By Sebhat Ayele MCCJ
May is the month when the international community advocates for the rights of the workers. “May Day” entered the vocabulary of many languages as a day when those who live with their sweat need to be protected, respected and remunerated accordingly.The implementation may not be universal, but the slogan is voluminous even in countries where the workers’ rights may still be dwindling. That Rights of workers is not a man given right, is attested by numerous biblical texts. Church doctrine, as well, reiterates that the economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.
When justice is enacted on workers, it is not charity, but fundamental human rights. As Samora Machel pinpointed: “International solidarity is not an act of charity: It is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objective. The foremost of these objectives is to aid the development of humanity to the highest level possible.” May Day theme for 2018 is: “Let us reason together for Sustainable Economic Growth and Job Security”. It implies that all are responsible to forge ways of reputable ties between workers and their providers. It has also been declared as the national holiday in almost 80 countries of the world whereas it is being celebrated as an unofficial event in most of the countries.
Throughout history, workers claiming some sort of right have attempted to pursue their interests. During the Middle Ages, the Peasants’ Revolt in England expressed demand for better wages and working conditions. One of the leaders of the revolt, John Ball famously argued that people were born equal saying, “When Adam delve and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” Laborers often appealed to traditional rights. For instance, English peasants fought against the enclosure movement, which took traditionally communal lands and made them private. The issue of labor has wide range issues including child labor and working hours. England made a breakthrough in 1833, when it passed a law encoding any child under the age of 9 could not work, children age 9-13 could only work 8 hours a day, and children aged 14–18 could only work 12 hours a day. Though still insufficient, it was a daring law.
However, labor rights are a relatively new addition to the whole system of modern corpus of human rights. The modern concept of labor rights dates to the 19th century after the creation of labor unions following the industrialization procedure. Karl Marx stands out as one of the earliest and most prominent advocates for workers rights. His philosophy and economic theory focused on labor issues and advocates his economic system of socialism, a society which would be ruled by the workers. Many of the social movements for the rights of the workers were associated with groups influenced by Marx such as the socialists and communists. Though the Marx philosophy was hijacked by dictators and oligarchs, the seeds of workers’ rights take roots from there. More moderate democratic socialists and social democrats supported worker’s interests as well. More recent workers rights advocacy has focused on the particular role, exploitation, and needs of women workers, and of increasingly mobile global flows of casual, service, or guest workers.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) was formed in 1919 as part of the League of Nations to protect worker’s rights. The ILO later became incorporated into the United Nations. The UN itself backed workers rights by incorporating several into two articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which is the basis of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The main objectives are for the right to work of one’s own choice, without discrimination and equal pay for equal work (Art 23). The same article also defends the right of social protection and formation of trade unions to shield their interests. Article 24 underlines the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays without losing or decreasing the pay.
Labour Conditions in Africa
The global financial and economic crisis, the events in North Africa and the Middle East have demonstrated the continuing relevance of international labour standards. This is also true in Africa, though not all are faithful. To date, all 53 African member States have ratified the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105), and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111). Moreover, 52 countries have ratified the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98); and 51 nations have ratified the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100). This is also true for Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138); the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87).
Experience confirms that ratifying conventions is not enough if the political will to enact the low. Situations on the ground confirm the ongoing challenges facing ILO constituents in addressing discrimination in employment and occupation in Africa and in other regions. There is lack of persistence and long-standing forms of discrimination, the lack of a common understanding of key concepts and the frequent absence of coherent national equality policies. Normally the global financial and economic crisis bring widening inequality and increased marginality of vulnerable groups in Africa.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) needs to continue throughout the African region to strengthen the capacity of labour administration and labour inspection systems to enable them to play their role as key actors in the elaboration and implementation of economic and social policies, including in relation to the informal economy.
In many cases, the resources allocated to labour inspection are insufficient to enable inspection functions to be discharged properly. This leads to a vicious cycle of neglect of workers’ rights, vulnerability and exploitation. Moreover, improving the occupational safety, health and hygiene conditions for all men and women should be a significant part of a strategy to fight against poverty in Africa. Unless the above challenges are met with determination, ratifying conventions will not solve the labour setback of the African continent.
Church Teaching and Doctrine always emanate from the Bible. The right of workers goes way back in the Old Testament. The Biblical tradition always protects the workers, the weak and the defenseless groups. “To deprive an employee of wages is to commit murder” (Sirach 34:26-27). This and many other texts defend the rights of workers. Catholic principles of social justice are as old as the Gospel and the Church itself. Catholic social teaching on the rights of workers, and specifically on their right to organize in labor unions, has been clear, consistent, and explicit for more than a century.
These five documents are available for our readership who wish to understand Catholic social teaching on labour. The most important Church documents on worker’s rights are:
• Rerum Novarum, 1891 by Pope Leo XIII
• Quadragesimo Anno, by Pope Pius XI
• Gaudium Et Spes, 1965 Vatican II
• Laborem Exercens, 1981 by Pope John Paul II
• Caritas in Veritate, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI
According to the understanding of the Church, work should be a background for a rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others and giving glory to God. It follows that, in the reality of today’s global society, it is essential that people continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone, no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning. Human beings were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be the replacement of human work with technological progress, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. (cfr. Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Good).
Do workers know their rights?
Having set all the principles above, if workers don’t know their rights, changes will never happen. Hence, for the workers to “know their rights” becomes the first and most fundamental right. Otherwise, they will continue to be exploited. This is what we are witnessing in many East African countries: workers exploited by foreign Chinese companies and by other government organizations linked with the expatriate corporations.
Knowing their rights is very fundamental for workers since it will enhance them to be aware of the boundary of their work as well as conditions set by the framework. Moreover, workers can escape from the risk of being exploited by their bosses who are waiting to gain benefits whenever they can.
Illiteracy is considered one of the main factors contributing to lower the understanding the rights of workers. A high percentage of the population are rural dwellers, and most workers are from this social working- class, so it is really hard for them to acknowledge legal framework. The first task of the international and regional organization, including the Church should be to create awareness among the workers of their God given rights. As underlined above, it is not charity by fundamental right that no one should or can tamper with.
“The Laborer Is Worthy Of His Wages” (Luke 10:7)
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