Workers’ rights are the entitlements individuals have in their roles as employees. In most industrialized societies these guarantees protect such things as freedom of association at the workplace, a minimum wage, and a safe and healthy workplace. The primary obligation for protecting these rights rests with employers. Employers also are the most likely violators of workers’ rights. The government regulates the employer-employee relationship, adjudicates employee grievances against employers, and implements a remedy if necessary. The status of workers in a country is a bellwether for the status of human rights in general, because it is rare that a government will respect other human rights if it does not respect workers’ rights.
Workers’ rights are recognized in international human rights agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They are elaborated in more detail in the conventions and recommendations adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN agency that is focused on labor issues. These international human rights agreements and the ILO provide lists of rights workers ought to have everywhere in the world. The actual rights workers can exercise with government protection vary from country to country. They can be found in each nation’s constitution, statutes, bureaucratic regulations, and judicial opinions.
The ILO was formed in 1919 to promote government protection of the rights of workers all over the world. It is the oldest of all international organizations promoting government respect for human rights. Today, almost all members of the UN are also members of the ILO. The institutions of the ILO produce conventions and recommendations describing the policies member states ought to enact and enforce if they want to protect the basic rights of workers against abuse by employers. The bodies that draft and approve these recommendations comprise representatives of governments (50 percent), employers (25 percent), and workers (25 percent). The goal is to ensure that ILO standards represent meaningful and practicable targets for both more developed and less developed countries. Conventions are designed to be ratified like an international treaty. A ratifying state undertakes certain binding legal obligations. A recommendation does not create legally binding obligations, but provides additional guidelines for national policies. Employers generally favor recommendations. Workers favor conventions. Protocols are partial revisions of conventions. The term International Labour Code is used to refer to the whole body of conventions, recommendations, and protocols adopted by the International Labour Conference.
The ILO’s 1998 Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work requires all ILO members to “respect, to promote and to realize in good faith” five core rights that are considered fundamental workers’ rights and should be respected by all governments of the world, rich and poor, even if they have not ratified the relevant ILO conventions. These core worker rights are: freedom of association, the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor, the effective abolition of child labor, and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment or occupation.
The United States was a founding member of the ILO and continues to be a member state. However, the United States has ratified few of the ILO conventions, declaring most of them to be within the domain of the states. Only a handful of other nations, such as Brunei and Myanmar, have a poorer record of support for ILO initiatives supporting workers’ rights. Moreover, if the rights of American workers are compared with the absolute standards set by the ILO, one finds many areas where protections of workers’ rights in the United States do not meet international standards.
- Henkin, Louis. Human Rights. New York: Colombia University Press, 1999. Human Rights Watch, “Unfair Advantage,” 2000, www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/u/us/uslbr008.pdf.
- Leary,Virginia A. “The Paradox of Workers’ Rights as Human Rights.” In Human Rights, Labor Rights, and International Trade, edited by Lance A. Compa and Stephen F. Diamond, 22–47. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
- Rodgers, Gerry, Lee Swepston, Eddy Lee, and Jasmien van Daele. The International Labour Organization and the Quest for Social Justice, 1919–2009. Geneva: ILO, 2009.
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