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What Rights Should ALL Workers Have – Part 2

April 7, 2011

 

In Part 1, we raised some basic questions about the rights of workers:

  • Do we believe that worker’s rights are human rights – and if so, what are they? 
  • As citizens, do we bear collective responsibility to ensure rights for other workers – or is this a matter of personal responsibility?
  • How do you think the issues we face as workers now will affect us and generations to come?  
  • What rights should the worker of the 21st century have?
  •  Should all workers have the same rights – do they need them?  Does the $100k salaried manager, public school teacher or Smartphone assembly line worker need or deserve the same rights?

 These are basic but complex questions as we set the ground rules for work in this century.  Many of the “rights” workers now have were established within the last hundred years – and many of them are on the chopping block.

Apart from differences in opinions or experience – about unions or taxation or any number of hot button issues – it is crucially important for all of us to engage in a rational and honest dialogue about the future of the human being at work.

Workers Rights Worldwide

Workers rights vary dramatically throughout the world. The legal rights of workers are tied to the code of law within a given country and municipality. While private organizations and institutions can set rules and norms for employee conditions, they have no legal bearing except in relation to public law.  While there is general similarity in many labor laws (such as child labor) the globalization of work has not brought us any closer to universal rights governing all workers.

In Europe each country sets its own standard in terms of labor laws, but must adhere to the criteria established by the European Union (EU) for its member nations.  For example, EU law states that workers cannot work more than 48 hours per week and must have the right to 11 hours of rest per day.  Every worker is guaranteed at least one full day off each week and paid leave of at  least four weeks a year.  The EU also mandates that part-time and temporary workers be entitled to the same treatment as full-time workers.

Compare this with the United States which is the only advanced country in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacations.  Australia and New Zealand both require employers to provide paid vacation of twenty days and Canada and Japan mandate at least ten paid days off. According to the No Vacation Nation Report (2007) the the gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the U.S. offers none, but most of the rest of the world’s richest countries offer between five and thirteen paid holidays per year.”

In the absence of government policies, almost 1 in 4 Americans have no paid vacation and holidays.  According to government data, the average worker in the U.S. private sector gets only about six paid holidays per year – less than the minimum legal standard set in the rest of the world’s richest economies.

A Workplace Bill of Rights

In researching for this post, I’ve come to the conclusion that we, as a nation, haven’t done enough thinking about the question of worker’s rights. Yes, there have been bitter fights and valiant struggles over labor rights – and most of the laws we’ve established have come from those roots. 

Mostly, the rights that protect workers have been defined by what we don’t want – for example, hazardous conditions and exclusions of certain groups.  So you could say – we’ve been pushed more by the pain that workers have endured rather than pulled by a vision of what we want for workers. 

In searching for a model for workers rights – we offer the Workplace Bill of Rights from Workplace Fairness as a starting point.  These statements give us a somewhat neutral and strong template to engage our thinking in creating a vision for workplace rights.

1.   Employees should be treated with honesty and respect.

Tall order? First, we must define what honesty and respect mean to us as individuals. These are surely universal human needs, but they are subject to personal definitions. 

 Can we agree on certain basics?  At the bare minimum should workers be protected against coercion, threats, verbal abuse, bullying and harassment?  Should bosses and organizations be permitted to lie, misrepresent and make false promises to employees?  Where does organizational transparency (to use one of today’s business buzzwords) fit into this category?

2.   Working full-time should guarantee a basic standard of living

Getting into some interesting territory with this one! According to the Economic Policy Institute  between 1948 and 1979, the richest 10% accounted for 1/3 of average income growth in the U.S.  This was consistent for three decades. Between 1979 and 2007, the richest 10% accounted for 91% of average income growth. 

3.   Workplaces should be free of discrimination.

This should be easy – we all agree, right?  Let’s take a case in the headlines now. A massive class-action lawsuit (with the potential to represent 1.5 million female workers) pending against Wal-Mart could set a new standard for the rights of women in the workplace.

