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International labour standards, codes of conduct and gender issues: A review of recent debates and controversies

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For more content, see International Community Law Review.

Calls for greater levels of protection for workers in the global economy have emerged as a repose to the growth of globally organised networks of production centred around the multinational corporation (MNC). The suggestion is made that, in this context, states, keen to attract foreign investment, are increasingly less able to enforce national labour standards. This paper considers the various debates and controversies that surround the issue of labour standards. I look at the way in which the debates have played out within the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and contrast this approach with the emergence of "self-regulatory" code of conduct based modes of MNC regulation. However, as a feminist researcher with interests in the subordination of female employment within the global economy, this paper also seeks to address the issue of how women's labour rights are being protected. A gender perspective on this issue is essential because of the massively important role of female employment in many of the globalized industries that have been at the heart of labour standards debate (in particular in clothing). It is noted that the emergence of an approach to international labour standards that embraces a human rights approach has, in practice, led to the emergence of very minimalistic definitions of labour standards that act to marginalise women's concerns as workers in global supply chains. Despite the limitations of codes of conduct as a mode of regulating labour standards, it is suggested that these codes do provide a space for the bringing in of gender concerns into the labour standards debate.


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