Workers’ rights have been established to formalize how workers must be treated at work. Laborers across industries should be familiar with these, so they can protect themselves from workplace maltreatment and demand what they’re legally entitled to.
Below, we’ll walk you through a list of some of the most important workers’ rights you should be aware of, as well as the laws that protect you.
Workers’ rights are a set of principles defined by the International Labour Organization. These aim to guarantee fair, healthy and equitable working conditions.
International labor standards have been set by treaties such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Articles 23 and 24, 1948) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).
ILO member states have incorporated the standards in these treaties into local legislation. This means that ILO treaty principles are enforceable in all 187 member states of the ILO.
Employment law is concerned with every aspect of work that relates to the employee–employer relationship. This covers workplace safety, wages, unemployment and other forms of compensation, working hours and pensions. It’s designed to encourage fair and ethical treatment in the workplace.
Employment law covers the specific rights and responsibilities that are unique to employers and employees. It’s important, therefore, for both parties to understand their rights and obligations.
Though individual states have specific laws governing labor within state borders, the federal government has also established laws that are applicable beyond state borders. Below are some of the primary federal laws governing labor rights in the United States.
Civil Rights Act
The Civil Rights Act (Title VII) prohibits employment discrimination based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The law classifies as unlawful any failure or refusal to hire, and attempts to fire, someone based on the attributes above.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of age. The law addresses the disadvantages older workers face in retaining and regaining employment by prohibiting arbitrary age discrimination.
Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating against or attempting to segregate qualified individuals based on physical or mental disabilities. The law prohibits employers from limiting or harming an individual’s employment opportunities on the basis of a disability.
Employee Retirement Income Security Act
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act requires that retirement plans provide participants with relevant information about the plan’s features and funding.
Equal Pay Act
Family and Medical Leave Act
Fair Labor Standards Act
The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a federal minimum wage, eligibility for overtime pay, recordkeeping and standards governing child labor. The law establishes a minimum wage that workers must be paid and reaffirms that wage discrimination on the basis of sex is prohibited.
Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act prohibits the discrimination of individuals in healthcare and employment based on their genetic information.
Immigration Reform and Control Act
The Immigration Reform and Control Act makes it illegal for employers to knowingly hire, recruit or refer an individual for a fee for employment in the US if that individual is unauthorized to work in the country. It also prevents employers from hiring without verifying an individual’s work status.
National Labor Relations Act
The National Labor Relations Act guarantees workers’ freedom of organization. The law affirms the rights of workers to organize, form and join labor unions and organizations, and to bargain collectively with chosen representatives.
Occupational Safety and Health Act
The Occupational Safety and Health Act establishes the US federal government’s authority to both set and enforce health and safety standards for the majority of the country’s workers. The law affirms the responsibility of employers to provide employees with a safe working environment.
Pregnancy Discrimination Act
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related health and medical conditions.
Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on an individual’s service in the military.
Within the US, the authority responsible for administering and enforcing laws regarding employee rights is the US Department of Labor.
The DOL enacts laws to improve working conditions, create and advance employment opportunities, and ensure that work-related rights and benefits are respected throughout the US.
The ILO has established 5 essential categories of fundamental principles and rights at work. These are:
- Freedom of association and recognition of the right to collective bargaining.
- The elimination of all forms of forced labor.
- The abolition of child labor.
- The elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation.
- A safe and healthy working environment.
Within these 4 categories, there are basic rights that apply to every worker. These 11 basic rights will be covered below.
1. Right to compensation equality
The right to compensation equality guarantees that employees who perform a role with equal work are entitled to equal compensation. It establishes that when a woman is being paid less than male coworkers for doing the same or equal work, the law must assume that this pay disparity is based on sex. The exception to this rule is when and if an employer can prove that this pay disparity is based on objective, material factors.
Equal pay applies not only to salary amounts, but to contract terms as well. It can include:
2. Right to join a union
The right to join a union was established by Article 11 of the Human Rights Act. It protects the freedom of employees to join an association that will represent their interests and fight to improve working conditions through collective bargaining.
No employer can intimidate an employee by attempting to prevent them from joining a union. Employers are also prohibited from imposing sanctions on employees who decide to unionize.
