming weeks, we will have a closer look at each of the Fundamental Labour Standards.


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