Image: Theme 'Work' by Pancho

An injury to one is an injury to all. 
Motto used by trade unions

Work is essential for people's life with dignity. It not only provides us with our livelihood, but also contributes to our individual development, and strengthens communities and society in general. However, not all work contributes to positive personal and professional development; only decent work can support life with dignity.
The right to work is a human right often referred to as a social and economic right. The right to work implies more than being able to work, as we shall see in the following paragraphs.

The International Labour Organization

The International Labour Organization (ILO) was created in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. The decent treatment of working people became a core element in sustaining universal and lasting peace.
The ILO became the first specialised agency of the UN in 1946 and up to now it is still the only intergovernmental organisation in which non-governmental partners work together on an equal basis with governments.1 The ILO is the international body responsible for elaborating and promoting international labour standards.

There can be no lasting peace without social justice.
Constitution of the ILO

The ILO has drawn up a number of international conventions protecting work rights, including2

  • Convention on Forced Labour, 1930 
  • Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, 1948
  • Convention on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, 1949 
  • Convention on Equal Remuneration, 1951 
  • Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, 1957 
  • Convention on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation), 1958 
  • Convention on the Minimum Age, 1973 
  • Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999 

Question: Has your country ratified these ILO conventions?

The right to work

The right to decent work is enshrined in a number of international and regional treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ILO Conventions, the European Social Charter and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
The right to work encompasses all forms of work, including wage employment, self-
employment, home working and other income-generating activities. The right to work should not be understood as an absolute and unconditional right to obtain employment.3 Instead, the right to decent work should be seen as a right of everyone to have the opportunity to gain their living by having work of acceptable quality in which rights are protected and which generates an adequate income with adequate social protection. Therefore, the right to decent work has three rights dimensions: the right to work, rights in work and the right to adequate social protection4

Question: If you don't have a job, is it a violation of your right to work? 

The right to work

Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.
Albert Camus

The right to work means that our states have to create a social, economic and physical environment in which all people have an opportunity to earn their livelihood by work which is consistent with their dignity.
For example, in order to ensure the right to work, states have an obligation to adopt and implement a national employment strategy; to implement technical and vocational training programmes; to protect workers against unlawful dismissal; and to create laws that protect people from any form of discrimination in access to employment. 

Rights in work

Everyone has a right to the enjoyment of just and favourable work conditions, including safety in the work place, fair wages, equal remuneration for work of equal value, equal opportunities, reasonable hours of work and rest, as well as the rights to organise and bargain collectively. Consequently, the right to decent work entails the prohibition of forced labour, child labour and slavery-like work conditions.  

Adequate social protection 

The right to decent work also implies that our states have a duty to create well-designed and adequate social protection mechanisms for individuals who are affected by political or economic crises and therefore cannot get regular employment.5

The right to work in the European Social Charter of the Council of Europe

Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The European Social Charter was adopted in 1961 and revised in 1996. The rights guaranteed by the Charter concern all individuals in their daily lives, including work rights: prohibition of forced and child labour; protection of workers of aged 15-18 years old; the right to earn one's living in an occupation freely entered upon; an economic and social policy designed to ensure full employment; fair working conditions; protection from sexual and psychological harassment; freedom to form trade unions and bargain collectively; protection in case of dismissal; the right to strike; and access to work for people with disabilities.
The Charter has a mechanism of control based on the presentation of national reports by state parties (1991 Protocol) as well as a system of collective complaints (1995 Protocol), which allows, inter alia, trade unions and non-governmental organisations to present collective claims to the European Committee of Social Rights.

The European Social Charter in Practice

International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) v. Portugal (1/1998)

The ICJ claimed that Portugal had violated Article 7(1) (a requirement that the minimum age of admission to employment is 15 years) of the European Social Charter by failing to supervise child labour properly. They alleged that a large number of children under the age of 15 were working illegally in many economic sectors and they faced unhealthy working conditions. The Portuguese government disputed the figures and claimed that unpaid activity within the family does not come within Article 7. In 1999, the European Committee of Social Rights found Portugal in violation of Article 7 and affirmed that the prohibition on employing children under 15 also applies to children working in family businesses.

Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria, Confederation of Labour "Podkrepa" and European Trade Union Confederation v. Bulgaria (32/2005)
The complaint alleged that Bulgarian legislation restricted the right to strike in the health, energy and communications sectors, as well as for civil servants and railway workers, in ways that did not conform to the Revised European Social Charter. The European Committee of Social Rights found that the restrictions of the Bulgarian law on the right to strike in the railway sector, and allowing civil servants to engage only in symbolic action which the law qualified as strike, as well as prohibiting them from collectively withdrawing their labour, constituted a violation of the Charter.6

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union

When the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union became legally binding in December 2009, the European Union (EU) acquired jurisdiction over many aspects of employment and social life that had previously been considered the responsibility of national governments7. The right to work is guaranteed by the Charter, Article 15, which stipulates: "1. Everyone has the right to engage in work and to pursue a freely chosen or accepted occupation; 2. Every citizen of the Union has the freedom to seek employment, to work, to exercise the right of establishment and to provide services in any Member State."
Furthermore, solidarity rights enshrined in the Charter include workers' right to information and consultation, the right to collective bargaining and action, the right of access to placement services, protection in the event of unjustified dismissal, fair and just working conditions, and the prohibition of child labour and protection of young people at work.

Employment and youth

One must work and dare if one really wants to live.
Vincent van Gogh

Having a job implies a lot more than having the means to support oneself. It is also a tool for life experience. Through employment, individuals (particularly young people) develop many skills, ranging from basic technical skills to personal skills.
Unemployment and bad working conditions are part of the complex interrelated issues creating obstacles to people's full development and to their maintaining their inherent dignity. Some examples of these consequences include the inability of the unemployed to afford adequate living conditions for themselves and their dependants, the potential creation of a large number of "black market" jobs decreasing workers' security and their ability to protect their rights, and the need for a large social security scheme to be created in order to provide assistance to the unemployed. 

The "intern generation"

Information supplied by the European Youth Forum. The results of the survey can be consulted at

In 2011 the European Youth Forum carried out a pan-European look into the lives of interns across Europe, to discover why the latest generation of young people seemed to have become the "intern generation". The survey reveals that internships have become the norm for European youth who wish to traverse the job barrier. Specific data reveals the continued use of interns as replacements for full-time, paid workers. The continued practice of requiring applicants for payed jobs to have completed several internships before being marketable seems to be leading towards a "lost generation" of workers who will never be able to fully enter the wider job market.
One intern who had completed a total of four internships, summed up the experience: "Employers know they can get away without paying interns a thing because graduates "need" the experience, and as a result employers expect someone starting an entry level job to know everything on their first day." Such a quote reveals that internships are now a must-have to enter the labour market, but some fear that internships may be turning into a sub-labour market of their own, where cheap (even free) labour is not only accepted, but desired by those applying for it.

The transition from school to work is a crucial stage for young people in their personal and professional development, and one which has an effect throughout adult life. The consequences of being unemployed at a young age can be serious. Youth unemployment is often associated with social and health problems such as violence, crime, suicide and abuse of alcohol and drugs. 

Question: Have you already had your first paid job? 

Unemployment rates amongst young people are often higher than amongst adults. This difference can be wide or narrow, depending on the specific context of the country.
There are various reasons for the high incidence of unemployment among young people. For example, in Europe it is usually young people who are employed on temporary contracts or caught in the cycle of unpaid and long lasting internships8. Other reasons for high youth unemployment could be technical and organisational changes that have created a demand for higher qualifications, preference of employees to hire experienced workers, and the labour market crisis, which has meant fewer jobs and thus more unemployed workers. Globalisation and the de-localisation of production in certain sectors has added to the lack of employment in industries where labour represents a large share of the total costs. Sectors of the clothing and textile industry, leather and footwear, shipbuilding and basic metal industries are among those which have lost the largest number of jobs in Europe over the past two decades9.

A lost generation?

Young people are over-represented among those in temporary contracts and more often work under precarious conditions. According to the ILO, "the problem is particularly acute in high income countries where it is imperative to prevent the emergence of a "lost generation" of youth whose employment prospects have deteriorated considerably in the wake of the global crisis".10
In 2011, unemployment figures in Europe reached record highs and sparked mass demonstrations and protests by young people. In June of the same year, one in five people aged between 16 and 24 were unemployed in the UK, and a staggering 44.3% of young people in Spain were unemployed – more than anywhere else in Europe. In Greece, youth unemployment stood at 36%, at 27.8% in Portugal and 31.5% in Ireland.11

In 2011 there were an estimated 7.5 million young people who were NEET (not in employment, education or training) in the European Union alone.

