Hesperian Health Guides

A living wage is a human right

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 19: Working too much, too fast, for too little > A living wage is a human right

The minimum wage should be enough money to cover basic needs — a place to live, water, and food for a worker and her family. But people need to do more than just survive. We need a decent home, enough healthy and nutritious food for our families, and to earn enough to pay our monthly bills as well as save for bigger purchases or emergencies. A living wage allows workers and their families to break the cycle of poverty and illness and live a healthy life.

Wgthas black-un.png Standard of Living Wgthas black-ilo.png

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right to a standard of living that allows for their health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and social services.

The ILO Minimum Wage Fixing Convention (No. 131) says governments must:

  • set a minimum wage for all workers, considering the needs of workers and

their families.

  • enforce the law to ensure workers are paid properly.

While the ILO requires governments to set a minimum wage, each country decides what that is. Check your country’s labor laws.

The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers' rights are explained in Appendix A.
The Asia Floor Wage Campaign
To lure international companies with low prices, factories move from city to city and country to country searching for places where regulations are lax and they can pay the lowest wages. Tired of this "race to the bottom," workers all over Asia got together to launch the Asia Floor Wage Campaign.

They calculated how much a worker in each country must earn to support her family by working no more than 48 hours a week. They set the Asia Floor Wage to be the same for all of Asia so large companies would no longer move in search of the lowest wages. Some workers and unions have used the Floor Wage to negotiate for better pay with factory owners and managers, and to pressure the brands to change policies that strive only for low cost instead of the well-being of workers.

Organizing when long hours make it difficult

How can you organize against working too many hours when you have so little time already? Here are some strategies that work:

a woman putting up a sign announcing a workers' rights workshop.
  • Find times and places that are convenient for workers and do not conflict with their duties at home. Plan meetings for workers’ days off. Hold several smaller meetings instead of trying to find one time or place that works for everyone. Organize meetings by shift, job, or neighborhood.
  • Organize outside of meetings. Speak with workers during breaks. Sit with different groups during lunch and encourage other organizers to also make new friends. Connect with workers before or after work — on the bus, at social gatherings, or in neighborhoods where workers live.
  • Involve women. Because women often work a "second shift" caring for their families, sometimes it is harder for them to get involved. Offer childcare at the meetings, as well as food and refreshment, to make it easier for them to attend.
Workers win a day off
We make Nike shoes at the Sinotex factory in Sri Lanka. The boss had us working 7 days, with no days off even though the labor law in Sri Lanka entitled us to 1 day off every week.

When the union and other members of the Workers Council demanded our rightful day off, the boss refused!

6 people sitting at a table where a large piece of paper reads, "One day off."

We told all the workers about the law and Nike’s code of conduct, which also said we had the right to 1 day off every week. We got organized and threatened to report the boss to Nike. The Nike auditor had visited our factory and didn’t give it a good score, so the boss didn’t want to lose any more points. He was scared of losing the Nike contract, so after 1 month of campaigning, he agreed to give us the 7th day off.

Some workers are happy we get Sunday off, but some aren’t because wages are still too low. We agreed to organize to raise our wages!

Fighting for fair hours and better pay

In factories where workers have fought for and won a collective contract, they are often able to bargain for better salaries and fairer working hours. Forming a union or worker association is often the best way to get a good collective contract, overtime, and fair pay.

4 workers speaking while they hold a sign that lists contract terms.
Now we all get one day off each week!
When we work overtime we get overtime wages.
The employer must give us 1 day’s notice when he expects overtime.
The employer cannot force us to work longer hours.
Regular hours:
8 hour day
40 hour week
Higher pay
for extra hours
No forced overtime
Higher pay
for night work
When you negotiate a collective contract, you and the employer agree to honor it.

Enforce labor laws

Labor laws in many countries set limits on working hours and overtime. Unfortunately, many export factories may be exempt from these laws, especially inside special export processing zones. Whether the laws apply to your factory or not, a campaign for fair working hours might bring enough pressure to make the factory honor them.

