Workers' Rights

  • Workers Protesting

    Respect for workers' rights helps ensure equal opportunities for all women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security, and dignity. 

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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.

Child labor is work that interferes with the physical and mental development of children. This work also often interferes with children's opportunities to attend school fully or requires them to dropout of school entirely. There are still 168 million children working worldwide, 85 million in hazardous work. ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor calls on the global community, as a matter of urgency, to eradicate the use of children under 18 years of age in all forms of slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, illicit activities, and hazardous work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals. 

Our Strategy

The Bureau of International Labor Affairs has been working to eliminate the worst forms of child labor since 1993 through research, policy engagement and technical cooperation.

We have published over 30 Congressionally-mandated reports, including the Department Labor's Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor and a public list of goods from countries we have reason to believe are produced by child labor or forced labor. This research has informed our policy and program design to end child labor. We have funded more than 270 projects to combat child labor in over 90 countries and worked with more than 60 organizations.

In addition to working directly with children and families to provide education or financial assistance, we work with countries at the national, district and community levels to strengthen systems and services required to address child labor. Our projects have trained labor inspectors and law enforcement officials on child labor law enforcement. They have also developed community-based, child labor monitoring systems in the supply chains of key sectors.


  • Expand global knowledge on child labor, including how to better tackle the problem.
  • Strengthen laws, law enforcement, coordination among government bodies, policies, and programs related to child labor, including social protection and education.
  • Improve awareness of the importance of education for all children.
  • Increase mobilization of a wide array of stakeholders who improve and expand economic and education opportunities for children and families.
  • Increase numbers of children in school who no longer work in exploitative child labor.

The International Labor Organization's Forced Labor Convention defines forced labor as work performed against a person's will, under the threat of some form of penalty.

Forced labor takes many forms. Some victims are born into slavery, which still exists in some parts of the world. Some are trafficked. Some get trapped in endless debt through fraudulent job recruitment schemes or unreasonable pay deductions. Some are confined to workplaces through various forms of physical and psychological coercion.

The ILO estimates that there are approximately 21 million forced labor victims globally. Nearly 70% of these victims are in sectors such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing, while 22% are in commercial sexual exploitation.

Our Strategy

ILAB works to combat forced labor around the world in a number of ways.  These include:

Research:  We produce and fund research reports that analyze and discuss forced labor around the world.  These reports aim to raise awareness of forced labor among foreign governments, industry groups, and civil society organizations, and to spur action to combat forced labor.

Projects:  We fund projects in foreign countries to address forced labor.  These projects tackle forced labor in a variety of ways, including supporting local mechanisms to detect and rescue victims, building organizations' capacity to provide protection services to victims, and building government agencies' capacity to prevent forced labor and prosecute perpetrators.

Policy:  We develop U.S. Government policy positions on forced labor issues and advocate for these positions in international fora, including the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Additionally, we regularly report on the extent to which our government gives effect to the principle of the elimination of all forms of forced labor, pursuant to the ILO's 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.


ILO conventions call on governments to eradicate all forms of forced labor. By funding research and projects and through its policy work, ILAB plays a part in global efforts to ensure that people do not fall prey to forced labor exploitation.

Freedom of association is the right of workers and employers to organize to defend their interests, including for the purpose of negotiating salaries, benefits, and other conditions of work. It is a fundamental right that underpins democratic representation and governance.

Collective bargaining is an essential element of freedom of association. It helps to ensure that workers and employers have an equal voice in negotiations and provides workers the opportunity to seek to improve their living and working conditions.  Effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining can contribute to economic development and growth by increasing certainty and stability in the workplace and improving labor-management relations.

The ILO's recommendations and conventions help define these rights and provide guidance on how they can be most effectively protected. The ILO's fundamental convention on freedom of association (No. 87, adopted in 1948) says that workers and employers alike have the right to:

  • establish and join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization;

and that these organizations have the right to:

  • draw up their own rules, elect their own representatives, and organize their programs and activities freely;
  • not be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority; and
  • establish and join federations and confederations, which may in turn affiliate with international organizations of workers and employers.

