Employment rights and human rights are two sides of the same coin

With the news of Shami Chakrabarti standing down as  director of Liberty,  the organisation and the cause it fights for  are much in the news.  The following post sets out the link  between employment rights and human rights.  It seems appropriate to give it a fresh airing now.

My starting point is that to separate out employment rights and human rights is to make a spurious distinction. Is there anyone who would disagree with that proposition? We do not take our human rights off like a coat and hang them on a peg when we walk through the door of the workplace.

So it is something of a mystery to me why there is only modest engagement with organisations like Liberty given that they are by far and away the most effective champion and protector of things like the Human Rights Act which is the umbrella over so many of the freedoms we believe are essential.

This week saw the annual Human Rights Awards ceremony, sponsored by Liberty and the Southbank Centre in London. And I was delighted to see presenting one of the awards Paul Kenny from the GMB (and of course the immediate past president of Congress plus vice-chair of TULO.)

But it was not the sprinkling of trade union representatives in the audience and on the platform that reinforced the two-sides-of-the-same-coin argument on Human Rights. No, I thought it was more those who were shortlisted and those who received the awards.

Take Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton for example. She received a lifetime achievement award and no one can say she didn’t deserve it.

She has spent her life so far campaigning to change attitudes towards disabled people and focusing on support rather than charity. She has been an EHRC Commissioner and is an active member of the House of Lords. In a fantastic acceptance speech she made the telling point that campaigning on an equality agenda is too limiting. Instead, she argued, the campaign should be based on a human rights agenda – that all people, whatever their attributes, have a right to certain standards of behaviour and standing in society. She ended her contribution with the rallying call of “all for one, one for all!”. We all would recognise that!

The Human Rights Campaigner of the Year award was shared between the Open Rights Group and Change.org. Both organisations are online campaigners, illustrating the power of social media and new technology to create and sustain social movements which have changed the political landscape. Runner-up in this category was the Blacklist Support Group  who have supported blacklisted construction workers. The relevance of these campaigning skills to our movement is inescapable, in my view.

The Human Rights “Close to Home” award went to Aaron Sonson, Satwant Singh Kenth and Gregory Poczkowski for the marvellous idea of developing a mobile app entitled “Stop and Search”. This gives information on the rights of people who are stopped and searched and allows people to report their experiences. Absolutely brilliant stuff in empowering young people about their rights.

And the Human Rights “Long March” award went to Hillsborough campaigners  who turned over 23 years of obstruction and deceit to achieve the possibility for justice for the victims of the tragedy-and in so doing open up the possibility of justice for others cheated of their rights by deliberate conspiracy and collusion between agencies of the state, such as at Orgreave.

If you think this was a shoo-in, then think again: Runners-up in this category were the Mau Mau Litigants , determined to see justice for the estimated 90,000 Kenyans killed or injured, and a further 160,000 detained by British officials during an uprising in the 1950s.

As a member of Liberty’s National Policy Council I attended the event and felt privileged humbled and inspired by these brave, courageous, tenacious not-to-be-put-off men and women. None of them sought fame, celebrity or notoriety. All of them had ample excuse to say “I’ve done enough.” Yet without them our world would be a poorer place, a more dangerous place. It would make it much harder for us to do our jobs as trade unionists, it would be much harder to be a trade unionist.

Because these people have done “the right thing” in terms of our values, that alone makes them deserving of support. But in practical terms, supporting these standard-bearers and supporting the human rights movement, means we are doing nothing more than supporting ourselves.

I think those are two very powerful reasons for joining Liberty. I hope you agree.

This piece was originally posted on the Unions 21 website “Union Home” in November 2012 http://www.unionhome.org.uk/?p=1625

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