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The Right to Work and the Political Economy of Human Rights

Listed author(s):
  • Manuel Couret Branco


    (Department of Economics, University of Évora)

The general purpose of this paper is to promote a political economy whose objective is to promote the deepening of human rights. In particular my attention will be focused on the political economy of the right to work.The first part of the paper concerns the description of the historical process that led to the proclamation of a right to work in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later on in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In this part we will also define in which consists the right to work. The second part of the paper is dedicated to the presentation of arguments that attempt to legitimize the right to work. For those members of the international community that have signed and ratified the proclamations described above the process through which they were approved confers the right to work plenty enough legitimacy. But given the highly political nature of the process that led to their adoption it should not come as a surprise that, especially among economists, economic rights are considered just a legal ornament. Therefore, it may be useful to search for different sources of legitimacy for human rights, and economic rights in particular, other than political and philosophical if one intends to make economics take economic rights seriously. The first argument is based on the inequality established in the capitalist system between the two contractors in the labour market, in this case freedom to work, in other words freedom to engage in contract, becomes meaningless without a right to work. The second argument arises from a basic ethical principle of economics. In order to live, that is in economic terms to consume, in other words, to satisfy needs or to acquire utility, one has to consent in sacrifice of an equivalent amount of utility of a different kind. In our society the sacrifice demanded from individuals for the satisfaction of one?s needs is the supply of a certain amount of work, or of a socially useful activity, except in cases of incapability resulting from misfortune. There is, therefore, an obligation to work. Now by definition, if work is an obligation in order to live, no one should be deprived of the access to it. The third argument in favour of the right to work concerns the social utility of the existence of such a right. The third part of the paper concerns the possibility of the existence of a competition between the right to work and the right to property. After concluding that this is not a problem I will focus on the conflict that seems more obvious, which is the conflict between the interests of capital and labour. There are two aspects of this conflict. The microeconomic aspect of this conflict concerns the fact that for firms unemployment is useful to attain certain objectives. For a long time unemployment, and the spectrum of hunger, has been seen as some sort of menace to workers in order to make them work harder and stay in line. At the macro economic level, unemployment appears to be an instrument in controlling inflation and full employment no longer a goal, regardless of the theory one professes, Philips curve or Natural Rate of Unemployment in any of its versions. The fourth part of the paper concerns the responsibility for ensuring the right to work. Is it a state or a corporate responsibility? Generally it is admitted that in terms of human rights the responsibility is the State?s. But this would also means that firms would then externalise the social costs of their activity which is not coherent with the new wave of Corporate Social Responsibility. Finally the last part of the paper will concern the policy implications of the right to work. Sustaining that ensuring the right to work means to promote full employment with decent jobs I will analyse the traditional instruments used to create jobs in the advanced countries and conclude that not all public action aiming to just creating jobs qualifies to right to work securing policy if it contributes to an erosion of the rights at work. In the end I will suggest that the only policy that seems to qualify in present economic circumstances is to share the asset work by substantially reduce the working hours.

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Paper provided by University of Évora, Department of Economics (Portugal) in its series Economics Working Papers with number 08_2006.

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Length: 25 pages
Date of creation: 2006
Handle: RePEc:evo:wpecon:08_2006
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  1. Louis Kaplow & Steven Shavell, 2003. "Fairness versus Welfare: Notes on the Pareto Principle, Preferences, and Distributive Justice," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 32(1), pages 331-362, 01.
  2. Archer, Robin, 1995. "Economic Democracy: The Politics of Feasible Socialism," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198278917.
  3. Eve Chiapello & Luc Boltanski, 1999. "Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme," Post-Print hal-00680085, HAL.
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