The following activities are protected under this right:
- Organizing and participating in meetings to discuss union matters.
- Devising strategies for representing workers’ interests.
- Reading and distributing union literature in non-work areas during non-work hours.
- Signing petitions on job-related matters, such as demanding an increase in benefits.
- Talking to other employees about unionization and enlisting coworkers.
3. Right to a safe workplace
The ILO describes a safe and healthy work environment as both a fundamental principle and a right at work. All employers must guarantee safe working conditions that will not unduly cause injury, sickness or death. In order to safeguard this principle, employees have the right to:
- Know the health and safety conditions of a company and receive instruction and training.
- Have input on the measures taken by employers take to guarantee health and safety.
- Refuse to perform tasks that could affect their health and safety.
Employers are responsible for providing employees with personal protective equipment and necessary training to ensure they can work safely.
Relevant conventions governing workplace safety include the Occupational Safety and Health Convention of 1981 and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention of 2006.
4. Right to a harassment-free workplace
A safe working environment also means one in which employees are protected against harassment. All companies are required to put policies in place that will protect employees against any form of harassment based on:
In the US, harassment is classified as a form of employment discrimination that violates sections of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Employers are required to establish policies that enforce expected behaviors towards building a harassment-free workplace. These policies should communicate that offensive behavior and harassment will not be tolerated.
In order to be considered unlawful, the conduct of the harasser must result in a working environment that is intimidating, hostile or offensive. This can include:
- Physical assault
- Interference with work performance
Importantly, the victim of these actions doesn’t have to be the harassed person. It can be anyone in the vicinity who was affected by the conduct of the harasser.
5. Right to a discrimination-free workplace
Employment discrimination describes the unfair treatment of applicants or employees on the basis of race, religion, sex, political opinion, and national or social origin.
No employer can deny employment to candidates or treat employees unfairly for any of the above reasons. The Americans with Disabilities Act additionally prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with a disability.
Below are a few examples of workplace discrimination:
- Assigning all employees of a specific race or ethnicity to a particular work area.
- Paying women less than men for equal work.
- Promoting employees based on their race or sex.
- Requiring tests that are unrelated to the job to screen out particular groups of applicants.
6. Right to family and medical leave
The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for family and medical reasons. The law entitles eligible employees to 12 workweeks of paid leave in a 12-month period for the following reasons:
- The birth of a child and to take care of a newborn.
- To care for an adopted child within one year of placement with an employee.
- To care for a spouse, family member, child or parent with a serious medical condition.
- The employee has a serious medical condition that prevents them from doing their work.
- An urgent need arising from an employee’s family member in cases where that family member is an active duty servicemember.
FMLA additionally entitles employees to 26 workweeks of leave during a 1-year period to care for servicemembers with serious injuries or illness.
7. Right to a minimum wage
The US federal minimum wage was established in 1938 with the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act. It was validated by the Supreme Court in 1941.
The federal minimum wage establishes that employers must pay employees a salary equal or above the lowest permitted national wage. Minimum wages are determined by factors such as poverty thresholds, prevailing wage rates and socio-economic indicators. Since these factors can differ regionally, minimum wages vary depending on location and are country-specific.
A few facts and figures:
- As of 2009, the federal minimum wage in the US was established at $7.25 per hour.
- States may set their own minimum wages, but these can’t be lower than the federal minimum wage.
- Tipped employees may be paid no less than $2.13 per hour, as long as that amount plus tips equals the minimum wage amount.
- Minimum wage for workers under the age of 20 is set at $4.25 per hour during the first 90 consecutive days of employment. After the completion of these 90 days, or after the employee reaches 20 years of age, they must receive the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
8. Right to a retaliation-free workplace
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibits retaliation against employees or job applicants for asserting their rights to be free of employment-based discrimination or harassment.
An employee’s ability to assert these rights is classified as “protected activity”. It’s unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees for exercising these protected activities, which may include:
- Filing or being a witness in an EEOC charge, complaint, investigation or lawsuit.
- Resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others from sexual advances.
- Discussing employment discrimination, including harassment, with supervisors or managers.
- Answering questions during employer investigations of alleged harassment.
- Refusing to follow orders that may result in discrimination.
- Requesting accommodation of a disability or for religious reasons.
