Making ends meet: Workers' Rights

Imagine sitting in a dark, sweaty room with 100 other people, sewing the same line all day. There’s no bathroom breaks, and some of your colleagues even faint during their work hours, because they are pushed to the very limit of exhaustion. When you finish your day, you have hardly earned enough money to cover even your basic expenses. This is the reality for many workers in the textile industry of south Asia.

Ask yourself: is this a price worth paying for cheap clothes?

Workers' Rights

Working under such conditions is very harmful to many fundamental human rights: the right to health, the right to leisure, the right to peaceful assembly, and, in the case when children are used, a violation of many of the rights in the Convention of the rights of the Child.
But did you know that there are specific human rights concerned with the livelihood, working conditions and equality of workers?

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment [and] the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. -Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23

These rights are there to prevent abuse and exploitation of workers, in other words to make sure that everyone is treated fairly at work – that they are not forced to work more than is good for them, that the work they do is not hazardous to their health, and that everyone is paid what they deserve for the work they do. In addition, the universal declaration of human rights protects workers’ rights to organise into unions to negotiate with employers and authorities about issues such as wages, working conditions, and sick leave.

Global exploitation of workers

In recent decades, globalization has led to a rise in economic productivity and wealth, but it has also contributed to a dramatic increase in the power of large multinational corporations and concentrated wealth in fewer hands. Inequality in our countries and in our workplace is rising, and more than 1.2 billion people are living in extreme poverty. This is happening because the increase in demand of products is putting a strain on companies to make products cheaper and cheaper. This is directly

Most of us spend most of our life working. For some of us our work is our passion, maybe your reason to get up in the morning or just your assurance that you will eat that day.

To be treated with basic dignity at the workplace is a fundamental human right. However, workers’ rights continue to be violated every day - millions of people worldwide are facing mistreatment, abuse, and humiliation at work.
affecting the working conditions of those making the products - they often have to work more for less, especially in the textile industry. Our consumerism has a direct impact on workers life and possibilities.

Workers’ rights are at risk, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to organise and speak up against exploitation of workers - many union leaders have been threatened,
targeted, and killed. One example is Colombia, where dozens of union leaders have been killed over the last few years.

Violations of worker’s rights are most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa. A famous example is the sweatshops in Cambodia, where workers work extremely long hours in appalling conditions to make cheap clothes for foreign markets. In 2014, Cambodian workers succeeded in negotiating a minimum wage with the textile industry, but this is still not enough to live on. For example, in order to afford a visit to the doctor, a Cambodian working on minimum wage has to work 84 hours. In comparison to a Norwegian worker can pay for a doctor’s appointment with one hour’s worth of wages.

What needs to be done?

According to a 2015 report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), an organisation working to promote workers’ rights and cooperation between unions, workers’ rights violations is not just something that occurs in developing countries. According to the ITUC rankings, only five countries – Austria, Finland, Norway, Netherlands and Uruguay – get full scores for their protection of worker’s rights.
So what can governments do to get off this list? They must respect workers’ fundamental rights in international law, including the right to associate freely and to collectively bargain for wages and conditions. Secondly, and importantly as corporate power grows, countries need to ensure companies operating on their soil respect the rights of their employees.

As consumers, we also have responsibility to make sure that the products we buy are made by people who have their basic rights respected. When buying cheap things – clothes, electronics, or toys – that are made through by exploiting workers, we are supporting human rights violations. Therefore, we need to:

  • Be conscious of the things we buy, where they come from and under what conditions they are made.
  • Push companies and businesses to be transparent about how and where their products are made, and make it clear that we as consumers demand that they treat their workers with fairness and dignity.

Activity: Workers' Rights Role Play. (Appendixes can be downloaded here)