Labor rights or workers' rights are a group of legal rights and claimed human rights having to do with labor relations between workers and their employers, usually obtained under labor and employment law. In general, these rights' debates have to do with negotiating workers' pay, benefits, and safe working conditions. One of the most central of these "rights" is the right to unionize. Unions take advantage of collective bargaining and industrial action to increase their members' wages and otherwise change their working situation. The labor movement initially focused on this "right to unionize", but attention has shifted elsewhere.
Critics of the labor rights movement claim that regulation promoted by labor rights activists may limit opportunities for work. In the United States, critics objected unions establishing closed shops, situations where employers could only hire union members. The Taft-Hartley Act banned the closed shop but allowed the less restrictive union shop. Taft-Hartley also allowed states to pass right-to-work laws, which require an open shop where a worker's employment is not affected by his union membership. Proponents of "right to work" legislation claim that workers have the right to work whether or not they join a union. Labor counters that the open shop leads to a free rider problem.
Throughout history workers, claiming some sort of right, have attempted to pursue their interests. In Roman times, Spartacus led a slave revolt. 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.
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 communism, 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.
The International Labour Organization 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. These read:
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
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.
Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
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.
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.
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).
Labor rights advocates have also worked to combat child labor. They see child labor as exploitive, cruel, and often economically damaging. Child labor opponents often argue that working children are deprived of an education.
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 campaign for better labor practices throughout the world.
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.
Illegal immigrants cannot complain to the authorities about underpayment and mistreatment as they would be deported; and their willingness to work for low rates may depress rates of pay for others. Similarly, 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." 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 approving. Labor and social welfare minister Ali bin Abdullah al-Kaabi has undertaken a number of reforms to help improve labor practices in his country.
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.