Cain, Sean

Making the Connection

MOST SOCIAL SCIENTISTS AND historians tend to separate human rights from labour rights won in the workplace, including collective bargaining, anti-discrimination regulations, health and safety standards, and decent wages and benefits. But why should the ideals of human rights disappear all of a sudden when workers punch in every morning at 9:00 a.m. for their daily shift? With most people in the industrialized world spending more than a third of their waking hours at work (and many in the Global South spending almost half of their waking hours working), shouldn’t the principles of equality, freedom of association and freedom of speech be considered just as important on the job as they are outside the workplace?

These and other related questions were addressed at a November 2007 Toronto conference called “Workers’ Rights, Human Rights: Making the Connection.” Organized by York University’s Centre for Research on Work and Society, it brought together 40 speakers and over 140 delegates. CRWS director Norene Pupo believed the conference could provide a forum to explore labour rights as fundamental human rights and allow union activists and researchers to propose ideas that would help place workers’ rights on the human rights policy agenda.

Keynote speaker Lee Swepston, a human rights advisor with the International Labour Organization (ILO) for over 30 years, spoke about how the division between labour rights and human rights evolved. He sees the clash of Cold War ideologies during the second half of the 20th century as partially responsible. “Only civil and political rights were considered to be ‘real rights’ by the countries in the West,” he said, while “the communist countries considered economic, social and cultural rights to be the ‘real rights.’ What good is voting if you don’t have a job?” This theoretical battle over the true meaning of rights persisted inside the UN and its affiliated organizations for almost half a century.

Throughout this era there was a noticeable distance between unions and human rights organizations on the issue of equality. Unions originally showed little interest in fighting for the rights of women, people of colour, and others who have historically faced double discrimination and oppression. At the same time, human rights organizations considered issues such as organizing, working conditions and collective bargaining as strictly labour matters to be pursued solely by unions. “This had some very serious consequences in Canada,” said Roy Adams, a professor of industrial relations at McMaster University. “It meant that collective bargaining became something other than a human right.”

This division finally began to break down in the 1970s and 80s, when women demanded equal pay for equal work. Along with activists from other equity-seeking groups, women worked within unions to raise awareness, alter opinions and demand that their issues be placed on equal footing with traditional labour struggles. It was around this time in Canada that labour rights finally began to be recognized as human rights, and vice-versa. “The union movement in Canada and in most countries has been struggling against the notion of a ‘generic worker,’ trying to understand the differences among workers based on race, citizenship and gender,” said York University professor Linda Briskin.

The conference also focused on the relationship between the strength of labour unions and democracy. “Under international standards, the term ‘freedom of association’ includes the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike,” says Adams. “It is considered to be both an economic right and a political right. In a democratic society, people should be involved in collective bargaining. They should accept the responsibility to decide what their conditions of work are…. Workers’ rights are not a ‘favour’ They are rights, and must be seen as rights.”

It is important to note that, according to ILO conventions, labour rights are not only guaranteed to the citizenry of a particular country, but all the workers in that country, whether they were born there, immigrated there, or were migrant workers, or even undocumented workers. As Swepston reminded delegates, “All human beings, by whatever means they are in the country, have the right to freedom from forced labour, freedom from discrimination, freedom from child labour, and the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

Many Canadians would be surprised to learn how out of step their country is with the rest of the industrialized world on the practice of labour rights. In fairness, when it comes to issues such as child labour, discrimination in employment, occupational health and safety, and forced labour, Canada, in fact, has one of the best records, according to the ILO. “We are frequently cited as a model for other countries,” said Tony Giles, who works in International and Intergovernmental Labour Affairs with HRDSC Canada.

This statement, however, drew concern from other conference participants, many of whom believed that Canada’s rhetoric on labour rights is very different from its actual practice. Research from the book copublished by the National Union of Public and General Employees and UFCW Canada (United Food and Commercial Workers) called Collective Bargaining in Canada: Human Rights or Canadian Illusion? showed that 76 ILO complaints have been filed against Canadian federal and provincial legislation since 1982. The ILO reached decisions on 73 of those and found that freedom of association principles had been violated in 68 of the cases.

Another shameful blemish that singles Canada out is its treatment of its public sector workers. Over the past two decades, workers have faced wage cuts, layoffs, contracting out, laws that deny basic organizing and collective bargaining rights, attacks on benefits and pensions, strict back-to-work legislation, and other regulations that violate ILO conventions.

Brian McArthur of UFCW Canada stated that unions cannot live and die by statutes handed down from above: “We need to get off this notion that says, That’s the law, we have to comply with it, and that’s just the way it is.’ What we have to do is engage people outside of the labour movement to think of these organizing issues in a much larger context.”

The challenges faced by labour activists throughout the world, and especially in the Global South, are almost overwhelming. Janek Kuczkiewicz is the director of human and trade union rights at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union confederation, based in Brussels, Belgium. He reported that in 2006, 144 trade unionists around the world were murdered (70 in Colombia alone), 832 were tortured or suffered injuries, almost 5,000 were arrested, and 8,627 were dismissed from their jobs due to their organizing activities. And these numbers, of course, only include what was reported.

The good news is that unions and union confederations are working together to fight back. ‘There is a major effort at exposing violations of these human rights,” Kuczkiewicz said. ‘Together, we try to lobby, we try to expose, we try to pressure governments at the national and the international levels.”

This ultimately brings us back to Canada.

According to Salimah Valiani, who works in the social and economic policy department of the Canadian Labour Congress, approximately 800,000 potential immigrants, many of whom are from countries with oppressive human and labour rights records, are still waiting to have their applications for permanent residency processed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This says nothing of the 100,000 grandparents who are waiting outside Canada to be reunited with their families, and the 150,000 potential immigrants waiting for applications to be processed under the “Humanitarian and Compassionate and Public Policy” category of CIC.

Alfredo Barahona works with KAIROS Canada, a Toronto-based ecumenical partnership working to promote human rights. He discussed the struggles faced by migrant workers in Canada, many of whom work in low-paying, dangerous jobs and are regularly denied even basic rights, such as the right to join a union. For simply raising labour issues with their employers or the government, some have been expelled from Canada and sent back to their countries of origin, an action that violates several ILO conventions. Unions and human rights organizations have begun working together to fight for the rights of these workers and have their voices heard, but, said Barahona, “Shouldn’t these people be here in Canada with us? Shouldn’t they be telling you their own stories instead of me?”

The conference also examined tactics that activists can use to better promote labour rights as fundamental human rights. Many agreed that unions not only have to be more responsive in order to confront the power of business, but they have to take the lead in creating alternatives to the present economic system in order to truly protect human and labour rights. “This requires a discussion of strategy,” said Valiani. ‘The kind of change we need to push for is one involving participatory democracy and collective economic planning. If we want to change the concepts behind our struggles, that is where we need to go.”

Sean Cain is a freelance writer from Oakville, Ontario.

Copyright Our Times Publishing Inc. Dec 2007/Jan 2008

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