reality check on labour law

The Labour law acts as a tool to promote worker empowerment as well as worker protection. It regulates individual and collective employment relations. Other relevant legislation includes Constitutional law, the civil code, the criminal code as well as the supranational ILO Conventions. Labour law aims to correct the imbalance of power between the worker and the employer; to prevent the employer from dismissing the worker without good cause; to set up and preserve the processes by which workers are recognized as ‘equal’ partners in negotiations about their working conditions etc. Labour law aims to prevent a race to the bottom by placing restrictions on the contracting partners’ freedom to contract on whatever terms they wish and setting minimum standards over safety and pay. Labour law also regulates the labour market: a country may choose to put legislation in place setting maximum or minimum limits on wages or working hours, either nationally or sectors or industries.


Information on labour rights is lacking in many economies. Such information gaps may seem convenient for countries with no interest in raising awareness about legislation with the ultimate aim of improving it. The actual victim is the worker who never gets to know about his/her rights. Employers presumably also have no interest in raising a worker’s awareness on labour rights. They might fear that increased compliance leads to heightened cost of doing business. They may not be aware of research findings indicating that improved working conditions lead to higher productivity, which helps to recover the additional cost incurred in implementing worker benefits (see Heymann and Earle, 2010). Lee and McCann (2009) review considerable literature on the link between enforcement of labour legislation (compliance) and level of awareness (both among workers and employers). Their study brings forward data from Tanzania and shows that “worker’s awareness is strongly associated with better working conditions”.

Considering the low level of collective representation of workers (especially in developing countries) and budget-strapped and understaffed labour inspection systems, workers’ rights can be better enforced through a bottom-up approach – based on individual complaints. This approach however requires dissemination of legal knowledge to workers as a pre-condition, or first step towards compliance with the law. Labour legislation, worldwide, requires employers to display abstracts of labour laws. However the above-referred study indicates that this was ineffective in disseminating knowledge in US workplaces.  What then would be the optimal way to disseminate information on statutory rights?


To highlight the unique features of the Decent Work Check a comparison with some other comparison tools on the international scene may be helpful.

The Decent Work Check offers more than indices like the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators (Employing Workers Index-EWI ), the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report-GCR (Labour Market Efficiency Pillar), the Harvard/NBER Global Labour Survey-GLS [4] or even the ISSA’s Social Security Programs  throughout the World-SSPTW. The main differences are that it is not just descriptive (like SSPTW) and that it abstains from any subjective opinions (quite unlike GLS and GCR), but also that it covers many more work related aspects. Compared to all of these indices it is quite comprehensive.


Moreover, the primary target group, workers, may easily access and consult the Decent Work Check.  This is not the case with the Women, Business and Law Database and the Labour Market Regulations Database, both maintained by the Word Bank. These cover many topics related to employment security, decent working hours, combining work and family as well as sexual harassment. But these databases, though useful for comparative purposes, have limited relevance for workers. Workers cannot easily check whether their individual situation is in accordance with the regulations. Also, the ILO has created many descriptive databases, however these are not regularly updated or have limited outreach.

The Global Labour Survey (GLS) and Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) cover a limited number of variables and cannot be used to measure Decent Work in a country. Moreover, they enumerate only the subjective opinions of local law firms, union leader & activists on local de-facto practices and business executives respectively.

The Decent Work Check may also be compared to corporate social responsibility tools like SA8000 and the UN Global Compact principles. This comparison shows that it is more elaborate and covers a lot more issues than these standards.


Dhruv Tomar


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