Hesperian Health Guides

Organizing for better jobs

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 1: Working for a living and living well > Organizing for better jobs

One worker alone can make small changes to improve her job, such as adding a cushion to pad the seat of her chair or support her back. But a single worker cannot change the most important problems harming the health of factory workers, such as what chemical to use as a cleaner, whether to enclose a dangerous machine, or how to make sure that no worker or group of workers is always stuck with a particularly dangerous, dirty, or boring job. By working together with others who want to see improvements in the factory, workers can decide what changes they want to make and organize campaigns to convince or pressure the boss to make these changes.

Workers’ rights

Every country has laws meant to protect workers from unsafe and unfair work conditions. Find out more about them by asking a labor lawyer, a government official, a union, or another worker or community organization, or by doing research online.

Basic labor laws usually cover minimum wage, time off, maternity leave, health insurance, and health and safety at work. Most laws also include information about how they can be enforced: who can inspect the factories, how to file a complaint with the government, and how the government will resolve the problem. Some countries have very good laws on paper, but all too often the governments do not do their best to enforce them.

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The United Nations (UN) brings together almost all the governments of the world to promote positive relations and international cooperation to solve economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems. UN conventions (international laws) that guarantee human rights and freedoms are referenced throughout this book in boxes like this one that include the UN symbol.

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The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is a powerful organizing tool for creating more equal and fair conditions for women at work and in their communities.

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The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the part of the United Nations that promotes labor rights and sets international standards for workers’ rights, working conditions, and worker health. The ILO also promotes the development of independent, democratic worker organizations and unions. ILO standards, adopted by many governments of the world, are referenced throughout this book in boxes like this one that include the ILO symbol. The ILO sponsors a program in many countries called Better Work, a public-private partnership to improve conditions in garment factories.

For more information about ILO conventions and how to use them, see Appendix A. See more information about the ILO Better Work program.

Workers’ rights are also made explicit in international law, for example, in conventions created by the United Nations (UN) and International Labour Organization (ILO). Countries that are members of the UN and the ILO sign these conventions and agree to make these rights a reality in their own laws. The UN and ILO conventions say all people have the right to safe, fair jobs that pay enough for a worker and her family to live in dignity. Knowing about these conventions can help you motivate others to fight for better jobs and encourage your government to improve and enforce its labor laws. See the box above and Appendix A for more information on the UN, ILO, and other avenues to pursue international law on workers’ rights.

Women’s rights

Knowing and protecting women’s rights is particularly important in export factories, where women are often the majority of workers. The UN, ILO, and the laws of many countries also say that women and men have equal economic, social, and political rights. These rights include:

The health needs of women, including bearing and caring for children, should be considered in the design of jobs.

Unions and workers’ organizations

International law and the laws of most countries recognize a union as a worker-controlled organization with rights and responsibilities to defend its members’ rights. An employer must negotiate work issues with the union chosen by the employees. The union has the right and responsibility to negotiate pay, safety and health, working hours, and fair and equal treatment of workers. Some unions also negotiate how work is organized. Employers and governments are prohibited from harassing or intimidating workers for being union members.

The right to organize: Workers fought for years in many countries to win the legal right to form a union, but there are still countries where it is illegal for workers to organize unions. Even where unions are legal, workers organizing for better conditions may face threats, violence, and discrimination from their bosses, hired thugs, police, or soldiers. But in countries where union movements are strong, workers successfully participate in movements to improve living and working conditions and pursue social justice.

Independent, democratic unions and worker organizations: In some countries, unions are controlled by the government, employers, or corrupt "leaders" who support the interests of the bosses or companies instead of those of the workers. These unions give the appearance that a workers’ organization exists, yet deliver few of the benefits of worker empowerment. In these situations, workers have formed independent, democratic unions or other types of organizations — workers’ centers, injured worker groups, women’s and community organizations, and others — to represent their interests.

Other worker organizations

For many years, women have formed groups to teach and learn about women’s rights, and to protect and expand them. Women’s groups have helped women reform their unions and gain respect. Sometimes women workers have formed their own unions when the men leading unions ignored women’s needs or didn’t allow them to participate as equals.

In places where unions are controlled by corporations or the government, workers have also developed different sorts of groups to fight for changes that their unions will not take on. For instance, when unions do not support compensation for workers hurt by their jobs, workers have organized as "accident victims" to win justice and compensation for injured workers and their families. When unions do not oppose the pollution caused by factories, workers have formed environmental groups to fight for cleaner forms of energy and manufacturing.

Workers have also formed groups based on ethnicity, culture, language, or national background for support and solidarity. These groups educate their members and others about their rights and how to protect themselves in the community and at work. They also help keep alive their traditions and connections to their home villages and countries.

a woman and a man holding a paper labeled "Contract" while another woman wears a headband with the word "Union" on it; all are smiling.

Workers often form coalitions with other groups to increase the power of their organizing. A coalition may form around a specific campaign or may come together for a longer time around broad political and organizing goals. These coalitions may include unions, religious organizations, women’s groups, human rights groups, political parties, students, retirees, and other kinds of community and worker groups.

Employer organizations

Companies often join together to promote their interests. They organize to lower their taxes and promote laws, working conditions, local development and international trade agreements that make their companies more stable and profitable. Often their desires to increase profits drive them to lobby against or ignore UN and ILO conventions, and national labor and environmental regulations, and to oppose the interests of workers.

Some companies have developed Codes of Conduct for employers and workers in the factories that make their products. The codes say the company will only work with factories and contractors that respect specific labor and human rights standards. These codes may be weaker than the standards set by the ILO and UN for decent jobs and protecting workers’ rights, but may be an improvement over common conditions in an industry.

For example, the codes usually require employers to pay workers at least the local minimum wage and obey local working hour laws. But in many countries, the legal minimum wage for export factories is very low and legal working time very long. So even when employers follow these laws, workers may still be exhausted by work and living in poverty.

Many people question why multinational companies create these weaker codes instead of using the international standards agreed on by the UN and ILO. Nonetheless, sometimes the codes lead to improvements that workers can use to organize for better conditions.

Some companies that are concerned about human rights, the environment, and climate change have begun to organize to help each other change sourcing and production methods. Groups such as BizNGO are working to help companies phase out harmful chemicals from their production processes, thus improving workers’ health and the environment. Business for Social Responsibility sponsors the HERproject to educate working women about health issues. The Institute for Human Rights and Business works on human rights both in the workplace and at a policy level, on the rights of migrant workers, threats from digital surveillance of workers, and other issues.

When corporations accept and value international norms on human, workers’, and women’s rights, they can bring a game-changing array of resources to our struggles for safe workplaces and a sustainable world.

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This page was updated:06 Mar 2018