A day to celebrate and protect human rights – including at work

Today is International Human Rights Day, and it is 66 years to the day since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly. The original declaration has since been supplemented by numerous conventions that extend and amplify the original statement, taking account of changing views on what those rights should be and tackling specific forms of human rights violation.

Articles 23 and 24 of the declaration are the main items referring to working conditions and read as follows:

Article 23
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The fact such a statement has been adopted does not by itself mean inequality, disadvantage and violations of these rights disappear from sight, never to reappear. Governments need to balance different rights and obligations against each other in addition to adopting a level of legal protection consistent with a free and prosperous society.

Nearly 40 years after the Equal Pay Act, there is still a gender pay gap, even if the latest ONS figures show it to be falling. Prejudice and discrimination still need to be tackled. The chart below presents data from the 2010 European Working Conditions Survey showing the proportion of employees who said they had been subjected to discrimination at work in the previous 12 months.

UK employees, like those in the EU as a whole, were most likely to say they had been discriminated against on age grounds and, although the number of cases is small, this perception is more common among young people than the over 50s. We should also remember these are personal perceptions rather than universal truths – among other things, they will reflect social norms and the views of respondents on what counts as discrimination, the effectiveness of anti-discrimination legislation, workplace conditions and the attitudes of employers, colleagues and customers.

No system is perfect but EU employees nevertheless enjoy legal protection and the means to seek redress when they feel Government or others have violated their human rights. This is not the case in many countries, where various forms of prejudice and discrimination remain legal and, in some cases, are actively encouraged. So there is still plenty of room for progress – at work, in the UK and in countries where human rights are anything but universal.

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