Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2009
INTRODUCTION: ARE WORKER RIGHTS UNIVERSAL OR CONTINGENT ON THE LEVEL OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?
The status of worker rights within the larger family of human rights is unsettled. It is true, as Leary (1982) has pointed out, that the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions preceded modern human rights treaties by several decades, and in that sense they can be regarded as central to the rights tradition. The right of workers to associate and form independent trade unions is widely viewed as a bellweather of political liberties, and it has played a prominent role in U.S. foreign policy initiatives (Dorman, 1989). Nevertheless, a shadow of suspicion has fallen over other worker rights, such as safe working conditions, employment security, and even the prohibition of child labor. Can these be considered as universal rights when their fulfillment appears to depend greatly on the level of a country's economic development? Is it appropriate to apply pressure on behalf of worker rights in countries where mass poverty is also a primary concern? Is it possible that “premature” adherence to certain worker rights may even retard development and restrict the actual freedoms (capabilities) of its intended beneficiaries?
My target in this chapter is the developmentalist argument I have just briefly hypothesized. Rather than attempt a general argument applicable to all worker rights, I will concentrate on two for which large bodies of evidence exist – child labor and occupational safety and health.