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Human Rights in the Workplace

Whether you are a teacher, an actor, a factory worker or a miner, you may be asking yourself the question: what are my human rights at work? Perhaps you feel that you have been treated unfairly by your boss, or denied a promotion to which you feel that you are entitled. Maybe a co-worker is discriminating against you, or being treated preferentially to you. Or, perhaps you have been unfairly prevented from observing your religion during work hours. This article discusses how human rights can protect you in the workplace, focussing on human rights laws within Europe. It looks at a few scenarios where knowledge of your human rights might help to you better your situation at work, and explains which human rights laws could help to protect you. When considering your rights and entitlements within the workplace, remember, knowledge is power

Right to Equality

European equality laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of what is known as a ‘protected characteristic.’ This includes gender, sex, sexual orientation, race and religious belief. This means that – for example – if you are a homosexual or your employer believes you to be a homosexual, your employer is not allowed to treat you less favourably than your heterosexual colleague, on the grounds of your sexuality.

Discrimination against those with disabilities is also forbidden. The law places obligations upon employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate employees with disabilities, whether these are of a physical, psycho-social or intellectual nature. Say you are hearing impaired. Your employer is obliged to make reasonable adaptations to your work environment, to reduce the disadvantage that you experience because of your hearing impairment. This might include using technologies such as Bluetooth to connect to hearing aids, or ensuring that you have access to video calling to facilitate signing or lip reading.

European law also protects against age discrimination. However there are some exceptions. Age discrimination can be allowed where it is justified by a legitimate aim. For example, it is permissible for companies to set a compulsory age for retirement. This can be justified by, for example, the need to conserve the labour market.

Right to Equality in the Recruitment Process

Companies and other hiring organisations are not allowed to unfairly discriminate against potential employees on the basis of a protected characteristic (except in some circumstances, age). However, where discrimination occurs in early stages of the recruitment process, it can be hard to catch employers in the act of discrimination!  Many black and ethnic minority (BAME) candidates experience hidden discrimination when applying for jobs. Perhaps you are a suitably qualified candidate, you submit many job applications, yet do not get called for an interview. Research has highlighted that candidates with ‘foreign-sounding’ names are treated less favourably in the recruitment process. Recruiters for certain types of jobs also exhibit gender bias. Some countries, and some companies and organisations within other countries have tried to tackle this by introducing anonymous applications, where the candidate’s name is excluded from their application. Studies suggest that this helps BAME candidates increase numbers of job offers. However, they warn that anonymous applications may simply delay discrimination to subsequent stages of the application process. Another disadvantage of anonymous applications is that it makes it more difficult to measure how many BAME candidates apply for, versus being awarded, a particular position.

Equal Pay for Equal Work

The right to equality means that two people who are performing the same, or equivalent job function should be paid the same amount. In practice, this does not always take place. Historically, women have been paid less than men for fulfilling the same, or parallel roles. In the UK, in 2012, Birmingham City Council was forced to pay out over £757 million to settle claims brought by women who missed out on bonuses. The women mostly worked in roles such as cooks, cleaners and care staff and had been denied bonuses which were given to their male counterparts who worked in roles such as refuse collectors and street cleaners.

The gender pay gap issue came into the spotlight regarding  remuneration given to actors and actresses in starring Hollywood roles. In 2017, a study revealed that male actors in the highest paid roles received on average $57.4 Million whereas women received an average of $21.8 Million. The disparity in the pay awarded to male and female actors, led Benedict Cumberbatch to pledge that he would only take on roles where the female lead was paid the same as him, and to urge other actors to take a similar stand.

Maternity Rights

Maternity leave, and the subsequent return to work are key times when women experience sex discrimination in the work place. European laws stipulate that female employees have the right to return to the same position after their period of maternity leave. Employers are not allowed to treat you unfavourably because of your period of maternity leave – for example, it is unlawful discrimination if they do not offer you training opportunities, or fail to give you an equal chance to gain a promotion, because you took maternity leave. In order to benefit from this protection, you must be considered an employee, not a worker or a job applicant. This means that women in less secure working arrangements are more likely to suffer interference with their maternity rights, because they have less legal protection.

Protection Against Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is where an individual engages in unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature, with the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the individual concerned. It is known to be prevalent in many different types of industry. One study suggested that internationally, 40% or more of female lawyers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment is a criminal offence in most countries. In Europe, employers are responsible for ensuring their workers are able to work in an environment free from sexual harassment.

Right to Respect for Religious Beliefs

Freedom of religion is protected by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as well as the European Convention on Human Rights Article 9. This right includes the entitlement to observe your religious beliefs at work. However this is subject to reasonable limitations. The extent to which this right is protected varies between different countries. In France, the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols was banned in public institutions in 2004, as part of their law on secularity i.e. the separation of church and state. By contrast, the UK has generally recognised the right to wear religious symbols in the workplace.  In 2013, a case was brought against the government of the United Kingdom concerning the right to manifest religion at work. It found that preventing an air stewardess from wearing a Christian cross around her neck at work was an interference with her right to freedom of religion. However, the same case found that it was justifiable to ask a nurse to remove their cross because of the need to protect patients’ health and safety on the hospital ward.

Right to be Paid Fairly for your Work

The right to receive fair pay and working conditions is set out in Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. This means that states are obliged to ensure that workers receive a minimum wage which is sufficient to support themselves and their families. Paying a worker less than mandatory minimum wage is a criminal offence. Whilst above-board companies can be held accountable for their treatment of employees, it is much for difficult to do so for the black market labour force. Undocumented migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to working conditions which do not respect their human rights. Italy is believed to have at least 600 000 undocumented migrant workers. This year, in a historic move, Italy granted an amnesty to undocumented migrant workers in certain sectors of the economy in an attempt to halt workers operating under illegal or non-existent work contracts.

Right to Strike Against Unfair Working Conditions

Striking is often the only way that workers can protest effectively, in order to improve their working conditions. The right to strike, or bring collective action is protected in international human rights law including the International Labour Organisation’s Convention of Freedom of Association and the Protection of the Right to Organise 1948, The Council of Europe Social Charter of 1961 and to a limited extent Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. However, domestic laws of states do not always offer protection to striking workers. In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights considered the case of a rail strike in Russia. The case concerned a train driver who was dismissed from his role after participating in a one day strike. The court confirmed that striking is a human right which is protected under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to freedom of assembly and association.

What to do if your human rights have been breached at work 

If you become aware of employment practices that breach human rights, speak out! Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to make a complaint, or speak with someone within your organisation. If not, contact the Equality or Human Rights Commission within your country for advice. If you believe that are the victim of a human rights violation within the workplace, and you wish to take action, consider speaking to a specialist lawyer for advice. Some human rights violations – such as sexual harassment or the failure to pay minimum wage – are also criminal offences. In this type of scenario, you may want to approach the police for assistance.

About the author

Human Rights Careers

Human Rights Careers (HRC) provides information about online courses, jobs, paid internships, masters degrees, scholarships and other opportunities in the human rights sector and related areas.

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