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The struggle for human rights throughout the globe has been one of the most defining political activities of the past 100 years. In the western world, this began with the suffragette movement of the early 20th century and continued with the creation of the welfare state after World War II, the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s, the multiple waves of women’s rights struggles, and more recently, self-determination for First Nations peoples, and equal rights for persons with disabilities and for gays, lesbians and transgendered peoples.

Not usually included in this list of achievements are the hard-fought rights gained by workers and labour unions. Most social scientists and historians tend to separate human rights from labour rights won in the workplace, including union organizing, 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 am 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 on the job be considered just as important as human rights enjoyed outside of the workplace?

These questions were answered at a recent Toronto conference organized by the Centre for Research on Work and Society (CRWS), a labour research institute at York University, which brought together forty speakers and over 140 delegates. Norene Pupo, director of the CRWS and a professor of sociology at York University, believed that 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 labour rights on the human rights policy agenda. “During the conference, we hope that we will progress from a discussion on labour issues and rights to a plan of action,” said Pupo.

Redefining Labour Rights as Human Rights

How did this division between labour rights and human rights evolve? Keynote speaker Lee Swepston, a human rights advisor with the International Labour Organization (ILO) for over thirty years, 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, (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 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 and interests 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. “The right of association, which includes the right of workers to join unions, bargain collectively and take strike action, is a fundamental and universal human right and a cornerstone of democracy,” said NUPGE President James Clancy. “A just and democratic society depends on a healthy and free labour movement. It is no coincidence that countries with free and active union movements are more democratic, more transparent and have more representative forms of government.”

Roy Adams elaborated on this connection. “Under international standards, the term ‘freedom of association’ includes the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike. It is considered to be both an economic right and a political right,” noted Adams. “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 are born citizens, immigrants, migrant workers, or even undocumented workers. As Lee 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.”

Labour Rights in Canada: Rhetoric and Reality

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 the conference participants, many of whom believed that Canada’s rhetoric on labour rights is very different from its actual practice. James Clancy quoted research from a book published by NUPGE and UFCW named Collective Bargaining in Canada: Human Rights or Canadian Illusion?: “It went through twenty years of labour legislation at the provincial and national levels (from 1982 to 2002). 175 pieces of legislation were passed, and out of those, 97% withdrew, restricted, or diminished labour’s ability to organized and bargain collectively.” In addition, the research showed that 76 ILO complaints have been filed against Canadian federal and provincial legislation since 1982. Of those, the ILO reached decisions on 73 and found that freedom of association principles had been violated in 68 of the cases.

Another shameful blemish that singles Canada out is its public sector, where 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. Many argued, however, that a lot changed on June 8, 2007, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a case involving public sector health care unions and the provincial government of British Columbia and proclaimed that collective bargaining is a “constitutional right” supported by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The decision was a huge surprise for labour activists, not only because of the notoriously anti-labour traditions of the court system, but because of the fact that Canada hasn’t even ratified ILO Convention 98 (adopted in 1949), which recognizes the right to organize and bargain collectively. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will acknowledge the right to strike as a constitutional right as well.

Brian McArthur of the UFCW took the issue of Canadian labour law one step further, stating that unions cannot live and die by statutes handed down from above: “We need to get off this notion which 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 International Perspective

The challenges faced by labour activists throughout the world, and especially in the Global South, are more than overwhelming. Janek Kuczkiewicz of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union confederation based in Brussels, Belgium, reported that in 2006, 144 trade unionists around the world were murdered (70 of whom were 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 activities. And these numbers, of course, only include those crimes that were 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… Together, we try to lobby, we try to expose, we try to pressure governments at the national and international levels,” said Kuczkiewicz.

This ultimately brings us back to Canada. According to Salimah Valiani of the Canadian Labour Congress, approximately 800,000 potential immigrants who have filed applications for permanent residency, many of whom are from countries with oppressive human and labour rights records, are still waiting processing by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). 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 of KAIROS Canada, a Toronto-based ecumenical partnership working to promote human rights, 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 which 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 as Barahona ironically stated: “Shouldn’t these people be here in Canada with us? Shouldn’t they be telling you their own stories instead of me?”

“Where we Need to Go”

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 to confront the power of business, but 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. What we need to do is make workers inherently pro-active,” said Salimah 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.”

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