9. Right to assessment and investigation of rights violation
You’re entitled to a proper investigation when you file a complaint over a rights violation you experienced. Your employer is obligated to communicate the outcome of this internal investigation to you.
As per the ILO, employers operating within ILO member countries are obligated to take measures to prohibit workplace violence and harassment. This includes establishing effective processes for verbalizing grievances in the workplace.
In the US, workers have the right to file a formal job discrimination complaint with the EEOC for any of the following reasons:
- Unfair workplace treatment due to race, color, religion or sex (this also includes pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation), national origin age, disability and genetic information.
- Being harassed at work for any of the above reasons.
- Denial of a workplace change that is necessary due to religious beliefs, disability, pregnancy, childbirth or any related medical conditions.
- Unfair treatment or harassment resulting from complaints made about job discrimination, or for assisting with a discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
10. Right to accommodation for employees with disabilities
All employees with disabilities must be granted access to the resources required for them to perform their jobs comfortably. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations toward the inclusion of employees with disabilities.
The accommodations thar employers are obligated to provide include those necessary for employees to perform their job. They also give employees with disabilities equal opportunities to benefit from training and advancements to their career.
In the US, disability rights are considered civil rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act strictly prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities, and guarantees that individuals with disabilities are granted the same rights as everyone else.
The ADA classifies persons with disabilities as having any of the following:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
- A history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission).
- A perception among others as having such an impairment (such as scars from a severe burn).
11. Right to strike
Strikes occur when employees refuse to work in order to protest an employer’s decision that impacts them negatively. Most unions use strikes as part of their negotiation process.
According to the National Labor Relations Board, striking employees are separated into two categories: economic strikers and unfair labor practice strikers.
Economic strikers engage in a strike to secure higher wages, shorter hours or better labor conditions. Unfair labor practice strikers are protesting unfair labor practices by their employer.
The right to strike is protected by law in most countries, but not all strikes are considered legal. To be considered legal, a strike must be held in order to:
- Protest an unfair labor practice by the employer.
- Demand better working conditions or higher salaries.
Nevertheless, even if the strike is considered legal due to its intended goal, it will become illegal if employees:
- Engage in violent acts or threats.
- Physically prevent others from entering or leaving the workplace.
- Refuse to leave the workplace.
In the US, the right to strike is protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which states that “Employees shall have the right […]to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”
If you feel that your rights in the workplace are being overstepped, take the following steps to make an official complaint:
1. Make sure you know your rights
Knowing your rights needs to be at the top of the list of things you need to do before filing an official complaint. Though we covered your basic workers’ rights above, specific countries and companies may have different employment laws, regulations and policies. Familiarize yourself with these regulations before proceeding with a complaint. Being well-informed is the first step in making a strong case.
2. Go through the appropriate channels
Companies usually have protocols for filing complaints. These protocols can normally be found in employee handbooks. Read up on proper procedure and follow as needed.
3. Be assertive
It’s important to stand by your beliefs and demand the rights you’re entitled to. It’s important to try to remain calm and professional, while also being clear about the reason for your complaint, and assertive regarding your rights.
4. Document your complaint
If the issue is not resolved within the company, you may need to seek guidance from a lawyer and take legal action. Make sure to keep all documentation that can be used as evidence of your company’s negligence or inaction, as this might be essential proof.
Workers in ILO member countries are guaranteed certain entitlements that employers can’t infringe upon. We’ve noted above what these are, but remember that workers’ rights are an issue that evolves with time.
Though employees must meet certain basic conditions for their employees, as the worker, it’s your responsibility to ensure they’re held accountable when they don’t. To sum up:
- In most developed countries, you’re guaranteed certain rights at work that can’t be infringed upon.
- Employers that infringe on these rights can be held accountable by law.
- You have the right to file a complaint about your employer without being punished.
- You have the right to unionize or strike without being punished by your employer.
Most importantly, familiarize yourself with relevant international and local labor laws. Doing so will help you understand when you’re being discriminated against at work, and will allow you to take educated, appropriate steps to deal with workplace issues.
Are there some employee rights you think everyone should know about? Share them with us in the comments section below!
Originally published on February 24, 2015. Contains contributions by Eugenia Adjigogovic.