Labor rights operate at three levels: between particular employers and their employees, at a statewide level and internationally.
Labor rights include wage entitlement, working conditions and workplace safety, other benefits including holiday leave, redundancy and disciplinary procedures. These tend to be governed by state employment rights legislation, labor contracts which are the product of collective bargaining by labor unions, and codes of conduct produced by employers' human resources departments. Labor law and labor rights usually refer to the process of collective bargaining and relations between the employer and unions. Increasingly, employment rights are managed on an individual basis by human resources departments that seek to avoid union involvement and negotiate individual employment contracts. In many countries, unions are entitled to negotiate with employers on behalf of union members and to take industrial action, including strikes and sit-ins, provided they follow the requisite procedural requirements including balloting members and warning the employer.
An international labor rights campaign has succeeded largely in worldwide legislation against child labor by introducing a minimum working age. The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by 194 countries as of November 2009, recognized the right of children under the age of majority of any country to be free from exploitation, including child labor.
National legislation in many states stipulates maximum working hours per day and or week, and compulsory leave. This is also the subject of regional coordination, such as through the European Union Working Time Directive (2003). These rules usually allow individual workers to contract out, provided they are paid overtime rates for additional hours and weekend work.
World War II was a major impetus toward the universal prohibition of forced labor. Workers who leave employment in breach of contract cannot be forced to return to work, although they may be fined for breach of contract. Those able to work who are receiving welfare benefits may be required to seek work to remain eligible for benefits. Penal institutions are allowed to organize mandatory work programs, although convicts may need to be given the option not to participate.
The minimum wage is intended to prevent exploitative employment. Sweatshops offer long hours under austere conditions for the minimum wage possible. Workplace injuries compensation schemes and compulsory employers' insurance in countries such as the United States ensure that the burden of compensating injured workers is shared by employers, rather than falling on the taxpayer or the individual worker and his family. Multinational corporations have been criticized for moving manufacturing to countries with a low minimum wage and limited regulation of workplace safety and conditions.
There is no right to employment as such. However, there is a right to equal opportunities. This generally prohibits discrimination in recruitment, selection, employment terms and conditions including wages, and dismissal or redundancy. Direct or indirect discrimination on grounds of race, sex, national origin, disability, gender, age and religion are prohibited in many countries. Most countries also prohibit victimization of witnesses and whistleblowers in relation to discrimination and issues of workplace safety.
Freedom of association includes the right of workers to form labor unions. The United States Taft-Hartley Act (1947) prohibited closed shops, workplaces which are only accessible to union members. However, the United States, like certain European countries such as Germany, permit agency shops to prevent "free riders." These workplaces require non-union workers to pay unions that negotiate collective contracts on their behalf. These fees cannot include unrelated union activities, such as lobbying.
Corporate codes of conduct usually go beyond local regulatory frameworks in defining employees' rights and duties in respect of a particular employer. Codes of conduct represent a shift from labor relations to human resources management. This seeks to avoid conflict and industrial action such as strikes by fostering a more positive individual interaction with employees. Workers sometimess seek to opt out of collective bargaining, because unions tend to treat individual interests as subservient to the interests of the union as a whole. For example, strike breakers who opt out of industrial action are sometimes met with physical violence.
Although labor disputes existed in antiquity, such as in the Spartacus revolt (c. 109–71 BCE), the key thinkers behind the modern labor movement are probably Karl Marx (1818--1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820--1895).
A large number of international organizations exist to promote global labor rights including the International Labor Organization and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Labor rights are covered by Articles 20, 23 & 24 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948), including the right of association and the right not to be a member of a labor union.