The Right to Work and Workers' Rights

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain [her or his] living by work which [she or he] freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right. 

Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work.

Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure: (a) The right to everyone to form trade unions and join the trade union of [her or his] choice…(d) the right to strike…

Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

 

What is the Right to Work?

Everyone has the right to work. The right to work is a foundation for the realization of other human rights and for life with dignity. It includes the opportunity to earn a livelihood by work freely chosen or accepted. In progressively realising this right, States are obliged to ensure the availability of technical and vocational guidance, and take appropriate measures to develop an enabling environment for productive employment opportunities. States must ensure non-discrimination in relation to all aspects of work. Forced labour is prohibited under international law.

Closely connected with the right to work are the right to just and favourable conditions of work, and trade union-related rights. States are obliged to ensure fair wages, equal pay for equal work, and equal remuneration for work of equal value. Workers should be guaranteed a minimum wage that allows for a decent living for themselves and their families. Working conditions must be safe, healthy, and not demeaning to human dignity. Employees must be provided with reasonable work hours, adequate rest and leisure time, as well as periodic, paid holidays.

Workers have the right to associate with one another and bargain collectively for improved working conditions and living standards. They have the right to form and join a trade union of their choice, and trade unions have the right to form national or international groupings. Workers have the right to strike, as long as it is in conformity with national laws. Collective worker rights cannot be subject to restrictions by States other than those prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society in accordance with national security interests, public order, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

In its General Comment 18, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) provided detailed guidance to States regarding their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to work. The Committee also noted that the right includes the following interrelated and essential features:

  • Availability. States must ensure the existence of tailored services to help people to identify employment opportunities and find work.
  • Accessibility. Access to work involves three key elements: non-discrimination, physical accessibility, and information accessibility. Discrimination in access to and continuation of employment is prohibited. States must ensure that reasonable accommodation is made so that work places are physically accessible, particularly for persons with physical disabilities. Everyone has the right to seek, obtain and impart information on employment opportunities.
  • Acceptability and quality. The right to work comprises several interrelated components, including the right to choose and accept work freely, just and favourable conditions of work, safe working conditions, and the right to form trade unions.

It is important to note that the right to work and related rights are further enabled and informed by the numerous international standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialised agency of the UN.