Labor rights are human rights


    A lathe operator manufactures parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1942.

    Library of Congress/HOWARD R. HOLLEM

  • Will Tomer
    Will Tomer

    In a 2016 report for the United Nations, Maina Kiai, a Kenyan lawyer and the former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, wrote that the continuing growth of the world economy demands more be done to protect workers’ rights.

    “Our world and its globalized economy are changing at a lightning pace, and it is critical that the tools we use to protect to labor rights adapt just as quickly,” Mr. Kiai wrote. “A first step towards this goal is to obliterate the antiquated and artificial distinction between labor rights and human rights generally.

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    “Labor rights are human rights,” he wrote, “and the ability to exercise these rights in the workplace is prerequisite for workers to enjoy a broad range of other rights, whether economic, social, cultural, political or otherwise.”

    While some claim that this position is “radical,” the idea that labor rights are human rights can be traced back at least as far as the UN General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. That document states: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

    But Mr. Kiai’s report takes this a step further. He argues that labor rights should not merely encompass a person’s right to form or join a union, but labor rights, and by extension human rights, should allow workers to assemble, strike, and demand fairer working conditions.

    The notion is not particularly radical. After all, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are considered fundamental human rights by most people — including, in theory, the 48 countries that voted in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and they are widely regarded integral to labor rights as well.

    Within this framework, human rights are interdependent and mutually supportive, which means that defending human rights necessitates the defense of other rights, including workers’ rights. But many observers view treaties affirming social rights as weak, because they are not easily adjudicated, and some argue social rights are merely “aspirations,” rather than “real” human rights.

    Moreover, many governments work to undermine the labor rights movement. According to Mr. Kiai’s report, there is a concerted effort, within various nations and across the international community, to undermine fundamental labor rights.

    For instance, in 2012, the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) Employers’ Group argued that the right to strike, which is protected by Convention 87, does not exist. Convention 87, also known as the “Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention,” is considered to be a “fundamental” convention of international labor law by the UN.

    In the United States, some states continue to offer incentives to companies that block unions from organizing at their businesses. For example, in 2014, the state of Tennessee offered Volkswagen $300 million to add a production line in its factory, “but the offer was contingent on the plant remaining non-unionized.” (A union was eventually formed at Volkswagen’s Tennessee factory, despite stiff opposition.)

    Other nations, such as Egypt and South Korea, have cracked down on unions, often using violent measures to disperse workers who assemble peacefully under the guise of labor rights advocacy.

    When workers’ rights are threatened, reduced, or eliminated, there can be disastrous consequences. Chief among these would be the expansion of poverty, even in supposedly wealthy nations like the United States.

    According to a 2017 UN report, 40 million Americans are currently living in poverty and 18.5 million live in “extreme poverty.” The UN classified those with an income of less than $24,000 for a family of four as living in poverty, and families of four with an income of less than $12,000 as living in “extreme poverty.”

    Furthermore, a 2016 study by the Brookings Institute found that 23 million working-age Americans were living in poverty. And of the top ten most common occupations in the U.S. in 2015, only two — registered nurses and secretaries — pay a median wage of over $15.25 an hour. It is clear that having a job is not always enough to raise a person or a family out of poverty.

    There are a multitude of reasons for why poverty is so rampantant in the U.S. and there are many theories for how this problem can be solved. But when one considers that America’s impoverished citizens have long been described as “invisible” and “forgotten,” dating at least as far back as Michael Harrington’s seminal 1962 book The Other America, it is clear that empowering all citizens, including workers, with the tools for meaningful self-advocacy is vital.

    Every person aspires to have a better life, to live comfortably and in good health. But for many people, including tens of millions of Americans, this dream cannot be reached and it will continue to be unreachable so long as they cannot advocate on their own behalf in the workplace. And so, millions of Americans, including tens of working citizens, turn to U.S. welfare programs.

    But President Trump has expressed an interest in cutting these programs. So unless the nation would prefer to see tens of millions of its citizens become even more impoverished and at risk, it should empower its citizens with the tools to improve their lives.

    One clear way to work toward this goal is to ensure that all citizens have clearly defined and robust labor rights. But the U.S. is one of the few countries that has not ratified Convention 87, which was written in 1948 and is one of eight ILO conventions that form the core of international labor law, as interpreted by the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. In fact, the U.S. has not ratified six of the eight ILO conventions, including a mandate of equal pay for equal work (ratified by 173 countries), a ban on workplace discrimination (ratified by 175 countries), and a minimum age for work (ratified by 171 countries).

    That the U.S. has not previously ratified these conventions is an embarrassment. It should begin to address this situation now by ratifying Convention 87.

    The U.S. government should also, as Mr. Kiai recommended in his 2016 report, “ensure that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association can be exercised in the workplace by everyone without discrimination.”

    Labor rights are human rights. On Labor Day of all days, it is important to remember that liberating people from poverty and ensuring that everyone lives under acceptable conditions means workers must have their rights as workers guaranteed.

    Ratifying all of the fundamental ILO conventions, beginning with Convention 87, would be an important step in that direction.

    Contact Will Tomer at, 419-724-6404, or on Twitter @WillTomer.