Economic Justice is a Human Right

By Madeline Barnett

…is a human right is a series exploring how the fight for women’s rights is a fight for human rights. By analyzing and referencing the concept of “human rights” through a gender-specific lens, we do the ultimate service to the movement: we make the humanity of women inescapable and stress the intersectionality of the human race’s various needs. 


Last spring, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers. The event led to a slew of investigations and reports, revealing that approximately one million workers in Bangladesh suffer from illegal and unsafe work conditions.  While these reports were important to demanding accountability and change from manufacturers, many failed to examine a key statistic: Over 80% of these garment workers are women.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

These women risk their health and safety every day while earning only 14% of the living wage for the country. The influence of retailers, protestors, and the media led the country’s Ministry of Labor to increase the minimum wage and strengthen safety standards. However, women were largely left out of the solution process. On the contrary, when groups of female garment workers tried to form unions to advocate for fair labor rights and higher wages, many managers responded with threats and violence.

The battle for a living wage, safe work environments, and fair labor laws is not just a battle being fought abroad. In the United States, women make up over 64% of minimum wage workers.  This is not just a women’s issue but a family issue. According to the Center for American Progress, women are the main source of income for almost 66% of American families. For these families, the earnings of a mother working 40 hours a week at minimum wage can still be more than $4,000 below the poverty line.

Although fair wages is a vital part of the fight for economic justice, the issues expand far beyond the realm of minimum wage labor. In 2012, the US Census Bureau reported that women in the United States earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to male workers. While some cases of gender-based discrimination in the workplace are as straightforward as a male colleague with comparable experience and education earning more than his female colleague, this is only one factor affecting the wage gap.

Women’s career choices (and salaries) may be greatly altered by access to affordable childcare, inadequate workplace family leave policies, or lack of educational and training opportunities in male dominated fields. A female employee may be forced to choose part-time work over full-time because she cannot find affordable childcare or choose a “pink collar” job because she lacked access to STEM courses or training.

There are solutions in place to help increase economic security for women and their families. Senator Kristen Gillibrand has sponsored the “Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act” or the FAMILY Act, which would expand family and medical leave for young, part-time, and low-wage workers. This Act is based upon programs that are already successful at the state level in NJ and CA. In addition, The Paycheck Fairness Act, an update upon the Equal Pay Act of 1963, would strengthen penalties for wage discrimination, increase training and education programs, and create salary negotiation training for women.

On a global level, the International Labor Rights Forum’s Rights for Working Women (RFWW) campaign has worked with female workers, community leaders, and businesses throughout the developing world to create and implement solutions to discrimination and violence against women in the workplace. They work to promote the economic rights of women and their families by challenging barriers to organizing and unionization, such as the threats and violence female organizers faced in Bangladesh. The campaign also exposes labor rights violations and teaches women how to organize, negotiate, and fight to protect their rights. They even created a toolkit with case studies of labor rights violations, a glossary, and a list of potential actions.

One of the most important aspects of the RFWW campaign is that they define worker rights as “an essential component of human rights.” Whether we are advocating for living wages, safe work environments, affordable childcare, or the right to organize, all of these aspects of economic justice are a battle for human rights. So in celebration of Human Rights Day, I hope that we can examine the impact of these issues on women and families on a global scale and work together to implement the solutions necessary to eliminate them.

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