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Saving the Right to Work

Saving the Right to Work

Austerity protests in Spain. Photo: AAP.

On October 1, Guy Ryder assumed his elected position as the new Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Ryder replaces Juan Somavía, who held the post since 1999, eighteen months ahead of schedule. The Director-General of the ILO is a key figure in promoting the human right to work and in addressing its realization in specific contexts.

As massive unemployment related to the ongoing global economic crisis is worsening in some regions and countries, Ryder immediately addressed the situations in Spain and Greece. Noting that the level of peace was remarkable, Ryder unequivocally expressed his disapproval of the austerity measures implemented in those countries and the disastrous effect they are expected to have on their respective economies and employment situations. Others have described the protests and police responses as anything but peaceful, interpreting them as a harbinger of greater crises affecting food prices, hospital services, education, civil and social services, and national cohesion and unity.

Four years after the downturn, the world labor force continues to suffer from the economic slump. Unemployment levels are still not stabilized in spite of efforts across the globe. Beyond its continued advocacy of labor standards promulgated through its unique, tripartite structure that includes government, employer, and employee representatives, the ILO has been calling for “sustainable and balanced growth” in an effort to create 50 million jobs annually to restore pre-crisis levels. The ILO has targeted four major areas to focus on in order to measurably achieve new jobs and has consistently advanced these priorities. During the June G20 Summit, former ILO Director-General Juan Somavía reiterated that efforts should be focused on:

  • “Employment-friendly investment in infrastructure and other job-intensive sectors;”
  • “Putting the financial sector at the service of the real economy [by] channel[ing] much more of the liquidity being offered to the banking system to smaller enterprises;”
  • “Tackling youth employment” on the basis of the Action Plan on youth employment adopted by the International Labour Conference on 14 June 2012;
  • “Expand[ing] access to basic social protection” based on the landmark international labor standard on social protection floors adopted by the June 2012 Conference. (ILO)

Looking briefly at the last two: The length of unemployment for youth has been on the rise, which risks structural unemployment and has consequences for deskilling the labor force and preventing youth from enhancing and utilizing their skills to aid in regaining future entry to the labor market. The ILO’s September 2012 note to the G20 task force on employment proposes special action must be taken to combat high levels of youth unemployment such as “Train and Work” programs, apprenticeships, and youth employment guarantees be put in place predicted at an average cost of 0.3 percent of government expenditure.

Social protections include access to health care and income security, especially for old age, unemployment, sickness, disability, work-related injury, maternity, and loss of a primary income earner. In an effort to reach these goals the ILO sets floors that are nationally defined and aimed at “preventing or alleviating poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion, and allowing a life in dignity.”

When its business as usual, labor ministries rank among the weakest of government agencies. Reforms advocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission, and the European Central Bank, especially in Greece, have made good labor administration and labor relations difficult if not impossible. The involvement of these three organizations has been strongly opposed by workers and the lower and middle classes. Labor ministries already tend to be poorly funded, outside of major policy-making processes, unpublicized, and have less power than other government agencies. As government budget and personnel cuts take place, labor ministries and social protections tend to get hit. Economists generally see this as a good thing, widely believing labor administration and inspection hinders economic growth. Certain political persuasions also see the ramping up of labor ministry power and capacity as an undesirable or dangerous expansion of government.

Labor ministries are powerful tools in defending people’s rights. In the current crises in southern Europe, competent and eager professionals from all sectors and industries are losing employment. Creating jobs in the public service is an employment measure that even highly centralized or federal governments could realistically implement at a good speed. Their inclusion as officers in the labor inspectorate would neither needlessly expand the government nor its budget or power. The collective knowledge and experience of workforce professionals as labor ministry officers would increase efficiency and productivity as well as communication and transparency in the state-employer-employee relationship.

Where such high unemployment rates are rising among the youth and the experienced of Spain and Greece, one questions why the legislative, administrative, and budgetary measures advanced by these governments and international financial institutions run so counter to the normative content of the human right to work and to the longstanding positions of the ILO.

The ILO predates the UN though it is now a specialized agency thereof. The right to work has been enshrined in core international human rights documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 23) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Art. 6). The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has plainly stated in its General Comment 18 that the correct understanding of the right to work is not as “an absolute and unconditional right to obtain employment.” States are instead under an obligation to strengthen and promote the same programs and services that are being cut, which would create a national context with the ability of people to choose and engage in gainful employment.

Spain and Greece have ratified all fundamental ILO conventions. Spain has ratified all four governance (priority) conventions while Greece has ratified three of four. Both countries have ratified a good number of other ILO conventions, notably including those pertaining to social protections and services. These core conventions reflect sound, time-tested standards that facilitate a stable and functioning labor market. The measures being called for by the international financial institutions place governments in direct conflict with these and other international human rights legal obligations. Such measures weaken the ability of governments to regulate labor practices and contribute to a culture of deregulation that allows private actors to violate labor laws beyond where the floor has been lowered.

As the cuts being implemented in southern Europe also evidence a failure by the international financial institutions to mainstream a human rights approach into their work. This itself can be viewed as a violation of international human rights laws, as the structural independence of institutions such as the IMF does not place them outside of international legal obligations. Indications and commentary point to worsening situations and broader human rights crises that will not remain within national borders.

The ILO’s goals for the recovery of employment are not just in line with achieving the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its progeny but also with those of regaining economic stability. The right to work is a social welfare measure that permits people to realize many other social protections on their own accord even without the help of government. Whether or not everyone can realistically achieve their right to work or are prevented due to low skill level, disability, or old age, people need protections that help ensure a right of access to a functioning labor market. The ILO’s objectives for job creation are just and equitable goals to achieving a better labor force and market for the future betterment of social protections as many social securities including unemployment and income protections where there is sickness, disability, work-related injury, or loss of a primary income provider, and retirement, are all only capable of being realized after work has been obtained and the duration of work is correlated to the amount of benefits one can receive.



Marc Gorrie

Marc C. Gorrie holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, a JD from Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and an LLM in international human rights law with a specialization in international labor rights law from Lund University (Sweden). He is a port welfare worker and ship visitor for the Seamen's Church Institute in Ports Newark and Elizabeth, NJ, where he also collaborates on an educational program on the Maritime Labour Convention directed at port chaplains and welfare workers. He recently contributed to an EU project on legal education and law school curricula in the Gambia, and has held a research fellowship in legal ethics, lectured on federal Indian law and American legal ethics, and worked as a disability advocate.