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Lee Swepston

Some view ILO conventions as ‘labour standards’ that set norms on worker rights but not ‘human rights’ standards; others see them as human rights guarantees. This chapter pinpoints the gradual shift of debate on this issue, and the change in attitudes in the ILO itself. At the ILO’s founding in 1919, the concept of ‘human rights’ was unknown (or at least not expressly articulated as such); rather, pursuing ‘social justice’ for workers was the mission of the ILO. In 1944 with the Declaration of Philadelphia, the ILO adopted a rights-oriented approach. Since the 1990s, an era of increasing globalization, the UN system has accepted that economic development without corresponding acceptance of human rights is not sustainable, which aligns with the ILO’s long-time belief that ‘there can be no lasting peace without social justice’. In 1998 when the ILO adopted its Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, it proclaimed openly for the first time that the ILO dealt with human rights, and the UN since then has acknowledged that fundamental labour rights are human rights.

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Lee Swepston and Constance Thomas

There is an obvious connection between income generation and emergence from poverty, and the way in which this is promoted must respect human rights. Access to decent work in fair conditions and with just incomes is fundamental to the fight against poverty and social exclusion. These outcomes cannot be achieved without the intervention of adequate law. The rights related to work are developed most fully in international labour standards adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). These standards, on subjects including freedom of association, conditions of work, and protection from forced labour, child labour, and discrimination, are deeply embedded in international human rights. Measures to ensure access, respect and enforcement of these rights for all workers include access to justice, monitoring and supervision mechanisms, and vibrant workers’ organisations. Full application of labour law based on international standards is a necessary tool to ensure workers’ emergence from poverty.