Researching International Labour Law

By Erica Friesen and Brianna Storms

Erica Friesen is a Research and Instruction Librarian & Online Learning Specialist at Queen’s University’s Lederman Law Library in Kingston, Canada. She holds an M.I. from the University of Toronto and a B.A. (Hons.) from McGill University. Erica has previously published on artificial intelligence and legal research, including a recent article titled “The Artificial Researcher: Information Literacy and AI in the Legal Research Classroom,” 26 Legal Writing 241 (2022). She is a member of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries and the American Association of Law Libraries.

Brianna Storms is a Research and Instruction Law Librarian at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. In this role she provides legal research assistance and delivers instructional sessions to students and faculty, as well as to other library patrons from the wider community. Prior to this role, Brianna served as a law association librarian where she delivered library and legal research services to members at various states in their careers (from articling and integrated practice placement students to senior law partners). She earned her Master of Library and Information Science degree from Western University (Ontario, Canada) and holds an Honors Bachelor of Arts degree with an Emphasis in Education from Trent University (Ontario, Canada).

Published January/February 2023

1. Introduction

International labour law refers to the body of rules and principles concerning the relationship between employers, workers, and governments. This research guide provides a brief overview of introductory resources in international labour law and the major sources of law in this area. The primary responsibility for developing and implementing a system of international labour standards lies with the International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialized United Nations (UN) agency. As such, the ILO is a major focus of this guide. However, it should be noted that international labour law also includes regional sources of law as well as several UN treaties that establish state obligations in this area. These will be described in brief.

An asterisk (*) indicates a resource that must be purchased or accessed via subscription.

2. Other Research Guides

Researchers of international labour law will likely find the series of ILO Research Guides helpful as a method of navigating the organization’s vast resources. These guides are organized by topic and resource type, and provide a reference point for locating ILO documents, international labour standards, statistics, useful links, and additional resources. Two other research guides of note are the International/Comparative Labor and HR Research Guide created in support of the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, and the University of Melbourne’s International Labour Law Guide.

3. Secondary Sources

Researchers are encouraged to begin their research into international labour law by locating appropriate secondary sources, including reference materials, books, and journal articles. This section highlights the major secondary sources in this area. The ILO’s Institutional Repository, Labordoc is another source of secondary materials, including ILO-authored books, journal articles, reports, and working papers.

3.1. Reference Materials

3.2. Introductory Books

The below listed books are intended as introductory materials on the subject.

Further reading is available by browsing relevant library subject headings. Library of Congress Subject Headings include:

3.3. Key Journals

Many international labour journals are multi- and interdisciplinary in nature and publish articles from a variety of fields including economics, sociology, industrial relations, and history. The International Association of Labour Law Journals is a helpful resource for locating national and international labour law journals, with over 30 member journals from around the world. Key journals include:

3.4. Comparative Law Resources

The following tools allow for country-by-country comparison of labour and employment law topics.

4. The International Labour Organization (ILO)

The International Labour Organization was established in 1919 and is a specialized United Nations (UN) agency that is “devoted to promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights” (ILO, Mission and Impact).

As the only tripartite UN agency, the ILO works with the governments, employers, and workers of member States to establish labour standards, policies, and practice guidelines, and to promote decent work for all workers around the world. Resources available on the ILO website are available in English, French, and Spanish.

4.1. Key Documents

The ILO Constitution is a key document that governs all the ILO’s practices and procedures including but not limited to the administration of the annual International Labour Conference, State membership, voting rights and responsibilities, the processes involved in adopting Conventions and Recommendations, supervisory processes, relationships with governments and international organizations, and staff appointments and responsibilities.

The Constitution also states the ILO’s foundational goals and values for creating global standards for labour practices and recognizes the intersection of human rights and economic planning in achieving these goals and enacting social change.

4.2. International Labour Standards (ILS)

The main instruments of international labour law are the ILO’s International Labour Standards (ILS). ILS are designed and adopted by the ILO to assist member States in developing national legislation, guidelines, and policies, and in ultimately establishing internationally recognized values and practices related to labour standards, human rights, and economic practices.

ILS are presented as Conventions, Recommendations, and Protocols. Conventions are legally binding international treaties that once ratified by a member State must be put into action. Their implementation and status are subsequently subject to supervision by the ILO (for resources on the ILO’s supervisory process see section 5 of this guide). Protocols, like Conventions, are legally binding international treaties but are adopted with the purpose of amending existing Conventions. Recommendations serve as non-binding guidelines that can either be independent or linked to a specific Convention. The goal of a Recommendation is to assist ratifying member States to create and put into action policies and guidelines.

