Labour Standards for a Fair Globalization for Workers of the World
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Labour Standards for a Fair Globalization for Workers of the World


Recent developments in globalization have highlighted our failure to reach a global consensus on the fundamental questions for a just and fair globalization for workers.1 Finding justice for workers in a globalizing world raises many questions. Should there be international standards for conditions of work? What form and content should international labour standards have? Whose mandate should international labour standards fall under? And, how should compliance and non-compliance with international standards be monitored and remedied or penalized? There is no general model for international labour standards. Currently, countless initiatives, implemented by various actors, seek to address the problem. Further, new frameworks are constantly being proposed and debated. While some models are working better than others, we are still not close to a long-term solution.2

Current approaches to labour protection result from workers, employers or governments negotiating together, or where that is not feasible, acting unilaterally. The "go it alone" strategy not only severely limits one's capacity to monitor and enforce labour standards, but it also puts into question the legitimacy of the entire model. Furthermore, politically and economically powerful actors are able to impose their models on others without regard to the rights of others. For example, the United States is unilaterally moving its labour standards agenda forward with regional and bilateral labour treaties attached to trade agreements.3 As such, there is much to be gained from having fewer models, but with greater linkages between actors.

This paper reviews some of the major debates and challenges surrounding international labour standards to contextualize our own insights on the development of an international regime of labour standards. We include a brief overview of the effectiveness and limitations of the various approaches taken to address them and a summary of some of the new models being proposed. Our goal is to demonstrate that the success of any model for international labour standards will depend on greater consensus among the parties to the employment relationship (i.e., workers, employers and governments) on transparency in monitoring and reporting labour conditions and on the social goals of globalization.

Justifications for International Labour Standards

There is nearly universal consensus within the international community that people are entitled to work under certain labour standards by virtue of their humanity. As such, most countries agree that fair labour standards are needed in our society. International labour standards are viewed as a tool to uphold fundamental human rights across the globe.4 The humanitarian argument is timeless and self-explanatory of the inclusion of labour standards in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, beginning in the 1970s, globalization and the expansion of trade shifted the focus of the debate towards economic justifications for international labour standards.5 Developed countries became concerned that poorer labour standards, and lack of enforcement, create an unfair comparative advantage in global trade. Others argued that permitting trade based on poor labour standards promotes "social dumping" which is an attempt "to gain international competitiveness by cheapening labour in violation of fundamental rights at works…."6 This can lead to a "race to the bottom", which is the downward harmonization of labour standards caused by the need to remain competitive in the global market.7 Thus, in a globalized economy it is argued that poor labour standards in one country have negative consequences for the workers in other countries. Additionally, some academics contend that much of the global evidence over the last century suggests that higher labour standards are positively correlated with economic prosperity.8

Types of International Labour Standards

Labour standards may be conceptualized at two levels: basic and comprehensive.9 Basic standards involve setting up a 'floor' which individual units are free to exceed, but cannot fall below. Alternatively, comprehensive standards involve a process for continual regulation and improvement. Verma (2003) notes that basic standards are more likely to be workable and acceptable as international labour standards because they leave space above the 'floor' within which national governments can legislate.10

Most countries have labour legislation stipulating labour conditions that may include, among other issues, minimum...