The Right To Work

Do we have a right to a job?

The International Bill of Human Rights, the fuller expression of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, includes a ‘right to work under just and favourable conditions‘, together with a ‘right to an adequate standard of living’.  But does the community have an obligation to provide employment? Yes, if we believe that humanity is one – and it’s through the concept of trusteeship.

This was one of two particularly interesting discussion points at an exhilarating Bahá’í summer school this week.  I had enrolled on a course studying The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement prepared by the Bahá’í International Community for the UN Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995.  What became apparent through our study over the week was that its themes are possibly even more relevant now than they were then.

I will get to the point, but first let me share the context, which contributed to the richness of the discussions. This event was organised by the UK Bahá’í community (this one was at Wellington College; the other English summer school this year was held at the equally beautiful Ampleforth College) but wonderfully diverse. My small study group included people from China, Malaysia, Italy, Australia, Egypt and Switzerland. They included a physics teacher, a surgeon, a first year undergrad student, an art teacher, a prosthetist and orthotist, an unemployed architect, an engineer and a development academic (breast-feeding her young one). Ages ranged from twenty to eighty years, and it wasn’t simply Bahá’ís either. And our consultation was especially illumined by two young women who had taken courses with the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity.

The Prosperity of Humankind statement is immense and nearly impossible to summarise. Its starting point is that we are living at an extraordinary time, a time of a profound transformation in human consciousness: “The history of humanity as one people is now beginning’”.

The statement asserts that justice is the one power that can translate this “dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected”. It proposes that consultation – freed from prejudice and partisanship – must be “the operating expression of justice in human affairs”. It calls for the empowerment of humankind through a vast increase in access to knowledge, and a fundamental redefinition of human relationships. And it discusses the nature of power and authority in the “world that is struggling to be born”.

The statement asserts that we all share responsibility for every child born into the world:

“Since the body of humankind is one and indivisible, each member of the race is born into the world as a trust of the whole.”

This trusteeship, it says, constitutes the moral foundation for most of the economic and social rights which the United Nations has attempted to define.  It goes on to extend the notion of the right to work, beyond simply the rights to work under just conditions or an adequate income (ie through unemployment benefits) :

“The security of the family and the home, the ownership of property, and the right to privacy are all implied in such a trusteeship. The obligations on the part of the community extend to the provision of employment, mental and physical health care, social security, fair wages, rest and recreation, and a host of other reasonable expectations on the part of the individual members of society.” [italics added]

This right to employment has to be understood within the context of concomitant responsibilities for the individual to seek work and to give of their best. It’s not a call for state-sponsored sinecures but a recognition, as the statement also points out, that work is special.

“Unlike animals, which depend for their sustenance on whatever the environment readily affords, human beings are impelled to express the immense capacities latent within them through productive work designed to meet their own needs and those of others. In acting thus they become participants, at however modest a level, in the processes of the advancement of civilization. They fulfill purposes that unite them with others.”

We are, the statement asserts, so much more than simply consumers demanding goods and services that support employment within a circular economic system. We are spiritual beings and within human consciousness lie limitless latent potentialities.  We yearn for meaningful work. To the extent that work is consciously undertaken in a spirit of service to humanity, it is a form of prayer. And it is the capacity of every individual to see himself or herself in this light that can call up the magnitude of effort and commitment that the economic tasks ahead – in particular, the eradication of poverty – will require.

We need, in short, to re-conceptualise work and to develop new economic models appropriate for humanity’s future. And that’s not a question that should – or can, any longer – be left to the elites. This is a challenge to which we are all called. Women in particular have a crucial role to play – and that’s the second particularly interesting discussion point, to which I’m going to need to return in a future post.

Your comments, as ever, warmly welcomed.

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