Right to work

This article is about the human rights concept. For the U.S. laws of the same name, see right-to-work law.

The right to work is the concept that people have a human right to work, or engage in productive employment, and may not be prevented from doing so. The right to work is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law through its inclusion in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, where the right to work emphasizes economic, social and cultural development.


Article 23.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:[1]

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations General Assembly

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states in Part III, Article 6:[2]

(1) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.

(2) The steps to be taken by a State Party to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include technical and vocational guidance and training programmes, policies and techniques to achieve steady economic, social and cultural development and full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, United Nations General Assembly

The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights also recognises the right, emphasising conditions and pay, i.e. labor rights. Article 15, states:

Every individual shall have the right to work under equitable and satisfactory conditions, and shall receive equal pay for equal work.
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, Organisation of African Unity


The phrase "the right to work" was coined by the French socialist leader Louis Blanc in light of the social turmoil of the early 19th century and rising unemployment in the wake of the 1846 financial crisis which led up to the French Revolution of 1848.[3] The right to property was a crucial demand in early quests for political freedom and equality, and against feudal control of property. Property can serve as the basis for the entitlements that ensure the realisation of the right to an adequate standard of living and it was only property owners which were initially granted civil and political rights, such as the right to vote. Because not everybody is a property owner, the right to work was enshrined to allow everybody to attain an adequate standard of living.[4] Today discrimination on the basis of property ownership is recognised as a serious threat to the equal enjoyment of human rights by all and non-discrimination clauses in international human rights instruments frequently include property as a ground on the basis of which discrimination is prohibited (see the right to equality before the law).[5]

In the United States, 'right to work' laws as passed by states have sometimes been attempts to curtail union organizing. In other cases, they have been directed against regulation of qualifications for certain positions, including professional fields governed by professional organizations. Numerous U.S. states have passed laws requiring licensing, testing, and/or educational requirements, often in response to voter complaints about ill-prepared persons, such as people claiming medical expertise. The Friedmans reported in 1980 that

"Today you are not free to offer your services as a lawyer, a physician, a dentist, a plumber, a barber, a mortician or engage in a host of other occupations, without first getting a permit or license from a government official."[6]

Many laws were supported by existing professionals and their organizations in an effort to ensure a level of competence. Other observers believe their efforts were directed at simply restraining competition to increase prices for fees. In response, entrepreneurs and activists have won numerous court cases securing constitutional protection for the right to earn a living.[7] Such cases have won the right to work for Louisiana monks who sell caskets, Philadelphia independent tour guides, Colorado taxi drivers, and Connecticut interior designers.[8]


Paul Lafargue, in The Right to be Lazy (1883), wrote: "And to think that the sons of the heroes of the Terror have allowed themselves to be degraded by the religion of work, to the point of accepting, since 1848, as a revolutionary conquest, the law limiting factory labor to twelve hours. They proclaim as a revolutionary principle the Right to Work. Shame to the French proletariat! Only slaves would have been capable of such baseness."[9]

In the 1980 book Free to Choose, economists Milton and Rose Friedman said, "[An] essential part of economic freedom is freedom to use the resources we possess in accordance with our own values – freedom to enter any occupation, engage in any business enterprise, buy from and sell to anyone else, so long as we do so on a strictly voluntary basis and do not resort to force in order to coerce others."[6]

On the other side, "the idea that the recognition of a right to work or to the house ... means to everyone the possibility to bring a court action ... to get them, responds to a bias obviously due to an ideological defense of the right of property".[10]

See also


  1. "Universal Declaration of Human Rights : English". Ohchr.org. Retrieved 2016-02-03.
  2. "International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights". Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 1966.
  3. Revolutions of 1848: A Social History by Priscilla Robertson, 1952, Princeton University Press
  4. Alfredsson, Gudmundur; Eide, Asbjorn (1999). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a common standard of achievement. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 533. ISBN 978-90-411-1168-5.
  5. Alfredsson, Gudmundur; Eide, Asbjorn (1999). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: a common standard of achievement. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 372. ISBN 978-90-411-1168-5.
  6. 1 2 Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman (1980). Free to Choose. ISBN 978-0-15-633460-0.
  7. The Institute for Justice. "Economic Liberty". Retrieved May 1, 2013.
  8. Laurel Petriello (2009-07-06). "Judge Rules Interior Design Title Act Unconstitutional in Connecticut". Interior Design magazine.
  9. Paul Lafargue The Right To Be Lazy, Chapter II, 2nd paragraph
  10. Buonomo, Giampiero (2000). "La formulazione dei diritti civili e della libertà di religione "scalda" i lavori della Convenzione". Diritto&Giustizia edizione online.   via Questia (subscription required)

External links

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