Labor Rights as Human Rights?

36 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2009 Last revised: 11 Jan 2010

Date Written: September 2, 2009


A large and growing number of labor law and industrial relations scholars have argued that labor rights ought to be understood and conceptualized as fundamental human rights. In a parallel movement, a growing number of labor rights organizations have begun to deploy human rights discourse and methods, while some international human rights scholars and organizations have also, although to a lesser degree, begun to direct some of their attention to questions of labor rights – an issue long left to unions and labor law scholars.

Few scholars have challenged this move to human rights discourse, however. In this essay I argue that there are important and salient differences between labor rights and human rights, not only in how these rights operate conceptually, but also and perhaps equally importantly, in how these rights are actualized by their respective movements. I argue that the strategies, politics, culture, and ideologies that inform human rights and much of the U.S. human rights establishment are quite at odds with those of labor rights movements, and a hard human rights turn by labor rights advocates risks eviscerating the fundamental commitments to economic justice and worker democracy in which the labor rights movement is grounded.

Keywords: labor law, labor rights, human rights, movements, labor movements

Suggested Citation

Kolben, Kevin, Labor Rights as Human Rights? (September 2, 2009). Virginia Journal of International Law, Vol. 50, pp. 449-484, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Kevin Kolben (Contact Author)

Rutgers Business School ( email )

1 Washington Park, #982
Newark, NJ 07102
United States
973-353-1648 (Phone)

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