The complaints brought in the suit originated with a cashier, Betty Dukes, who believing her efforts towards advancement were not only thwarted but punished with demotion, filed a federal suit in 2001, which “fellow” workers called,  “Betty vs. Goliath.”  As Fortune Magazine reported, “Her claims are familiar to many female workers who feel their advancement has been hindered by discriminatory practices such as failure to openly post internal job openings. Overall, female workers today are paid only about 80% of what men earn.”

4.   No working person should be without health insurance.

Where do we start? You get no argument from this author, but let’s look at the statistics. As of September, 2010, 50.7 million US citizens  (1 in 6) had no health insurance.  Furthermore, a recent report shows that workers now pay 47% more for family coverage than they did in 2005 while employers pay 20% more.  Current trending shows that since that time, many employers are cutting benefits, raising co-pays and in many cases eliminating coverage entirely. The unabated rises in health care costs make sure that these trends will only get worse.

5.      No one should have to work his or her entire life.

Attitudes towards retirement are undergoing dramatic changes.  The thinking of most Baby Boomers about work is very different from their parent’s generation. Many people want to continue to work as a matter of choice.  However, necessity is driving more of this change than anyone ever imagined.

The recent gloomy news that only 11% of the 77 million Boomers believe they will be able to live in comfort when they retire is alarming. Only 55% said they were certain or somewhat certain that they could retire with financial security and 44% said they had little or no faith they’d have enough money when their careers ended. 1 in 4 Boomers say they will never retire.

6.     Employees should be able to leave a job with dignity.

Let’s face it; we’re way beyond the era of pink slips, “security” perp walks and awful Friday firings. Since the start of the recession in December ’07, over 5.1 million jobs have been lost.  The jobs landscape has been reshaped.  Worker “security” is at an all time low. So are worker trust and engagement levels!   

Some corporate methods of lay-offs and firings have left the unemployed and employed “survivors” shaken and cynical.   As more states look to cut costs, traditional unemployment benefits are being reduced and extensions are being eliminated.  Funds for job training and career counseling are also dwindling, leaving many workers, especially those over 55, in untenable situations.

7.      Every workplace should be as safe as possible.

No question about it – workplace safety has steadily improved over the last 40 years. Workplace fatalities have declined 23% since 1994.  Workplace illness and injury rates have also decreased by 44%.  Many factors have contributed to the decline: company policies, employee attitudes and training, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) safety expertise and better technological communication. 

But these gains are in jeopardy.  OSHA opponents want to see its funding cut or eliminated. Budget cuts are targeting safety measures at public and private levels and threats to collective bargaining, which have protected worker safety, are increasing.

8.     There is more to life than work.

Right on!  Here I want to reiterate the points made earlier about the dismal comparison of  American worker’s paid leave time to other developed countries. The shrinking options for retirement also bear noting again.

9.     Employees are entitled to work together.

What Workplace Fairness illuminates here is the “right” of workers to come together for the purpose of organizing and collective action. Regardless, of what you believe about unions and collective bargaining, the question remains – should we restrict and or/outlaw the rights of workers to protect their own rights through collective actions?

10.  Employees should be able to stand up for their rights.

Is it OK for organizations and institutions to coerce or try to force workers to give up any of their rights? Is the loss of rights a fair trade for a salary or benefits?  Who should protect the voice of workers to speak up against injustices, unfair  treatment and unhealthy workplace practices?  When W. Edwards Deming, created the principles of Quality management , one core principle was to “Drive fear from the Workplace.”  Without rights, fear rules.

So what should the rights of the 21st century worker be?  And who will grant those rights?  Is it likely that corporations, whose primary goal is still profit, will expand worker’s rights at the expense of that profit? Will taxpayers reject the rights of public workers because they are too costly?  Where do we draw the line – health and safety, child labor, free speech? 

At the core, we need to understand the complex beliefs we hold about the rights of workers. What drives our thinking? How much is driven by biases and stereotypes? How much of what we believe is driven by how much it costs? Is the GDP of this country, or any nation, simply about the growth of money – or does the well-being of its workers measure in that value?

These are hard questions – and we’re at a crossroads.

What do you think?

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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