When thinking about international labour governance, the first term that will come to mind to most is the International Labour Organization (ILO). Created as early as in 1919, the ILO has been mandated with the regulation of labour standards and employment policy among other matters pertaining to the world of work. Over time though, a number of other international institutions have become relevant in this field. International economic institutions are of particular relevance in this regard. Some of these institutions are vested with resources and policy leverage that by far exceed the means available to the ILO. The scope of activities of many of these institutions has expanded over time, thereby venturing deeply into the realm of competences that was originally entrusted to the ILO. This raises a host of questions, including as to what the implications of this development are for labour standards at the domestic level and how these governance activities by these actors affect international labour governance as a whole.
This PhD research project contributes to addressing these questions by offering a legal reconstruction of how international economic institutions exercise labour governance. Drawing on a public law approach, the project examines the instruments of a variety of international economic institutions, such as the World Bank, the IMF, the OECD, as well as selected regional organisations. It describes how international economic institutions, through instruments of diverse legal forms – ranging from legally binding arrangements to highly informal phenomena – have been able to exert significant influence on both the protection of individual workers and industrial relations systems. These governance activities have sometimes led to a significant reshaping of the domestic labour law systems and not necessarily been coherent with those undertaken by the ILO. This can be seen as reflecting the tension between two paradigms inherent in international labour governance, namely those of “protection” and “flexibility”, of which the latter has tended to prevail in recent years. The project furthermore engages with the relevant empirical literature to inquire into the economic rationale behind these governance activities. On this analytical basis, the project identifies a number of legitimacy deficits with regard to how labour governance is exercised by international economic institutions. The project finally explores how these deficits could be addressed through a public law framework for the relevant institutions and outlines both substantive and procedural features in this regard.