Blue Star Strategies provides this excerpt from an upcoming chapter in Dorothee Baumann-Pauly & Justine Nolan's "Business and Human Rights: From Principles to Practice" (Routledge, 2016) by Blue Star Senior Advisor Barbara Shailor–at a time when many labor rights abuses that have come to light, from the Rohingya in Myanmar to the workers on Thai fishing boats. This excerpt provides a look at the history of labor rights and makes the case for an ongoing labor movement.

Worker organizations–unions and new forms of worker mobilization–are central forces in developing human rights and corporate accountability.

Untrammeled competition among businesses can lead to a race to the bottom. Thus, markets are always bounded by laws–to protect competition (anti-trust law), to enforce agreements (contract law), and to protect other social values (environmental, consumer, and worker protection laws). The struggle to define those legal boundaries is often contested. And workers and their organizations and allies are inevitably the driving force in much of that effort.

Worker organization grew with the advent of the industrial era. Early efforts took many forms and were often met with fierce resistance. In the U.S., early unions were ruled literally unconstitutional, treated as a violation of the freedom of contract. But eventually, in the U.S. as in other advanced industrial nations, unions grew, becoming in most nations the largest, independent membership organizations outside of the church.

Out of worker struggles came the basic concepts of economic rights–decent hours and wages, prohibitions of child labor, protections against discrimination, workplace safety, and eventually health care and retirement security, and, central to advancing all of these, the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Often progress came from an outraged response to tragedy. The horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire–where a largely female immigrant workers faced a raging fire with the doors of their factory locked and had little choice but to jump to their deaths–triggering massive demonstrations that transformed labor laws in New York and the country.

Worker rights increasingly were seen as central to deepening democracy. Workers organized at the workplace–often across lines of national origin, race, religion and gender–and learned democracy in practice, even while joining together to gain greater voice outside the workplace in the political debate.

This understanding was increasingly incorporated into international and national laws. Haunted by the horrors of World War I, world leaders understood that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice,” and that social justice depended upon a strong voice for workers. That belief was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles, formally ending the war, and the founding of the International Labor Organization in 1919, providing workers with an equal seat at the table with governments and employers…

As globalization accelerated in the 1980’s, companies found they could escape regulation and counter worker pressure by outsourcing work abroad. Stable regimes with disciplined workforces and few regulations attracted investments.

Once more, democratic movements, mirroring the earlier campaigns of workers and progressives at the turn of the century, were needed to extend the guarantee of basic human rights. Again worker movements were central to those struggles. Again workplace tragedies and abuses stoked the outrage that drove the debate for labor and human rights for workers around the world.

These movements of labor, human right activists and students launched campaigns to “name and shame” companies and industries that did not recognize basic human rights. Activists began to expose extreme labor abuses in factories producing for well-known global brands, holding corporations responsible for their suppliers, demanding changes in the way companies do business around the world. As the movement grew, some corporate leaders understood the need to respond to the pressure. New initiatives were launched to address business practices and new commitments were made to monitor employment practices. Many of these initial responses were public relations gestures, but over time more lasting and successful programs have begun to develop through multi-stakeholder processes…

Driven by increased investigative journalism and expanding campaigning by NGO’s, labor and student movements across the world - new initiatives for broader civil society participation have urged governments, trade unions and businesses come together to improve conditions for workers.

These efforts take form in countries across the globe, particularly those that are most vulnerable to corporate pressures to adopt “low road” economic policies.

Burma is a test case for internationally respected worker rights… In 2012 the Burmese government, anxious to come into compliance with ILO conventions on forced labor, revised parts of it labor laws and the first steps were made to lift sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU. This accelerated a political and economic reform process, which is continuing today and includes drafting new labor law legislation. These rights will be essential to development of a sustainable and equitable economy. With the lowest wages in the region and a large unemployed workforce, international companies could easily take the low road and profit from an undeveloped labor relations and regulatory systems.