Workers' Rights in a Global Economy

10 Mar 2016, 02:43 PM


1 comment

Inequality and social instability
LC triggered an interesting debate about the relationship between inequality and social instability, pointing out that many very unequal societies seem to be quite stable. Indeed given the high level of unfairness and inequality in many societies it is astonishing how stable most societies are. It shows that injustice itself is not sufficient to cause change. In particular in societies that are marked by high levels of inequality over a long period of time, people tend to get used to it and seem to accept even extreme inequality as an inevitable normal.

The acceptance of inequality depends not only on the level of inequality but also on the overall economic context. Growing inequality is more acceptable when even the income of the poor are rising. How inequality is perceived or how the discourse over inequality is shaped in a society plays a major role too. If people belief that inequality largely results from individual merit and effort or that it is the necessary precondition for overall growth they are more likely to go along with it, as if they see the reason for it in unequal distribution of wealth, speculation, corruption, exploitive labour practices, racial discrimination or other unfair practices.

Inequality does not necessarily result in instability, however. In most cases when societies experienced turmoil, radical changes, social uprisings inequality has been high and often on the rise. It seems to be fair to say that unequal societies run a higher risk of a social breakdown and negative social outcomes. Instability of a society also does not necessarily express itself only in organized social protest but also in a breakdown of the social fabric of a society. Many negative social outcomes such as high prison incarceration rates, homicides, gated communities for the rich, disappearance of safe public space and life expectancy correlate with rising inequality.

In case you want to read more about the impact of inequality on societies and individuals you might want to take a look at

The Universality of Human Rights
In the discussion about the universality of human and labour rights some very interesting issues were raised. Most argued in favour of the universality of human rights and underlined its importance in particular under the conditions of global capital mobility to avoid a race to the bottom. Some also rightly pointed out that most rich countries violated human rights in the early days of their economic development and try now nevertheless to impose them as universal values on everybody. This criticism is certainly valid in so far as, in particular, the former colonial powers have very little reason to take the moral high ground. However, the fact that countries achieved in the past economic growth while at the same time violating human rights is neither evidence nor justification that growth requires the suppression of human rights.

The little time and space in the course does not allow for any in-depth discussion of the question of cultural diversity and the philosophical justification of Human Rights. As was said in some comments, often dictatorial regimes use cultural relativism as a pretext to reject e human rights criticism. However, as Nikodemus Solitander mentioned already in his comment, also philosophers who are defending the moral values of human rights have made the argument that their universality cannot be demonstrated through rational reasoning or by reference to human nature per se. They argue, as there is no ultimate truth that can be detected through rational reasoning, the moral superiority of human rights cannot be proven. For example, some might regard gender equality as a feminist blasphemy to challenge God's order despite it being a human right. Even when the proponents of human rights might bring forward many good reasons for gender equality, it might nevertheless not convince the opponents to abandon their God. Instead of insisting that there are a priori and undisputable human rights, it might be more convincing to argue that respect for human rights make not only good sense but also makes lives better for individuals and for society at large. Those more interested in these debates might want to take a look at the article of Richard Rorty on “Human Rights Rationality and Sentimentality”, available at:

Do ILO standards have any effect
Shawn Gilchrist started an interesting discussion with his question whether citing the ILO conventions has any effect whatsoever.

The impact of International Labour Standards (ILS) depends very much of the context. It depends how many conventions a country has ratified, how well the concept of fundamental workers’ rights is known in a society and whether governments feel they have to respond to critiques from the international community to comply with International Labour Standards.

The USA for example has ratified only two ILO core conventions and 14 Conventions in total, while France has ratified 127 Conventions. Big and powerful nations tend to be more inward looking and less willing to take guidance from international organisations. While the US has been very reluctant in ratifying conventions it has regularly included ILO core convention in bilateral trade agreements, making respect for ILO core labour standards part of its trade policy.

The role of International Labour Standards is not limited to complaints procedures but ILS also provide guidance for drafting national labour legislation. Some governments request the support of the ILO in redrafting labour legislation in order to ensure the compliance with international labour standards. National labour courts draw for their decisions on ILO standards or findings of the ILO supervisory mechanisms.

The ILO has no direct enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with labour standards, but its supervisory and complaints mechanisms can expose governments to international criticism and provide detailed recommendations on what governments should do in order to comply with their international obligations. For workers imprisoned for trade union activities, recourse to the ILO complaints mechanisms is sometimes of crucial help. In a recent Global Labour Column the former President of Brazil Lula da Silva described how useful the ILO was for the Brazilian trade unions during their struggle against the military regime.


almost 3 years ago

I think that a society appears stable when people feel hopeless and have no chance of positive change.
Also we all become complacent and in the proverbial rut.
Sometimes what is considered a small event can trigger social upheaval
The use of a police State can stifle protest and give an appearance of a stable society
When people are deprived of basic human rights my belief is they may be controlled but
I would not characterize it as a stable society

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