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SJEC hosts International Conference on the Plurality of Fundamental Labour Rights Enforcement Mechanisms

On 22 April 2016, the Social Justice Expertise Center (SJEC) hosted the first global conference for international labour law judges and other adjudicators themed ‘Ensuring Coherence in Fundamental Labour Rights Case Law: Challenges and Opportunities’ at the Academy Building of the University of Leiden.

Participants representing various international (judicial) organizations convened to share their knowledge, expertise and experience as well as to discuss issues associated with diverging labour rights enforcement systems.

The conference was chaired by Professor Paul van der Heijden in his capacity as the chairperson of SJEC. After welcome remarks by the Dean of Leiden Law School, Professor Rick Lawson, Professor Van der Heijden opened the substantive part of the conference with a presentation on the ever growing number of (quasi-) judicial bodies that are currently in charge of monitoring the implementation and enforcement of fundamental labour rights and principles. He stressed the importance of looking for solutions to tackle possible drawbacks of the fragmented interpretation of international labour law. He relayed the goal of the conference to the participants, which was to add to a better understanding of the plurality of labour law enforcement mechanisms as well as think of ways to ensure a coherent interpretation of fundamental labor rights.

Subsequently, Judge Dean Spielmann, former president of the European Court of Human Rights, delivered the first keynote address on the ‘Proliferation of Fundamental Labor Rights Enforcement Mechanisms: Contemporary Discourse and Institutional Challenges – the Contribution of the European Court of Human Rights’. He noted that the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has brought about a common understanding and observance of human rights among the member states of the Council of Europe. He further shared that the ECtHR has a tradition of regarding the jurisprudence of the European Committee on Social Rights to be highly authoritative. Judge Spielmann’s presentation was followed by an intervention from Professor Janice Bellace of the University of Pennsylvania who discussed the sometimes precarious application of human rights at the workplace and asserted that employees only really have bargaining power if they engage in collective bargaining.

Following the plenary session, participants were divided into two working groups. The first focused on the right to strike and was chaired by Professor Monika Schlachter, Vice-president of the European Committee of Social Rights. Professor Schlachter discussed whether social rights could benefit from more coherent international standards using the right to strike as an illustration.

The second working group centered on discrimination at the workplace and was chaired by Professor Titia Loenen of the University of Leiden. The debate revolved around the issue of wearing religious symbols at work in the public sector, with focus on the diverging legal approaches. French legislation does not permit the wearing of religious symbols at work in the public sector but it is permissible in the United Kingdom as long as there is an equal opportunity to do so. German legislation takes an intermediate approach.

Following the two morning working groups, Professor Niklas Bruun, Member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, delivered the second keynote address. He stressed the importance of interpreting fundamental labor rights in a dynamic way ─relying on the Vienna Convention on the Law of treaties─ in order to achieve social justice. He advanced that there is a real risk that the ILO ownership of ILO instruments is endangered through increased plurality in combination with undermined legitimacy of the ILO authoritative interpretations. He further called for the establishment of a tribunal for the interpretation of ILO provisions in accordance with Article 31 (2) of the ILO Constitution. Responding to Professor Bruun, Dr. Claire La Hovary, University of Glasgow, further elaborated on the legal and political impediments to the establishment of such an in-house tribunal within the ILO although a tribunal could enhance legal predictability and clarity.

The parallel working groups that followed were chaired by Professor Brian Langille of the University of Toronto and Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, former Commission of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights respectively. Professor Langille, in his presentation on the theme ‘Legal Interpretation and the Right to Strike’ discussed how an effective application of fundamental labor rights can be secured through legal interpretation. In particular, Professor Langille clarified the distinction between rights/duties and freedoms. Presenting at the alternate working group, Professor Antoine discussed the approach of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to interpreting fundamental labor rights from an international human rights perspective. She, for instance, referred to the use of indicators as a benchmark by the Commission in determining whether a member state has complied with specific human rights obligations.

The afternoon plenary conference presentation was delivered Judge François Biltgen of the Court of Justice of the European Union who spoke about the interpretation of fundamental labor rights by the Court. More specifically, he focused on the interplay between fundamental economic freedoms and fundamental labor rights as well as the direct horizontal effects of EU Directives. Judge Biltgen discussed that the case law of the Court of the Justice has often inspired the EU legislator to adopt secondary legislation on a number of labor issues. He called for more recognition for the contribution of the Court of Justice to the development of fundamental labor rights.

The conference ended with a Q&A session chaired by Professor van der Heijden and with closing remarks by Professor Lawson. The Social Justice Expertise Center will now work on publishing the proceedings from the conference.


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