The ILO's fundamental convention on the right to organize and collective bargaining (No. 98, adopted in 1949) says that:

  • workers shall be protected against acts of anti-union discrimination;
  • workers' and employers' organizations shall be protected against acts of interference by each other; and
  • governments shall encourage and promote voluntary collective bargaining to regulate terms and conditions of employment.

Our Strategy

We promote freedom of association and collective bargaining through:

  • participation in international organizations like the ILO;
  • enforcement of labor rights provisions in U.S. free trade agreements and trade preference programs, which includes publishing public reports on the enforcement of those rights; and
  • technical assistance projects aimed at improving government enforcement of labor laws or improving worker organizations' engagement with governments, employers, and society to protect worker rights. 

Additionally, ILAB is responsible for regularly reporting on the progress of the United States government in respecting and promoting freedom of association and collective bargaining domestically. ILAB compiles this information for reports, pursuant to the ILO 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, on the extent to which the U.S. government gives effect to the principles of collective bargaining and freedom of association.


Through our work, we hope to improve government enforcement of laws and policies that protect freedom of association and collective bargaining, and expand worker influence on government, employers, and society to protect worker rights. Specific objectives include:

  • governments revising or adopting laws, regulations, policies, and/or other instruments that strengthen freedom of association and collective bargaining;
  • labor inspectorates improving their performance in conducting labor inspections and enforcing national labor laws;
  • worker organizations expanding their collective bargaining, advocacy, and awareness-raising skills; and
  • improving others' understanding of worker rights, labor commitments in trade instruments, and the benefits from enforcing those commitments.

Discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, political opinion, national or social origin, and other grounds can create significant obstacles to actively participating in the labor force and obtaining decent work opportunities. Breaking down these barriers begins with the adoption and implementation of strong anti-discrimination labor laws, coupled with awareness-raising and equal access to education and training.

Our Strategy

We advocate for non-discrimination, promote effective policy and program approaches in international fora, and report regularly on the U.S. government's progress in achieving non-discrimination in the workplace.

By promoting effective methods and sharing best practices in international dialogues on eliminating workplace discrimination, we strive to increase the labor force participation and improve the work environment of groups vulnerable to discrimination.

Additionally, we regularly report on the progress of the U.S. government in eliminating workplace discrimination domestically. We compile this information for the government's regular reporting, pursuant to the ILO 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, on the extent to which our government gives effect to the principles of non-discrimination reflected in ILO Conventions 100 (Equal Remuneration) and 111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation). We also contribute to regular reporting on compliance with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the United States ratified in 1994.

Every worker should enjoy decent and safe working conditions.  This requires, at a minimum, the regulation of working time, the appropriate payment of wages, and effective oversight of occupational safety and health (OSH). In order to qualify for certain trade benefits through the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences program, countries must be taking steps to afford acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and OSH.  In addition, labor standards in a number of U.S. free trade agreements include commitments related to acceptable conditions of work.

The State Department defines "acceptable conditions of work" as:

the establishment and maintenance of mechanisms, adapted to national conditions, that provide for minimum working standards, that is: wages that provide a decent living for workers and their families; working hours that do not exceed 48 hours per week, with a full 24-hour day of rest; a specified number of annual paid leave days; and minimum conditions for the protection of the safety and health of workers.

The International Labor Organization has adopted several Conventions and Recommendations designed to ensure that hours of work are regulated, that workers receive adequate rest periods and annual holidays, and that workers are protected from workplaces injuries and illnesses.

The principal legislation in the United States that governs workplace conditions is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is enforced by the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Our Role

  • We monitor the scope and enforcement of labor laws regarding acceptable conditions of work as part of certain trade preference programs and free trade agreements.
  • We work with DOL's Wage and Hour Division, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Mining Safety and Health Administration, as well as the International Labor Organization to promote improved working conditions worldwide.

Occupational Safety & Health

  • We exchange good practices on safety and health through bilateral labor dialogues with Brazil, China, India, and Vietnam.
  • We conduct an annual safety and health dialogue with the European Union under the U.S.-EU Labor Dialogue.
  • We fund technical assistance programs to improve occupational health and safety conditions for adult workers, youth, and adolescents allowed to work.