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What Are Workers' Rights? United States DEPARTMENT OF LABOR

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What Are Workers' Rights?

There is no single definition or definitive list of workers' rights. The International Labor Organization (ILO) identifies what it calls "fundamental principles and rights at work" that all ILO Members have an obligation to respect and promote, which are:

  • freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
  • effective abolition of child labor; and
  • elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

The ILO has adopted – and supervises the application of – international labor conventions in each of these areas. Other important ILO standards deal with conditions of work, including occupational safety and health, wages and hours of work, but these standards are not considered "fundamental" or "core" conventions.

United States trade law adds acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health to that list, calling them "internationally recognized labor rights."

Before the Bipartisan Trade Deal of May 10, 2007, U.S. trade agreements did not include non-discrimination on the list of "internationally recognized labor rights" covered by agreements' labor chapters. U.S. trade preference programs still omit that fundamental right from their list.

Our Role

  • We represent the U.S. government before the International Labor Organization and participate in international and regional fora that address workers' rights issues, such as the G-20, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Inter-American Conference of Ministries of Labor, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
  • We are involved in the development and implementation of U.S. policy related to workers' rights issues in multilateral and bilateral trade and investment agreements.
  • We monitor worker's rights-related provisions of free trade agreements and receive and review complaints or "submissions" alleging that those provisions have been violated.
  • We work with other governments to promote collaboration on workers' rights issues.
  • We support technical assistance projects that help strengthen respect for workers' rights.
  • We conduct research and publish reports on workers' rights, including child labor and forced labor.

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