Workers’ rights are human rights

Carole Ewart looks at what needs to be done to make human rights effective

Human rights defenders and union activists are united by the shared experience of being demonised by a UK government desperate to justify its decision to abolish the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). The HRA enables us to assert and enforce rights including freedom of expression, the right of peaceful assembly and the right to form and to join unions for the protection of our interests.

There is a growing line of people who have been demonised by the UK Government including disabled people who are diagnosed unfit to work by NHS GPs but judged able to work by private contractors, single parents who are portrayed as scroungers on welfare payments, migrants who are blamed for the lack of jobs for ‘locals’ and unemployed people promoted as work shy to hide the fact there are no jobs for them. To paraphrase Pastor Niemöller, if we accept that certain groups should not have human rights, who will be there to stand up for our human rights when we need them?

Divide and rule is an old tactic. GB polling by the Equality and Diversity Forum (EDF) in 2013 concluded 22% are pro-human rights, 41% are conflicted, 11% uninterested and 26% anti. The sample size from Scotland, although small, confirms similar views although the results may have changed given the referendum and the general election.

The Scottish Parliament has declared a view for Scotland in 2014 by voting 100 votes to 10, that it:

“re-affirms and re-asserts, on behalf of all of the people of the community of Scotland, the inalienable human rights and fundamental freedoms that are the common inheritance of all members of humanity; recalls the particular importance to the Parliament, through its founding statute, its founding principles and in all aspects of its day-to-day work, of human rights in general and of the European Convention on Human Rights in particular; acknowledges the constitutional responsibility of the Parliament to uphold the principles and values expressed in the convention and to respect, protect and realise the rights and freedoms that it enumerates; further acknowledges the importance of that work not only in relation to Scotland, but also in establishing and maintaining standards of best practice, which provide a benchmark for human rights elsewhere in the world; expresses its confidence in, and support for, the Human Rights Act 1998 as a successful and effective implementation of the convention in domestic law, and believes that the principles and values that inform the convention, the rights and freedoms that it enumerates and the Acts that incorporate it into law, should be a source of unity and consensus across the whole of society and should enjoy the unequivocal backing of all who are committed to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

It is ironic the SNP is talking about what unites us across the UK just as Cameron and the Conservatives are continuing the tradition of Tory Prime Ministers by promoting disharmony in the UK – reminiscent of Mrs Thatcher quoting St Francis of Assisi when she entered No 10 in 1979 and achieving quite the reverse for so many people in Scotland. Thus, ‘where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ became ‘where there is harmony, may we bring discord’.

Cameron’s intentions on human rights are detailed in the ‘Queen’s Speech briefing pack which states:

The Government will bring forward proposals for a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. This would reform and modernise our human rights legal framework and restore common sense to the application of human rights laws, which has been undermined by the damaging effects of Labour’s Human Rights Act. It would also protect existing rights, which are an essential part of a modern, democratic society, and better protect against abuse of the system and misuse of human rights laws.

That selective strategy contradicts the foundation of international law which is the equal enjoyment of human rights. For example, as the UK Government has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), each of us is entitled to basic economic, social, cultural, civil, political and environmental rights from which we realise our dignity as individuals.

The rights to a decent standard of living, social insurance and highest attainable standard of physical and mental health are to be progressively realised to the maximum extent of the UK’s available resources. Collective rights are also set out including the right to join a union. Such human rights sit uncomfortably with the UK Government’s austerity strategy. There is clear political gain in portraying human rights as a liability so the UK government can promote an ideology rather than being constrained in practice by international human rights standards.

The potential clash in the design of UK austerity measures with their impact on people has been raised by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It has just published a list of 32 ‘Issues’ that the UK must answer, in writing, prior to next year’s formal Hearing on compliance with ICESCR.

The issues include an expectation that a new Bill of Rights will include all the ICESCR rights, questions about the content and impact of the Trade Union Bill, progress on measures to combat blacklisting, actions to ensure health and safety at work, concrete steps taken to ensure welfare changes do not ‘disproportionately impact disadvantaged and marginalized groups and individuals’ and inequality in pay and conditions.

So yes, the UK Government is in difficulty internationally about its human rights record, and civil society can take some credit – the Human Rights Consortium Scotland’s (HRCS) 20 pages written submission included evidence from the STUC, UNISON and Unite, and UNISON paid for the project as the HRCS has no grant income.

Another development is in respect of private sector. The UN recognises the role of private companies to adopt a ‘respect, protect and remedy’ framework on human rights within their sphere of influence. No longer is it just up to governments to deliver on human rights. The UN’s Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on business and human rights set out how that should be done and has prompted the Scottish Government to fund a national baseline assessment. Private companies, located in Scotland, will be examined and a final report, on their human rights activity internationally and domestically, is expected by the end of March 2016.

Ensuring human rights principles and standards are respected and promoted in the design, delivery and funding of public services will re-balance power between people and government, and deliver a fairer society. People can assert their rights and the government, via public sector agencies, has a duty to proactively deliver those rights. Unsurprising then that politicians have invested so much effort into convincing us that human rights are the problem rather than the solution to the injustices that face too many people in our rich nation.

Mainstreaming human rights in Scotland will rebalance the power relationships between government and people, and between businesses and workers to make our democracy stronger and poverty a thing of the past. That does not need to be a party political issue. As we campaign to defend the HRA and gather evidence to submit to the UN next year on economic and social rights, we also need to achieve what the Scottish Parliament voted for in 2014 ‘establishing and maintaining standards of best practice, which provide a benchmark for human rights elsewhere in the world’. The challenge remains to make the rhetoric a reality which positively impacts on people in Scotland.

Carole Ewart is a public policy and human rights consultant. The full paper on which this article is based can be found at