Youth work can play an important role in the fight against youth unemployment. Non-formal education and programmes, notably those run within youth organisations and youth centres, can help young people develop the necessary skills to gain meaningful employment, and they have proved effective for young people engaged in them. Other organisations support youth entrepreneurship and some even fund small projects to help young people build a future for themselves through self employment. 

The European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs aims at improving the economic and social performance of young entrepreneurship in Europe. (

The European Youth Forum works on employment as one of its core priority areas through analysis of situations in the area of employment, establishing strategic partnerships and the formulation of policy demands that support the situation of young people in the labour market. According to the Forum, the improvement of labour market integration of young people shall be conceived as a collective responsibility, which requires the equal involvement of actors such as public authorities, social partners and youth organisations.12

Child labour

The ILO defines child labour as "work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.
It refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by:

  • depriving them of the opportunity to attend school
  • obliging them to leave school prematurely, or
  • requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work."13

In 2010 the ILO estimated that there were 215 million children worldwide who were involved in child labour. Child labour is unacceptable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it involves children who are too young and should be in school. Secondly, even when children legally qualify for employment, because they pass the minimum age criteria, the work that they do is unsuitable for a person below the age of 18. Thirdly, children are often subjected to the worst forms of the child labour, such as slavery, prostitution, involvement in armed conflicts as well as other work which is likely to harm their health, safety and morals.14

Question: What kinds of work are children doing in your community? 

The International Labour Organization has long dedicated its activities to eradicating child labour and, to that end, it has a number of recommendations and conventions. There are two main conventions that deal specifically with child labour:
The ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999) came into force in 2000. As of June 2010, 172 countries had ratified this convention. The Convention defines the worst forms of child labour as:

  • All types of slavery, including the sale and trafficking of children; forced labour to pay off a debt; any other type of forced labour, including using children in war and armed conflict   
  • All activities which sexually exploit children, such as prostitution, pornography or pornographic performances
  • Any involvement in illegal activities, especially the production or trafficking of drugs
  • Any work which could damage the health, safety or well-being of children (so called "hazardous work").15

The ILO Minimum Age Convention (1973) underlines a duty "to pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons".

Trade unions, working for the workers

No-one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent; work transforms talent into genius.
Anna Pavlova

Trade unions are associations of employees (there are also associations of employers) and their main objective is to represent the employees' interests to the employers. The right to form and join a trade union as well as the right to collective bargaining are widely recognised human rights. 

The history of trade unions can be traced back to the 18th century when the Industrial Revolution drew woman, children, rural workers and immigrants to the work force in numbers and new roles. The rights of workers have undoubtedly improved, even if only gradually, and trade unions have played a crucial role in this process.

International Workers Days: 1 May

1 May commemorates the historical struggle of working people throughout the world. May Day was born from the struggle for the eight-hour day at a time when workers were being forced to work 10, 12 and 14 hours a day. The first days of May in 1886 were marked by strikes and demonstrations in the United States.
1 May quickly became an annual event. Around the world workers in more and more countries marked labour day on May Day. May Day was celebrated for the first time in Russia, Brazil and Ireland in 1891.

The role of trade unions was and is very varied across Europe. In some countries, where totalitarian regimes were in place, trade unions were overtaken or created by state authorities and the political elite, and turned into a tool for their oppressive regimes. As a result of this historical reality, many people today are still sceptical of the role that trade unions can play, and only lately have the workers from these countries started to recognise the positive role of trade unions in the fight for protecting their rights. Other differences exist across Europe, especially regarding the role and organisation of trade unions. In most countries, trade unions are organised in confederations.


Solidarnos´c´ (Solidarity) was a national union movement which swept across Poland during the 1980s. The movement was initiated on 14 December 1970 when the workers in the ship-building industry decided to protest, and their march from the shipyards towards downtown Gdansk was brutally repressed by the police. In the summer of 1980 many strikes showed that the Solidarity movement had taken root as a force for social and democratic change. Solidarity membership grew to over nine million members. The repressive policy of the government became evident by banning Solidarity, which was thus obliged to work in secret for several years.