Conventions, Recommendations, and Protocols are created and presented by representatives of governments, employers, and workers to be considered and adopted by the ILO at the annual International Labour Conference. Once a standard is enacted, member States have the option of ratifying any Conventions or Protocols (ILO, How International Labour Standards are Used, 2022).

4.2.1. Adoption of International Labour Standards

The adoption of ILS by the ILO occurs through a multi-step process with the direct involvement of representatives from member State governments, workers, and employers.

For more information about the ILO’s procedure for adopting labour standards, see:

4.2.2. Finding International Labour Standards

The ILO database NORMLEX provides access to information on ILS.

4.2.3. Ratifications

The ILO database NORMLEX allows several methods of researching State ratifications of standards.

4.2.4. Fundamental Conventions of the ILO

The ILO has determined that the following Conventions are “fundamental.” This means that the topics covered by these Conventions represent fundamental principles and rights. The ILO also encourages all member States to ratify these Conventions.

4.2.5. ILO Governance Conventions

The following ILO Conventions are considered governance instruments that are key to the international labour standards system.

4.3. General ILO Research Starting Points

The ILO offers researchers over 40 topic-based research starting points including a labour law topic guide.

Researchers can also search for jurisdiction-specific information. Select a region from the list to investigate national labour laws, standards, policies, statistics, and more.

The ILO also has the option for researchers to search for information based on industry and sector. Search over 20 industries and sectors, such as health services, education, agriculture, and commerce for recent publications, region/country specific resources, news, and more.

4.4. ILO Department of Research

The ILO’s Research Department conducts research “with the aim of contributing to policy formulation for ILO constituents” (ILO, About the Research Department). Major publication formats include the following.

Flagship Reports

The ILO’s Flagship Reports provide information on labour and social trends, statistics, and issues confronting policy makers and researchers in the field of labour, human rights, and economic planning. Topics in the reports include the effective governance of work, assessments of the current state of the labour market, current work issues, social security, and wage statistics. Reports available to view online:

Papers and Briefs

ILO Papers and Briefs is an index of peer-reviewed articles that provides researchers evidence-based research on labour and employment issues, policies, and current problems. ILO Papers and Briefs include access to the Department of Research’s working papers.

Books and Reports

Search the ILO’s published and forthcoming books and reports. All books and reports are open access and available online. Search books and reports by keyword, month and year of publication, and subject. Books and report topics include: the labour market, occupational health and safety, social protection, decent work, women workers, statistics, and more.

4.5. ILO Library

Located in Geneva, Switzerland, the International Labour Organization Library is a source for information on international labour and employment law and practice standards. The ILO Library is a repository for all the electronic and print ILO publications produced around the world and offers users many information resources and discovery tools.

LabourDiscovery is the ILO Library’s catalogue. Using the simple search or the advanced search page, discover documents from the ILO’s institutional repository LaborDoc, find journal articles, search the ILO’s digital collection, search over 100 databases, and search topic specific research guides.

LaborDoc is the ILO’s institutional repository where users will find hundreds of thousands of current and historical books, journal articles, reports, working papers, and other resources produced by the ILO.

4.6. Databases

The ILO’s A to Z list of Databases page directs users to over 100 multidisciplinary databases providing information on international labour and employment. Filter databases based on topic, database type, and language.

ILO Labour Law Databases:

4.7. Statistics

ILOStat is an open access database for international labour statistics. Maintained by the ILO’s Department of Statistics, ILOStat provides users labour statistics, research methods, and data analysis reports. Search by:

5. Supervising International Labour Standards

The ILO has in place a supervisory system to ensure that member States put into action the Conventions they choose to ratify. There are two prongs to this system: the regular system and the special procedures supervision process. The ILO does not just supervise member States, but also offers technical assistance to member States to solve issues and promote the implementation of national labour standards.

5.1. Regular Supervisory System

Member States are required to submit to the ILO regular reports concerning the status of adopted Conventions and the general adoption of labour, human rights, and economic standards. These submitted reports are reviewed and analyzed by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations and The International Labour Conference’s Tripartite Committee on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations.

Starting points for finding documents relating to the regular supervisory system:

5.2. Special Supervisory Procedures

Additional supervisory mechanisms exist under the ILO’s special procedures:

Starting points for finding documents related to special supervisory procedures:

6. Other Sources of International Labour Law

While the ILO holds the primary responsibility for developing and maintaining international labour law standards, other legal instruments exist at the international and regional levels.

