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A new right for workers in the 21st century
What better time for expanding our imagination than International Workers' Day?
Happy International Workers’ Day eve (depending on your time zone)!
Tomorrow, May 1, is IWD; also known as Labour Day or May Day. It’s a day celebrating the achievements and commemorating the struggles the labour movement has experienced. It’s why you may have the day off, if you’re lucky.
It has its origins in the fight for an 8-hour workday. This is something many of us now take for granted in wealthy nations, but there was a time when it was quite unimaginable - during the Industrial Revolution in the UK, workers often toiled for 12-16 hours a day, 6 days a week.
The fight for work which earns enough to ensure a good standard of living while allowing enough time to enjoy that life is a fight that continues. Today’s cost of living crisis paired with the growing threat of automation (including via AI) suggests a renegotiation of the social contract needs to be on the cards. We also need to drastically improve working conditions in poorer countries; a decade on from the Rana Plaza tragedy, progress has been made but equity remains far off.
Yet we also need to broaden our imagination of what a fair world for workers looks like. The massive uptick in employee activism on environmental and social issues in recent years shows that employees aren’t prepared to settle for a fat paycheque, and the rest of us would be a lot happier and safer in the world they’re trying to build.
A right to honest work
In many countries, employees have rights to organise collectively (e.g. through a trade union) to advocate for improvements to their working conditions. This creates better protection against unfair treatment, unsafe working conditions, and significant improvements in income and wealth - one U.S. study suggested the average worker could earn $551,000 more over the course of their career by joining a union.
And yet if we want our companies to support human flourishing rather than merely material security, I would argue that existing rights fall far short of what’s needed. We live in a world where work forms an increasingly important part of our identity while, simultaneously, we grow ever more aware and conscious of the moral implications of our actions. In such a world, having a way to safely express concerns with the sustainability and ethical impacts of our employers, and suggest ways in which they can improve, could be a way of ensuring greater dignity at work.
Of course, one could argue that workers who find a misalignment between their values and those of their company can simply switch employers. True, although increasingly concentrated industries and labour market monopsony means workers are often not flush with choices, especially if they don’t wish to relocate. Also, the alternatives aren’t necessarily any better; in a recent human rights assessment of 127 large companies across 3 sectors, the average score was 17%, with only one company scoring above 50%.
Which leads me to the other reason why we need “a right to honest work”: it would likely lead not only to greater dignity at work, but a better world for all of us. Survey after survey after survey has shown that employees want stronger environmental and social performance from the companies they work for. Given the stat above on unionised workers earning over half a million more than their non-unionised counterparts, imagine how much lower emissions might be, or how many fewer human rights abuses could be committed, if workers had the right to influence their companies’ practices.
What would a right to honest work look like?
If the goal is to enhance worker influence over the environmental and social practices of their employers, how could that be realised? Here are 3 options:
A right to conscientious objection - many will be familiar with the concept of conscientious objection to performing military service, as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This sometimes extends to other professions; for example, medical professionals may refuse to provide procedures which go against their beliefs, and abstention from work activities which conflict with religious beliefs may be protected under indirect discrimination laws. Firms such as McKinsey also allow employees to refuse to work with clients they regard as unconscionable.
In theory, then, a right could be more firmly established and universally recognised which would allow a worker to opt out of particular activities or client relationships that conflict with genuine and reasonably held beliefs, provided they do not make a worker unable to perform a substantial portion of their job.
Broadening workplace organising protections - generally, collective worker action is understood as protected only to the extent that it relates to working conditions. This could be expanded to include action related to the environmental and social practices of an employer, provided such impacts are material and/or are of genuine concern to a sizeable number of employees.1
Improving employee participation in corporate governance - employees and their representatives already have the right to serve on the boards of companies in various countries, most notably in Germany. Workers’ councils are an alternative or additional form of institutionalised worker voice within companies, although the scope of decisions which they can influence may vary. More countries could enable these mechanisms, and recognise the sustainability and ethical impacts of employers as a legitimate area of employee concern.
The last of these options is the most important, although it is also the most politically sensitive and efforts to introduce it where it doesn’t already exist are often hotly contested. In any case, it is not a silver bullet, and expanding workplace organising rights as per the second option would be a complimentary way to improve employee influence over issues beyond the “bread and butter”.
In times of precarious work, a cost of living crisis and massive inequality, worrying about worker influence over the impacts of their companies might seem hopelessly out of touch or a distant nice-to-have. Yet these problems arise in no small part from the decisions that many large companies make - to engage in exploitative pricing practices, to lobby against clean energy policies that would have lowered energy bills, to avoid paying their fair share of taxes which fund our public services. Maybe overcoming workers’ collective exclusion from these decisions would lead to better outcomes.