Yifeng Chen on Enforcement of Transnational Labor Standards

On 17 January 2019, Yifeng Chen, Associate Professor at Peking University Law School and Assistant Director of the Peking University Institute of International Law, gave a guest lecture at the Center. His topic was ‘Enforcement of Transnational Labor Standards by International Financial Institutions: a Chinese Perspective.’

Professor Chen noted that traditionally, International Financial Institutions (IFIs) had not been active in labor rights protection. However, since the late 1990s, the IFIs have grown more involved in labor matters. He pointed to the fact that since the 2000s, labor standards have been incorporated into the policy instruments of the IFIs, with examples set by the Asian Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the Nordic Investment Bank, the African Development Bank and so on.

Professor Chen introducing the outline of his presentation, Faculty of Law of the University of Helsinki, 17 January 2019


However, IFIs’ approach to labor protection has been different from each other. Specifically, the levels of labor protection afforded are uneven among the institutions and the enforcement of labor rights remains diverse in practice. Additionally, institutionalization of labor standards within the financial institutions varies in terms of degree and means. In the course of this development, the ILO has played a very important and indispensable role in the dissemination of knowledge and expertise about labor standards.

Professor Chen posited that IFIs’ growing engagement with labor protection has created a recognized body of labor standards that are formulated, applied and enforced in a transnational context. The application of labor standards is project-specific, and is not based on the principle of personam jurisdiction, but instead the principle of in rem jurisdiction, linked to projects financed by the IFIs.

He then discussed what constitutes the content of IFI labor standards. All four ILO core labor standards, namely freedom of association and collective bargaining, prohibition of forced labor, prohibition of child labor, and non-discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, are generally recognized. Additionally, IFI labor standards may involve safe working conditions and other workers’ rights. His presentation also illustrated how controversial labor standards recognized by the IFIs are by referring to the World Bank’s position regarding the highly politically sensitive issue of freedom of association.