The Slow Revival of Working Conditions Rights: Safe and Healthy Working Conditions to be Included in the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work?

by | May 30, 2022

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About Deirdre McCann

Deirdre McCann is a Professor of Law at Durham University. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, a co-founder of the international research Network on Regulating for Decent Work, and a member of the Editorial Committee of the Industrial Law Journal. Professor McCann leads the ESRC/GCRF-funded project on Decent Work Regulation.

The International Labour Conference is debating the inclusion of safe and healthy working conditions in the ILO fundamental principles and rights at work.

In Geneva, a discussion is taking place this week that could significantly realign the international-level vision of fundamental labour rights. The International Labour Conference  – an annual meeting of governments, employers’ organisations and trade unions from the 187 member States of the International Labour Organization (ILO) – is debating whether and how health and safety should be included among the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work. This outcome would have important ramifications for conceptions of labour rights, labour market policies, trade agreements, and labour law regimes across the world.

This debate is the latest phase in a slow evolution in the status of working conditions rights at the international level. Early twenty-first century labour law, as I pointed out a decade ago, should be understood as, in part, a struggle over the role, significance, and regulation of conditions of work, encompassing health and safety but also wages, working hours, and waged labour’s support for, and burdens on, family life.

Decent working conditions are routinely recognised in the job quality literatures as essential components of working life. A model of unacceptable work that I co-designed, for example, includes risks to health and wellbeing (both physical and mental) as a fundamental indicator of unacceptability on which policy intervention is urgently needed, together with other dimensions of working conditions such as wages that are too low to satisfy basic needs and both excessive and insufficient working hours.

Yet at the dawn of this century, conditions of work were strikingly subordinate in the most prominent ILO policy and legal discourses. The selection of labour rights in the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work was confined to the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining and to freedom from forced labour, child labour and discrimination. In the broader policy realm, working conditions were conspicuously underplayed in the ILO’s contributions to the debates on economic globalisation.

Subsequently, a reframing of the status of working conditions has gradually evolved. The global economic crisis was associated with the substantial reformulation of labour rights policies across the key transnational actors. Within the ILO, the 2008 Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization placed working conditions among the core objectives of the Organization, a stance that was reinforced in the wake of the financial crisis in the 2009 Global Jobs Pact. As I also noted at the time, the elevation of working conditions rights can be discerned in the global project of regulating domestic work that intensified in the wake of the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No 189). Domestic work laws have brought with them a vision of working conditions entitlements as among the most crucial labour rights, at the heart of the labour relation and applicable to all working relationships.

Fast forward a decade and the ILO’s 2019 Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work in its call for ‘adequate protection’ for all workers referred not just to the fundamental rights but to an adequate minimum wage and maximum limits on working time, as well as safety and health at work, which it characterised as fundamental to decent work.

It would be welcome if health and safety were to take up its rightful, even self-evident, place among the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work. This expansion would reflect the steadily growing recognition over the last decade that working conditions rights are among the essential foundations of a decent working life. It may even accelerate efforts by policy actors to secure those rights that lie just beyond safety and health’s (porous) borders, to decent wages, sustainable working time, and respect for family life.

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