Labor rights

Labor Background

Throughout history, workers claiming some sort of right have attempted to pursue their interests. During the Middle Ages, the Peasants' Revolt in England expressed demand for better wages and working conditions. One of the leaders of the revolt, John Ball famously argued that people were born equal saying, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" Laborers often appealed to traditional rights. For instance, English peasants fought against the enclosure movement, which took traditionally communal lands and made them private.

The British Parliament passed the Factory Act 1833 which stated that children under the age of 9 could not work, children aged 9-13 could only work 8 hours a day, and children aged 14-18 could only work for 12 hours a day.[1]

Labor rights are a relatively new addition to the modern corpus of human rights. The modern concept of labor rights dates to the 19th century after the creation of labor unions following the industrialization processes. Karl Marx stands out as one of the earliest and most prominent advocates for workers rights. His philosophy and economic theory focused on labor issues and advocates his economic system of socialism, a society which would be ruled by the workers. Many of the social movements for the rights of the workers were associated with groups influenced by Marx such as the socialists and communists. More moderate democratic socialists and social democrats supported worker's interests as well. More recent workers rights advocacy has focused on the particular role, exploitation, and needs of women workers, and of increasingly mobile global flows of casual, service, or guest workers.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) was formed in 1919 as part of the League of Nations to protect worker's rights. The ILO later became incorporated into the United Nations. The UN itself backed workers rights by incorporating several into two articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which is the basis of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 6-8). These read:

Article 23[2]

  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his/her interests.[3]

Article 24[4]

  1. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The ILO and several other groups have sought international labor standards to create legal rights for workers across the world. Recent movements have also been made to encourage countries to promote labor rights at the international level through fair trade.[3]

Core Labor Standards

Identified by the ILO in the ‘Declaration of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work’,[5] core labor standards are “widely recognized to be of particular importance”.[6] They are universally applicable, regardless of whether the relevant conventions have been ratified, the level of development of a country or cultural values.[7] These standards are composed of qualitative, not quantitative standards and don't establish a particular level of working conditions, wages or health and safety standards.[5] They are not intended to undermine the comparative advantage that developing countries may hold. Core labor standards are important human rights and are recognized in widely ratified international human rights instruments including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC), the most widely ratified human rights treaty with 193 parties, and the ICCPR with 160 parties.[8]

The core labor standards are:

  • Freedom of association:[9] workers are able to join trade unions that are independent of government and employer influence;
  • The right to collective bargaining:[10] workers may negotiate with employers collectively, as opposed to individually;
  • The prohibition of all forms of forced labor:[11] includes security from prison labor and slavery, and prevents workers from being forced to work under duress;[12]
  • Elimination of the worst forms of child labor:[13] implementing a minimum working age and certain working condition requirements for children;
  • Non-discrimination in employment : equal pay for equal work.

Very few ILO member countries have ratified all of these conventions due to domestic constraints yet as these rights are also recognised in the UDHR, and form a part of customary international law they are committed to respect these rights. For a discussion on the incorporation of these core labor rights into the mechanisms of the World Trade Organization, see The Recognition of Labour Standards within the World Trade Organisation. There are many other issues outside of this core, in the UK employee rights includes the right to employment particulars, an itemised pay statement, a disciplinary process at which they have the right to be accompanied, daily breaks, rest breaks, paid holidays and more.[14]

Labor rights issues

Aside from the right to organize, labor movements have campaigned on various other issues that may be said to relate to labor rights.

Hour Limits

Many labor movement campaigns have to do with limiting hours in the work place. 19th century labor movements campaigned for an Eight-hour day. Worker advocacy groups have also sought to limit work hours, making a working week of 40 hours or less standard in many countries. A 35-hour workweek was established in France in 2000, although this standard has been considerably weakened since then. Workers may agree with employers to work for longer, but the extra hours are payable overtime. In the European Union the working week is limited to a maximum of 48 hours including overtime (see also Working Time Directive).

Child Labor

Labor rights advocates have also worked to combat child labor. They see child labor as exploitative, and often economically damaging. Child labor opponents often argue that working children are deprived of an education. In 1948 and then again in 1989, the United Nations declared that children have a right to social protection.[15]

Child Labor in the United States

In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) restricts the employment of children. The FLSA defines the minimum age for employment to 14 years for non-agricultural jobs with restrictions on hours, restricts the hours for youth under the age of 16, and prohibits the employment of children under the age of 18 in occupations deemed hazardous by the Secretary of Labor.[16]

In 2007, Massachusetts updated their child labor laws that required all minors to have work permits.[17]

Workplace Conditions

Labor rights advocates have worked to improve workplace conditions which meet established standards. During the Progressive Era, the United States began workplace reforms, which received publicity boosts from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and events such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Labor advocates and other groups often criticize production facilities with poor working conditions as sweatshops and occupational health hazards, and campaign for better labor practices and recognition of workers rights throughout the world.

Safety and Social Sustainability

Recent initiatives in the field of sustainability have included a focus on social sustainability, which includes promoting workers' rights and safe working conditions, prevention of human trafficking, and elimination of illegal child labor from the sustainably sourced products and services.[18] Organizations such as the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of State have released studies on products that have been identified as using child labor and industries using or funded by human trafficking. Labor rights are defined internationally by sources such as the Norwegian Agency for Public Management and eGovernment (DIFI) and the International Finance Corporation performance standards.[18]

Living Wage

The labor movement pushes for guaranteed minimum wage laws, and there are continuing negotiations about increases to the minimum wage. However, opponents see minimum wage laws as limiting employment opportunities for unskilled and entry level workers.

