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Human Rights Day

A fair wage: A human right

As the UN marks the 20th anniversary of Human Rights Day under the theme “20 Years: Working for your rights”, ILO News focusses on the challenges facing low-paid workers, which are at the centre of economic and social rights.

Article | 09 December 2013
GENEVA (ILO News) – In the Philippines, Mark Castañeda struggles to support his family on the equivalent of just over US$ 10.30 a day (458 pesos), even though he works full-time.

He is employed at a soap and shampoo manufacturing company and earns a wage which only covers his basic needs. If he falls sick he has no medical insurance to protect his income.

“My wife, my child, of course my grand-parents are here with me. They rely on me, on my work.”

On the other side of the world is Lorna Chesney, a single mother who lives in Northern Ireland and who works part-time at the local college.

“Life has been pretty tough really because my wages are very low. There was even a time when I went to the fridge and I found absolutely no food there and there wasn’t much in the cupboard either… so I thought, what have I got that I could sell? I came up with my wedding ring and an old silver coffee pot that my father had given me and I thought, well, I just have to sell these, which I did. I got six pounds for my wedding ring,” she explains.

Chesney used to have her own property business – before the economic crisis – but it folded and now her wages amount to just over US$ 245 a week. Before, she was quite comfortably off, but now she cannot afford to do the things she would like to do with her daughter.


A fundamental right

“One of the fundamental human rights is the right to a just remuneration that ensures an existence worthy of human dignity. The preamble to the Constitution of the International Labour Organization identifies the provision of an adequate living wage as one of the conditions for universal and lasting peace based on social justice,” says ILO senior economist, Patrick Belser.

“Although there is no universally accepted amount that defines such remuneration, it can be described as a wage from full-time work that allows people to lead a decent life considered acceptable by society,” he adds.

These ideals were crafted in 1919, yet nearly a hundred years later, millions of “working poor” are struggling to make ends meet.

In the developing world, in particular, many workers like Mark Castañeda consider that they never really had an adequate living wage. The pattern of economic growth in recent years in developing and emerging economies has not translated into “decent work” for all – work that meets people’s aspirations in their working lives, providing them with a decent income.

Even in advanced economies, where average income is much higher, the aspiration of an adequate living wage is not always fulfilled. Many people like Lorna Chesney lost their jobs or income during the global economic crisis and when they found new jobs, they were earning less than before. This trend has contributed to growing inequality in many countries.

Now that the recovery has begun – albeit slowly – many of those who are earning a decent wage are fearful of losing it. They are treading a fine line which, if they are thrown off balance, might push them into poverty.

Paul Mansfield, who lives in New Jersey in the United States, is one of many who live with this fear of losing his job. He has been with the same printing company for 25 years, working as a production manager. The company operates at a loss and so far he has managed to hold onto his job, but he wonders for how long.



In poor countries, the capacity of enterprises to pay is so low that wages are often lower than what many consider to be sufficient for living in dignity. Part of the solution, Belser says, is for governments to pursue policies that are conducive to economic growth and higher productivity, including improving opportunities for education and training.

“But the fact that there are working poor in rich countries shows that economic growth alone is not enough. Trade unions can also help the low paid get a fair wage,” he explains. “This is one of the reasons why the ILO is working to strengthen union rights worldwide. They are necessary to allow workers and employers to negotiate improvements in wages and conditions of work, and to ensure that wages increase in line with productivity. In addition, the ILO supports governments across the world to set minimum wages that take into account not only economic factors, but also the needs of workers and their families.”

“Living wage initiatives, such as those launched in the UK or US, as well as the steps taken by multinationals to implement living wages in their supply chains, have been helpful too. But they should not be seen as substitutes for union rights, minimum wages or collective bargaining,” adds Belser.

Studies have shown that paying employees a fair wage can benefit both employees and employers. It motivates staff to work more and better, and contributes to create peace in the workplace and higher productivity.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of UN Human Rights Day. The United Nations has highlighted, amongst others, “economic, social, cultural, civil, political rights and the right to development”. A fair wage is at the heart of these aspirations.