Labour rights as Human rights

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What is the significance of the claim that labour rights are human rights? Is it simply a political slogan uttered by trade unionists or does it touch some deeper truth? What is the relationship between labour rights and social justice in a globalised world? These are big questions, and they are difficult to answer. In part, the difficulty is conceptual or epistemological. The term “right” is multivalent, with a range of nested meanings that can be viewed from different perspectives. The difficulty is also normative since the moral and legal status of “labour rights” is contested.


In this brief article, I want to do three things. First, I will provide a framework for disentangling the different ways to approach questions about human rights. Second, I will historicize the claim that labour rights are human rights. Third, I will suggest that the predominant strategies used for having labour rights recognized as human rights, litigation in courts and consumer campaigns, are not likely to be effective in achieving social justice for working people in today’s global world.


What do We Mean By Human Rights?
Talking about “human rights” is difficult because rights operate simultaneously in different, but related, registers – moral aspiration, legal instruments and doctrines, and the political mechanisms of implementation and enforcement. It is the resonance amongst these moral, legal, and political dimensions that give rights their power, and it is critical to align them if human rights are to be more than mere slogans.


Marie-Bénédict Dembour (2010) identifies four ‘ideal-type’ schools of thought concerning human rights: 1. the school of natural law, which sees rights as part of the endowment of being human; 2. deliberative theorists, who regards rights as the consensus achieved through deliberative processes; 3. protest scholars, who stress the claims made in social struggles against injustice; and 4. the discourse school, which focuses on the rhetorical force of rights in the expression of political claims. The natural law approach emphasises aligning the moral and legal dimensions of human rights. For deliberativist theorists, human rights come into existence through a social contract, and they stress the congruence between the moral, political, and legal registers of human rights. Protest scholars look at human rights as moral and political claims, and their concern is the expansionary logic of human rights that allow the oppressed to contest the status quo. Discourse scholars highlight the legal dimension and the limitations of ideas of social justice based on individualistic and liberal human rights. Understanding the different dimensions of human rights claims helps to explain the shift that occurred in the mid-1990s when social actors began to claim in earnest that labour rights were human rights.



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01/10/2014 - 30/06/2015