Human Rights in Employment: Implications of the International Consensus for Management Teaching and Practice [1]

Article excerpt

The term human rights in employment is commonly used to refer to the rights of minorities to be treated fairly and with justice. The term, however, rightfully encompasses a broader range of issues. There is in fact a very strong international consensus that, in addition to protection against discrimination in employment, young children should not be permitted to engage in exploitative forms of work and employees everywhere should enjoy freedom from forced labour, freedom of association, and the right to bargain collectively. Action designed to thwart the enjoyment of these standards are human rights violations.

The term "human rights violation" most often comes up in the context of discussions about conditions in some of the world's poorer nations but the rights of workers in the supposedly advanced countries are far from sacrosanct.

Although it attracts little adverse attention, the North American employment practice of union avoidance sabotages the right to bargain collectively and thus is morally wrong. It should not be practised by business and it should not be taught in business schools. From a human rights perspective the practice of union avoidance is the moral equivalent of forced labour, child labour and overt discrimination.

If you are sceptical, I can understand. When this notion first occurred to me my reaction was to reject it. Over the years, however, I became a convert to the extent that in 1997 I helped found an organization dedicated to promoting awareness and compliance with core labour rights as human rights [2]. Let me review with you the tortuous road that I travelled to get to this point.

My first job out of Pennsylvania State University was with Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. I had signed on as a lending officer trainee but after a few weeks I realized that finance was not my thing and so wound up in the ambiguously named Personnel Planning Department. One of its main functions was to advise the bank on how to maintain its non-union status; another was to prepare bank officers being sent overseas to deal with unions in such diverse parts of the world as the Caribbean, Asia and Europe.

One of the projects to which I was assigned was the making of a training film for supervisors entitled Labor Unions in America. Although it was distributed by the American Association of Industrial Management, it was bankrolled by Chase. Its basic theme was that historically unions played an important role in winning workers acceptable conditions. Today, however, most firms had become enlightened and it was no longer necessary for workers to unionize in order to compel their firms to pay them fairly and treat them with dignity. By and large modern employers provided good conditions thereby making unions unnecessary.

The film also discussed many ways that unions - as institutions in their own right - were likely to make the job of management more difficult by, for example, negotiating rigid conditions, forcing management to waste time dealing with frivolous grievances and by going on strike. Unions today, the film concluded, were disruptive and costly and were primarily interested in maximizing their own power and income rather than ensuring the best interests of working people.

Another project that I was involved with was the writing of a formal bank policy on unionization. In essence it said that the bank believed in treating its employees well and, consequentially, it believed that employees had no need to turn to "outside organizations" in order to protect their interests.

At the time, the logic underlying these two projects was just being worked Out in American industry. In the 1930s and 1940s there had been a huge increase in unionization and collective bargaining in the US and after World War II it appeared that a new set of labour-management understandings had fallen into place. That "compromise" seemed to suggest that American business was willing to accept trade unions as legitimate institutions and collective bargaining as the preferred way to establish conditions of work. …