If the labor laws are weak or there are none regarding wages or working hours, your campaign might pressure the government to create and pass laws to protect workers and limit working hours. International agreements your country has signed on labor and human rights standards can be useful to your campaign, even if these standards have not been implemented. See Appendix A: Laws and the struggle for decent, healthy, and fair work.

Community campaigns

children and adults outside a building labeled "Children's Center."
a man and woman outside a door labeled "Worker Health Center. Open 7 p.m. to 9 p.m."
a building with large bags of rice and beans outside and a sign that reads, "Worker Collective. Bulk is cheaper. Bring your own bags!"

Workers organizing their factories often gain strength by joining with community groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as women’s, religious, environmental, or human rights groups. Discussing problems in the community caused by low wages and long workdays can help build support for workers and help generate ideas to improve conditions for everyone in the community. Use the But why? activity to help figure out what the underlying problems and solutions are. Worker and community groups have organized many kinds of projects.

  • Legal aid clinics: Staffed by volunteer lawyers and law students, they offer free legal advice on many issues, especially labor law violations.
  • Low cost childcare, after school activities, and tutoring: They keep children safe and learning, even if you are working overtime or at night.
  • Night or weekend free adult schools: They teach what you want to learn and are available when you are.
  • Community-based health care and referrals: They make it easier and less costly for you to get medical attention.
  • Night markets, community gardens, and buying food in bulk: They can help you reduce your costs and eat more nutritious foods.
  • Cultural activities: They can help you relate to other workers and enjoy life more.

International campaigns

Because employers and the brands sell their products all over the world, many worker organizations have involved groups in other countries in campaigns to increase wages, force companies to pay the wages and benefits they owe workers, and recognize their unions. (See Could an international campaign help? for more information.)

How we won against forced overtime
Wgthas Ch19 Page 293-1.png

Workers from other garment factories ask us how we got the freedom to leave at 4:30 pm and not work forced overtime. When people find out that we organized our own union and that we were successful, they feel like it is possible to fight for better conditions, and they want to know how we did it.

Wgthas Ch19 Page 293-2.png

Share experiences with other workers
We work at the Choi Shin and Cimatextiles factories in Guatemala. Both of these factories are owned by the same Korean company and are right next to each other. Many people worked there under bad conditions. Besides the low pay and the mean bosses, they also forced us to work overtime, even when we did not want to. Some of us got together outside of work to talk about the conditions in the factory. We talked about everything, from how the bosses treated us at work, to how much we are paid, to how often we were forced to work overtime. After everybody got a chance to talk, we decided that the biggest problem we shared was forced overtime and low pay.

a woman telling others that they should take action against the boss, because overtime is illegal in Guatemala.

Organize a workers’ group
At first most of us did not want to take action against the boss because we were afraid we would lose our jobs. But when we found out that forced overtime was illegal in Guatemala, we started organizing small groups of workers in neighborhoods outside the factory. After 1 year, we had organized 1,250 workers from the two factories. We all agreed to form an independent union.

2 workers holding a sign for a large group of people to see; the sign lists working conditions at the Choi Shin and Cimatextiles factories.

Bring attention to the problem
We made the community aware of what was happening in the factory. The bosses responded with death threats, violence, bribes, and even rape to intimidate the leaders and break our unity. Twice, supervisors led non-union mobs to threaten and attack us, but we found support and protection in the community.

Wgthas Ch19 Page 294-2.png

Build national and international support
Our union reached out to other unions and organizations in Guatemala and other countries. We wrote to the brands. They put pressure on the boss to improve our working conditions. To keep his customers, the boss had to sign an agreement acknowledging our union.

Pressure for legal enforcement

But the boss went back to harassing the union leaders, threatening to close the factories and move to China. But we kept working and organizing. After 2 years of struggle, the government was pressured by local, national, and international organizations to enforce the law. The government told the factory owner that he had to sign a collective bargaining agreement with us, rehire fired union workers, and address our complaints.

Win some, lose some
Although we won higher pay and no more forced overtime, we still struggle with the boss who hates our union and threatens to close and move the factories. But we are proud to be among the first unions in Guatemala to have a collective contract!

For a step-by-step description of how to organize a campaign, see Plan campaigns around the most important problems.

This page was updated:06 Mar 2018