Note critiqueReview essay

Human Rights and the Workplace in a Global Market EconomyHuman Rights in Labor and Employment Relations: International and Domestic Perspectives, Edited by James A. Gross and Lance Compa, Champaign: Labor and Employment Relations Association, LERA Research Volume, 2009, 236 pp., ISBN 978-0913447-98-7.[Record]

  • David Mangan

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  • David Mangan
    London School of Economics & Political Science

Human rights have stepped into a breach in labour relations. The short collection of essays contained in Human Rights in Labor and Employment Relations is premised on this assertion. The contributors contemplate how these areas have come together. A tone of exhaustion within the essays suggests not only a level of frustration with the history of lethargic movement to connect these two fields but also vexation with the problems occurring while the connections are being made. The valiant premise of this collection is the establishment of a “firm theoretical foundation grounded in the reality of labor activism and advocacy in a market-driven economy.” How the combination of labour relations and human rights has arisen remains no small matter. A leading work on the combination contended the “status of workers’ rights in a country is a bellwether for the status of human rights in general.” The combination of human rights and employment relations also relies on the idea of work as a “vehicle which admits a person to the status of a contributing, productive, member of society ... being engaged in something worthwhile.” Work satisfies the individual’s need for autonomy where autonomy is now being spoken of using the language of human rights. Connecting human and labour rights involves the combination of legal with the ethical and moral dimensions. Ostensibly the coupling forms a powerful tool: the consideration of human rights in employment relations brings to the fore legal entitlements which incorporate social rights. The International Labour Organization has identified the rise of human rights awareness within the “changing social consciousness.” Recent investigations of labour relations’ connection to human rights have centred on trade union activities: the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. British Columbia and the Ontario Court of Appeal ruling in Fraser v. Ontario (Attorney General). In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Demir and Baykara v. Turkey that “the right to bargain collectively with the employer has, in principle, become one of the essential elements of the ‘right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of [one’s] interests’”. These rulings reinforce international obligations which countries have in respecting human rights. The decisions have also placed freedom of association at the centre of debate in a way that suggests labour rights are justiciable insofar as they are perceived to be part of a public law framework – despite the view that courts do not enforce social rights. What is implied throughout Human Rights in Labor and Employment Relations and other engagements of this topic is that human rights constitute a foundation upon which a more just workplace may be fashioned. James Gross “Takin’ It to the Man: Human Rights at the American Workplace” offers a provocative commencement to the collection as he outlines why recognition of human rights throughout the US and the world “promises a new vision”. This piece provides a good entry point for readers, especially those unfamiliar with the international human rights framework, as Gross canvasses not only the substantive content but also the dilemmas faced. For him, human rights as a theoretical and substantive concept have the potential to challenge the orthodoxy of labour law. The extent to which human rights can transform labour law appears to be monumental. Human rights may well better communicate the centrality of rights in social considerations regarding individuals and most particularly workers’ rights. Nevertheless, a human rights analysis within labour law has its own limitations. For example, although the ruling in BC Health Services compelled the BC Government to discuss reorganization with …