6.1. UN Instruments

Several UN instruments have enshrined human rights in relation to work. These include:

6.2. Regional Instruments

In addition to universal instruments, international labour law also comprises instruments that cover labour issues agreed upon at a regional level.

Some relevant organizations with the authority to create regional instruments include:

6.3. Bilateral and Plurilateral Agreements

Certain bilateral and plurilateral treaties can include labour law provisions. For instance, an increasing number of trade agreements include labour provisions. The ILO provides a Selection of Relevant Publications on this emerging area of international labour law.

One key resource for researching these instruments is the ILO’s Labour Provisions in Trade Agreements Hub, which includes the text of labour provisions in more than 100 regional trade agreements. The Hub allows a researcher to search by trade partner or trade agreement. It also provides a classification of labour provisions to facilitate the location of provisions within and across agreements.

7. Case Law

Sources of international labour law jurisprudence are varied and can be found at the international, regional, and national levels.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the only body competent to give authoritative interpretations of ILO Conventions. However, the ICJ has never exercised this authority other than a handful of advisory opinions that were handed down by its predecessor, the Permanent Court of International Justice, in the 1920s and 1930s (ILO, Interpretation). Instead, the interpretation of ILO standards is generally provided by the ILO’s supervisory bodies (see section 5 for these sources).

Regional and national courts may also rely on and cite ILO instruments. Researchers seeking a specific jurisdiction’s case law are recommended to consult case law sources in that region, or other sources such as WorldLII, a case law and legislation database covering 123 jurisdictions from 14 Legal Information Institutes. Regional human rights courts can also be a source of case law in relation to fundamental rights in the workplace, such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Key Sources of Case Law

The ILO’s Compendium of Court Decisions is a database containing select case law from international and national courts that have interpreted and/or applied international labour standards in their decisions. Search case law concerning labour law and human rights by country, court, and subject.

The journal International Labor Rights Case Law* provides key international cases and annotations in this area and is published once per year.

8. Common Themes in International Labour Law

Common themes in international labour law include the following.

Child Labour refers to work that “deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development” (International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour). International labour standards in this area include minimum age conventions as well as the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182). For further research assistance on this theme, see the ILO Research Guide: Child Labour.

Collective Bargaining is recognized as a fundamental right in the ILO Constitution as well as in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998). Employers, their organizations, and trade unions establish fair wages and working conditions through collective bargaining as they negotiate issues such as wages, hours of work, and operational health and safety. Relevant ILO standards include Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87); Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98); and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1981 (No. 154). For further research assistance on this theme, see the ILO Research Guide: Collective Bargaining.

Forced Labour means any work that is “exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily” (ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)). Relevant ILO standards include Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, and Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105). The ILO database NATLEX provides access to national legislation on the elimination of forced labour. For further research assistance on this theme, see the ILO Research Guide: Forced Labour.

Gender Equality is a key outcome of all ILO policies and standards. Relevant subtopics represented by ILO instruments include Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183), and Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190). For further research assistance on this theme, see the ILO Research Guide: Gender Equality.

Labour Migration refers to the movement of people across borders for work. Issues of concern for these workers include high instances of abuse and exploitation. ILO instruments include Migration for Employment Convention, 1939 (No. 66); Migration for Employment (Revised) Convention, 1949 (No. 97); and Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143). For further research assistance on this theme, see the ILO Research Guide: International Labour Migration.

Minimum Wage refers to any system under which a wage floor is determined for all wage earners to ensure “a minimum level of pay protection” (The Fundamentals of Minimum Wage Fixing, 2005). The procedures and systems created to achieve this result can vary widely. The ILO database NATLEX provides access to national legislation on wages. Relevant ILO standards include Minimum Wage-Fixing Machinery Convention, 1928 (No. 26); Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100); and Minimum Wage Fixing Convention, 1970 (No. 131). For further research assistance on this theme, see the ILO Research Guide: Minimum Wage.

Social Security programmes and systems provide individuals with income security in the event of factors such as old age, incapacity, disability, unemployment, or childbirth. Relevant ILO standards include Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102); Social Protection Floors Recommendation, 2012 (No. 202); Equality of Treatment (Social Security) Convention, 1962 (No. 118); and Maintenance of Social Security Rights Convention, 1982 (No. 157). The International Social Security Association publishes country profiles that outline social security systems in over 180 countries and territories in conjunction with the United States Social Security Administration. For further research assistance on this theme, see International Labour Standards on Social Security.

Youth Employment is a topic of concern to the ILO due to the persistent challenges that young people face finding opportunities in the labour market. The ILO database YouthPOL provides access to national policies and legislation affecting youth employment. For further research assistance on this theme, see the ILO Research Guide: Youth Employment.