Co-authored with Ludovica Mascaretti

The line between labour rights and human rights – if there ever was one – is getting increasingly blurred and the question whether labour rights are human rights has been extensively discussed over the past few years by academics and NGOs.

Global trade unions, for example, are looking to human rights to afford greater protection and the International Framework Agreements being entered into with multinational companies more often than not include detailed provisions on human rights. The same unions also actively campaign against employers who fail to comply with human rights, both within the company and through the global supply chain.

A report by UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, confirms the trend, stating that labour rights are human rights under major international instruments (including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and ILO Conventions 87 and 99).

The report, which was presented to the UN General Assembly in New York in October, focusses on the most marginalised workers (including informal, migrant and female workers) highlighting how globalisation has led to a rise in productivity and wealth, but has also significantly worsened labour conditions and impaired social protections for many workers. Traditional tools to protect workers’ rights - including trade unions, strikes and collective bargaining – have been significantly weakened in many parts of the world and such protection tools must quickly adapt to the globalised economy as it changes. Kiai argues that a first step towards addressing these issues is the eradication of the artificial distinction between labour rights and human rights.

Freedom of peaceful assembly and association are fundamental rights precisely because they are essential to human dignity, economic empowerment, sustainable development and democracy. Without enforcement of these rights in the workplace, the report finds that workers have little leverage to change their labour conditions. Whilst corporate social responsibility initiatives are helpful, Kiai does not consider them as substitutes for legally binding enforcement of rights given such initiatives are voluntary and non-binding in nature.

Although international human rights law imposes both positive and negative obligations upon States to actively respect, protect and promote foundational rights, including labour rights, many are failing to do so.

Moreover, the report illustrates how some States are particularly keen to limit the right to strike, even though such rights have been established in international law for decades and have become customary international law.

This landmark report is a clear call to action to governments and employers worldwide to act on its findings and immediately recognize labour rights as workers’ human rights, and to the international community to advocate for them with stronger tools.

In the report, the Special Rapporteur issued recommendations to States, business entities, civil society and international organisations, to ratify relevant international and human rights instruments, enable workers to exercise their rights in the workplace and ensure effective remedies for any violation. In particular, the report states businesses should respect the rights of workers to form and join trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, including the right to strike, refrain from anti-union practices and policies (eg union busting and reprisals against activists) and implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.