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International Labor Issues

International Labor Issues

What It Means

The term international labor issues refers to violations of workers’ rights that recur consistently throughout the world. Workers’ legal rights, which protect them from abuses by employers, vary from country to country. However, Articles 23 and 24 of the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) describe rights that create a universal standard for proper labor relations.

These articles state the following: Article 23

  • 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 [payment] 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.

Article 24

  • Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the agency within the UN that seeks to secure these rights for all workers. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the ILO’s fundamental areas of concern included child labor and forced labor, safety and sanitation in the workplace, discrimination in the workplace, and workers’ right to free association (that is, the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining with employers).

When Did It Begin?

Workers have been demanding fair treatment from their employers for centuries. In 1381 John Ball, Wat Tyler, and Jack Straw led the Peasants’ Revolt in England. Although the issue that sparked the uprising was an unpopular tax increase to pay for the Hundred Years’ War, the underlying source of the peasants’ discontent had to do with their position as serfs in the feudal economy. Barely a notch above slave laborers, serfs were legally bound to the fields of the lords (or landlords) who employed them. Not only were they paid very low wages, but they were also forbidden to look for better work elsewhere. Angry peasants gathered in London, destroyed the property of the wealthy, stormed the Tower of London, and presented their demands to the young King Richard II, who promised to honor their requests. A militia of 7,000 men, however, assassinated the rebellion’s leaders, and the peasants’ demands were never met.

Coauthored by German philosophers Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95), The Communist Manifesto (1848) is regarded by many as the most influential call for the unification of workers throughout the world. Written as a summation of the guiding principles of the Communist League, to which both men belonged, the volume called upon workers, who occupied the lowest class of society, to overthrow the managers (the middle class) and the owners of the factories (the upper class). The ultimate goal of this revolt was to produce a classless society in which wealth was distributed evenly among all people.

At the end of World War I, world leaders agreed that lasting world peace could be maintained only if it was based on social justice. Further, there could be no social justice if large masses of workers were subject to exploitation by wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs. Widespread unjust treatment of workers, they feared, would create social discontent, which would in turn lead to violence, upheaval, and war. Thus, in the interest of promoting and protecting the rights of workers around the world, the ILO was established under the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. Later that year at the first international labor conference in Washington, D.C., the agency issued its first six proclamations, which set standards for unemployment, maternity protection, night work for women, minimum age and night work for young persons in industry, and hours of work in industry. Originally part of the League of Nations, the ILO was incorporated into the United Nations in 1945.

More Detailed Information

The most urgent areas of concern in international labor involve child labor, forced labor, and workplace safety. According to ILO statistics published in 2005, 246 million children (1 out of 6 in the world) are involved in child labor, and nearly one-third of these children are younger than 10 years old. Most children work as a matter of economic necessity for themselves and their families.

Although the greatest concentrations of child laborers are found in the Asia-Pacific region and Sub-Saharan Africa, there are millions of children being forced to work in Western industrialized countries and, indeed, all over the world. The overwhelming majority of child laborers work in agriculture, where they are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and dangerous machinery. Outside the agricultural sector, children also work in factories, in mines and quarries, as domestic servants, as street peddlers, and in the sex trades.

Most children work informally, without legal or regulatory protections, and it is estimated that some 22,000 children die in work-related accidents every year. Moreover, in addition to the physical risks they face, child laborers also suffer from the immediate and long-term mental and emotional consequences of being denied an education and a real childhood.

Forced labor represents an overlapping concern, as at least 40 percent of people who are made to work against their will are children; more than 50 percent are women. Described as human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery, forced labor occurs as the result of fraud, coercion, kidnapping, and other means. In 2005 it was estimated that more than 12 million people on every continent are forced to work against their will; between 600,000 to 800,000 of them are trafficked across international borders, while the rest are enslaved in their own countries.

Although reporting practices vary widely from country to country and reliable statistics are difficult to compile, it is estimated that more than two million people per year die from injuries, exposure to hazardous materials, and communicable diseases acquired at work. Further, for every person who suffers a fatal accident in the workplace, several hundred people suffer injuries that cause them to miss at least three days of work. Data suggests that workplace injury and disease rates are much higher in developing (poorer) countries than in developed (wealthier and more industrialized) countries, even while many injuries and deaths go unreported. Part of the problem is that occupational safety laws either do not exist or remain unenforced in many parts of the world. Initiatives to improve workplace safety focus on implementation of policies and legislation to compel safety protections, increases in infrastructure and manpower to monitor and inspect working environments, and improvements in recording and reporting practices so that the true nature of the problem can be evaluated and addressed.

Recent Trends

Since the 1990s globalization (economic expansion across borders, facilitated by free trade agreements) has made it increasingly desirable and possible for large corporations in industrialized countries to establish factories and take advantage of lower wages in developing countries. This trend has raised new issues regarding international labor and human rights. Whereas the ILO is seen as major multilateral advocate for the rights of workers around the world, the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was established in 1995 to promote globalization, is widely regarded by members of the human and labor rights community as an enemy of their cause. Human and labor rights organizations see the WTO as an agency that seeks to protect corporate profits at the expense of human and labor rights. Among the most often cited charges against the WTO are its rulings that it is illegal for a government to ban a product based on the way it is produced, such as with child labor, and that governments cannot ban products from companies who do business with brutal dictatorships, such as Burma.

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