Migrant Workers

Legal migrant workers are sometimes abused. For instance, migrants have faced a number of alleged abuses in the United Arab Emirates (including Dubai). Human Rights Watch lists several problems including "nonpayment of wages, extended working hours without overtime compensation, unsafe working environments resulting in death and injury, squalid living conditions in labor camps, and withholding of passports and travel documents by employers. [19] Despite laws against the practice, employers confiscate migrant workers' passports. Without their passports, workers cannot switch jobs or return home. These workers have little recourse for labor abuses, but conditions have been improving.[20] Labor and social welfare minister Ali bin Abdullah al-Kaabi has undertaken a number of reforms to help improve labor practices in his country.[19]

Undocumented Workers

The right to equal treatment, regardless of gender, origin and appearance, religion, sexual orientation, is also seen by many as a worker's right. Discrimination in the work place is illegal in many countries, but some see the wage gap between genders and other groups as a persistent problem.

Undocumented Workers in the United States

The National Labor Relations Act recognizes undocumented laborers as employees. However, the supreme court case Hoffman Plastic Compounds Inc. Vs. NLRB established that backpay could not be awarded to unlawfully fired undocumented employees due to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.[21] In this court decision, it was also stated that the U.S. would support FLSA and MSPA, without regard to whether or not someone is documented.[22] Undocumented workers also still have legal protection against discrimination based on national origin. The decision of the Hoffman supreme court case primarily has affected undocumented laborers by preventing them from getting backpay and/or reinstatement.[22]

While no undocumented individual is technically able to work in the United States legally, undocumented folks make up 5% of the workforce.[22] In the U.S., people who were born outside of the country tend to work in riskier jobs and have a higher chance of encountering death on the job. The low wage sectors, which many undocumented folks work in, have the highest rates of wage and hour violation.[22] Estimates claim that 31% of undocumented people work in service jobs. Restaurant work in particular has a 12% rate of undocumented workers.

Undocumented people can and have joined labor unions, and are even credited by a 2008 dissertation for "reinvigorating" the labor movement.[22] Because the NLRA protects undocumented workers, it protects their right to organize. However the NLRA excludes workers that are agricultural, domestic, independent contractors, governmental, or related to their employers.[23] The right to speak up against labor abuses was protected further by an immigration reform bill in 2013 with the POWER act, which intended to protect employees who spoke out against labor practices from facing detention or deportation.[23][24]

However, labor unions are not necessarily welcoming of immigrant workers. Within unions, there have been internal struggles, such as when Los Angeles immigrant janitors reorganized service workers. Being a part of the union does not necessarily address all the needs of immigrant workers, and thus winning power within the union is the first step for immigrant workers to address their needs.[25]

Immigrant workers often mobilize beyond unions, by campaigning in their communities on intersectional issues of immigration, discrimination, and police misconduct.[25]

See also


  1. Hutchins, B. L.; Harrison, A. (1911). A History of Factory Legislation. P. S. King & Son.
  2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  3. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights". United Nations. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  4. Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  5. Asian Development Bank 2006, ‘Core Labour Standards Handbook’, Manila
  6. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 1996 ‘Trade, Employment and Labour Standards: A Study of Core Workers’ Rights and International Trade’
  7. United Nations Global Compact, Labour, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-03-03. Retrieved 2009-06-14.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ratification and Reservations: Convention on the Rights of the Child, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-09-26. Retrieved 2009-06-14.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ratification and Reservations: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-09-26. Retrieved 2007-05-29.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ICCPR Art.22, ILO Convention 87
  10. ICCPR Art.22, ILO Convention 98
  11. ICCPR Art. 8, ILO Conventions 29 and 105
  12. Greenfield, G 2001 ‘Core Labor Standards in the WTO: Reducing labor to a global commodity’, Working USA , vol.5, Iss. 1; pp 9
  13. CROC Art. 32 ILO Convention 138
  14. "Employee Rights". Archived from the original on 2011-03-06. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  15. Prior, Katherine (1997). Workers' Rights. New York: Franklin Watts.
  16. "Workers Under 18 | U.S. Department of Labor". Retrieved 2019-11-01.
  17. Watkins, Heidi (2011). Teens and Employment. Detroit: Greenhaven.
  18. "Social Sustainability - GSA Sustainable Facilities Tool". Retrieved 2016-03-11.
  19. "Essential Background: Overview of human rights issues in United Arab Emirites (UAE) (Human Rights Watch, 31-12-2005)". Archived from the original on 18 November 2008. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  20. United Arab Emirates
  21. Labor Law - Undocumented Immigrants - Second Circuit Holds Undocumented Workers Are Categorically Barred from Backpay under the National Labor Relations Act - Palma v. NLRB 723 F.3d 176 (2d Cir. 2013). pp. Recent Cases 1236.
  22. Gleeson, Shannon Marie. The Intersection of Legal Status and Stratification: The Paradox of Immigration Law and Labor Protections in the United States. Diss. U of California, Berkeley, 2008. N.p.: ProQuest Dissertations, 2008. Print.
  23. "POWER Act & Immigration Reform - National Immigration Law Center". National Immigration Law Center. Retrieved 2018-04-28.
  24. "How can undocumented immigrants legally form a union?". The Hand That Feeds. 2014-10-16. Retrieved 2018-04-28.
  25. Bacon, David (2007). "Rising from Below: Immigrant Workers Open New Organizing Fronts". Race, Poverty & the Environment. 14 (1): 21–27. JSTOR 41555130.
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