International labour standards
In 1919, the signatory nations to the Treaty of Versailles created the International Labour Organization (ILO) in recognition of the fact that ‘conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled’. To tackle this problem, the newly founded organisation established a system of international labour standards – international conventions and recommendations drawn up by representatives of governments, employers and workers from around the world – covering all matters related to work. What the ILO’s founders recognised in 1919 was that the global economy needed clear rules in order to ensure that economic progress would go hand in hand with social justice, prosperity and peace for all.
In considering the protection of labour standards at EU level, the European Court of Justice is able to draw on a wide range of sources, including international labour standards, in particular, ILO Conventions and Council of Europe measures. This is supported by Article 53, ‘Level of protection’, in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (now in Part II of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe):
Nothing in this Charter shall be interpreted as restricting or adversely affecting human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognised, in their respective fields of application, by Union law and international law and by international agreements to which the Union, the Community or all the Member States are party, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and by the Member States’ constitutions.
Ratification by all EU Member States of certain ILO Conventions has produced a foundation of international labour standards common to all EU Member States. For example, with respect to fundamental trade union rights, all 15 EU Member States have ratified ILO Convention No. 87 of 1948 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise) and ILO Convention No. 98 of 1949 (Application of the Principles of the Right to Organise and to Bargain Collectively). Further sources of fundamental trade union rights common to the EU Member States are the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1950 (ECHR), which is referred to in Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union, and the European Social Charter of 1961, which is referred to in Article 136 EC. Freedom of association is guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Part I, paragraph 5, and Part II, Article 4 of the European Social Charter 1961, revised in 1996.
The Explanations by the Praesidium of the Convention which drafted the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, state that Article 12 of the EU Charter on freedom of assembly and of association ‘corresponds to Article 11 of the ECHR’ and, referring to Article 52(3) of the EU Charter, that its meaning and scope are the same as those of the ECHR. On the other hand, the Praesidium concedes in its explanation that the scope of the provision in the final Charter text will be wider, given that it applies at all levels. Article 52(3) of the EU Charter adds: ‘This provision shall not prevent Union law providing more extensive protection’.