Sunday, 23 September 2012

Should Labour Rights be Human Rights?

Should Labour Rights be Human Rights?
The other day I was teaching my first class on human rights for the fall 2012 term, leading my class on a quick march through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). One of my students questioned whether labour rights should be included as human rights. Article 23, 4 of the UDHR specifies that “Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” Article 8 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights further specifies that everyone has the right to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice. It also ensure the right to strike, though it modifies it by saying the right to strike must be “exercised in conformity with the laws of the particular country.”
At my current place of employment, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, where I have worked since 2003, I am a member of a union. I don’t agree with everything the union decides, but I am grateful for its protection and for the long hours that union executives put in negotiating our pay, benefits and working conditions. From 1976 until 2003 I worked at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. There as well, executives of the Faculty Association put in long hours negotiating our pay, benefits and working conditions, but because we were not unionized we could not threaten to strike. I also remember as a young faculty member feeling constrained about what I could say at faculty association meetings because the vice-Presidents and Deans—effectively my bosses—could attend the meetings.
When my student questioned labour rights, another said that perhaps they were useful rights in the past but were no longer necessary. But it seems to me that they are more necessary than ever before. As union membership rates decline in Canada and the US, so also many more people are forced to rely on poorly paid jobs. Adults supporting families often work at two or three poorly-paid, non-unionized part-time jobs. Without unions, employees can’t negotiate for higher wages or for enough hours to entitle them to benefits such as supplementary health insurance. This is one of the major reasons why inequality is widening in Western countries. Its’ not just that the rich are getting richer: it’s that members of the middle class are falling into the ranks of the insecurely employed. Meantime, the stable industrial working class is declining and many of the people who used to work in unionized industries can’t find new jobs. Even highly educated people in high-tech jobs are vulnerable to market fluctuations with little protection, without unions to negotiate conditions for them.
And labour rights are not only necessary in the West. They are even more necessary as a result of globalization. The new industrial workers in export processing zones often live in appalling conditions in company compounds and work extremely long hours especially in periods of high demand for the products they make, as Naomi Klein has documented in her book No Logo.  Women workers are often subject to sexual harassment, even rape, and they are fired if they are pregnant. Recently  hundreds of workers died in a clothing factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan. According to The Economist (September 15, p. 7), "The building apparently had no emergency exits, and the windows were covered with metal screens." This was similar to the Triangle Factory Fire in New York City in 1911 in which over a hundred women and girls died, and which helped to strengthen the American labour movement.
So labour rights aren’t old-fashioned rights, as my student suggested. They are urgently needed all over the world, as more and more people are employed in light industry and service jobs. We need international unions for employees of McDonald’s, or Starbucks, or Wal-Mart. And we need laws mandating that employers must consult the representatives of unions when they make major decisions. The desire for profit must not be allowed to completely over-ride the well-being of workers, any more than it is allowed to over-ride the well-being of consumers.
Economies can still evolve and prosper even when there are strong trade unions. Indeed, they will be more prosperous because workers will also be consumers. This doesn’t mean trade unions are always in the right and that their judgements should never be questioned, but it does mean that they are necessary to preserve human rights.

Note: When I originally posted this blog, I said the recent factory fire was in Bangladesh, not Pakistan.  My apologies.

Another note: On November 25, 2012, there was a fire in a textile factory in Bangladesh. Many women died.

Yet another note. In mid-April, 2013 an estimated 400 garment workers died in Bangladesh when a building collapsed. Inspectors had warned the owners of the building the day before the collapse that there was a crack in the structure, and it was unsafe. The owners told the workers to go to work anyway. As I write this (April 29, 2013) one building owner has been arrested while trying to flee to India.

The low-budget Canadian chain, Joe Fresh (part of Canada's food giant, Loblaws) bought clothes from the factory where the 400 workers died, so now ther's a lot of discussion in the Canadian press about what concerned Canadians should do.  I agree with those commentators who say we shouldn't boycott Bangladeshi-made products; despite terrible working conditions, long hours, and extremely low pay, many Bangladeshi workers, especially women, are better off with these jobs than without.  But we should pressure Loblaws to oblige its suppliers to pay their workers more and ensure better working conditions.
Reference: Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000)

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