International workers solidarity for human rights

I want you to know that we stand with you as you stood with us. I want you to know that no power can challenge the will of the people when they believe in their rights. When they raise their voices loud and clear and struggle against exploitation.
Kamal Abbas, general
co-ordinator of the independent Egyptian Centre for Trade Unions and Workers Services in a message of solidarity to U.S. workers;
20 February 2011. 

Besides playing a role in the fight for better working conditions, trade unions have had (and continue to have) a key role in building social movements and influencing social changes.
In 1963, when the apartheid regime was still in power, Danish dock workers refused to offload a ship from South Africa. This direct action was followed by union workers in Sweden, San Francisco and Liverpool, who all - in solidarity with the oppressed - refused to offload South African goods.
In 2009 South African dockworkers announced their decision not to offload a ship from Israel.16 This action was followed by the Swedish Dockworkers Union17 who resolved to blockade all Israeli ships to and from Israel for a period of nine days in protest of Israel's attack against the "freedom flotilla" and the blockade of the occupied Gaza Strip.

Intimidation and anti-union persecution

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in its annual survey, has documented that 101 trade unionists were murdered in 2009, the majority of killings taking place in Latin America. In addition to the assassinations, thousands of workers uniting to denounce unhealthy working conditions, to claim wages or to protest against insufficient measures to deal with the global financial and economic crisis, were being physically attacked, arrested and detained.18

The work will teach you how to do it.
Estonian proverb

According to the ITUC in Europe, despite the existence of laws that protect union rights, union workers still face oppressive tactics by employees such as transfer, imposition of wage cuts, dismissals, harassment and manipulation.19

Question: Is it safe to become a union member in your country?

Corporation discriminates against union workers

The ITUC reported in 2009 that workers at Nestlé Water Coolers Service in Domodedovo, Moscow, established a trade union to tackle the issue of decreasing salaries and deteriorating working conditions. The management of the corporation reacted by launching an anti-union campaign: it started distributing the workload in a discriminatory way so that the trade union members were unable to complete their tasks within working hours or fulfil their quotas.20

Youth and trade union membership

You can join the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) or the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) on Facebook, or follow them on twitter @ituc and @etuc

Trade unions are now making large efforts to increase youth membership. Many are developing a work agenda that takes into account the needs and realities of young workers as well as appropriate structures to ensure the active participation of youth workers in unions. Youth involvement in trade union movement is essential for tackling youth unemployment issues.
The European Trade Union Confederation Youth Committee represents young workers within the confederation. The Youth Committee ensures a youth perspective is included in different policies and takes positions on issues affecting young people at work. Through non-formal education activities such as study sessions, conferences, seminars and campaigns, the ETUC Youth Committee takes action to support the human rights of youth workers throughout Europe.

Operation Ville

In 2009, young union activists in Finland decided to highlight the problem of youth unemployment with the use of social-networking sites on the Internet. They chose the case of 26-year-old Ville Karhu, who had been unemployed for four months.
Several days before the launch of the operation, the Facebook page called "Operation Ville" had several hundred members, who were contributing ideas and proposals on how to find a job for Ville. On the day of the Operation, activists formed "patrols" and went to the streets to help find a job for Ville. Even the Finnish Minister of Labour came to wish good luck to the Operation. In addition to this, a leading youth radio station picked up the story and was broadcasting on the progress of the operation hour-by-hour. By the end of the day the Operation was complete: Ville had found a job.21


1 Article 3 of ILO Constitution. 
2  All ILO standards are available here:
3 GC 18, para 6.
4 OHCHR, poverty reduction, p 31.
5 OHCHR, poverty reduction, p 31.
8 EYF 0076-09 Opinion Paper on Internships.  
10 European Youth Forum, 2011, Interns Revealed, p 35 - 
11 The Telegraph, June 9, 2011, 
12 European Youth Forum, 2008, Policy Paper on Youth Employment, p 17
14 ILO website,
15 The ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention.
21 ITUC, On the Jobs for better future: a guide on bets practice on organising young people, p.5