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4.0 out of 5 stars Stand up (together) for your Rights, 19 April 2009
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This review is from: Are Worker Rights Human Rights? (Advances in Heterodox Economics) (Paperback)
About five years ago I took part in an exercise to consider how the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) eight core conventions could be incorporated into a multinational energy company's agreement on corporate social responsibility. The exercise was far from easy, as ILO conventions are an aspect of industrial relations that, although worthy, are difficult to relate to the everyday work experience. If I had been able to read McIntyre's book at that time the connection would have been much easier to make.

McIntyre approaches the issue of worker rights in a globalized economy by adopting a blend of institutional economics and a version of Marxism that plays down structural explanations. Taking this approach he questions the notion of human (natural) rights as a foundation for collective workers' rights because of their close association with the individual rather than the community. The association with the individual, and the modern human rights movement's lack of interest in economic and social concerns, has allowed what at first seems a rather counter-intuitive accommodation with neo-classical economics.

The point about human rights is driven home throughout the book by reference to the historical example of the anti-slavery movement's concern with the impact of slavery on individual freedom, while placing less emphasis on economic exploitation. The extension of individual rights in the workplace, starting in the 1960s, are shown to have become subordinated to the profit motive; so we have a situation where the notional rights of the individual increases while the ability of workers as a class to enforce them has diminished.

A better foundation for rights, for McIntyre the Institutionalist, are rights as conventions; that is rights as notions rooted in human experience and struggle, embodied in legislation and given force by courts in which all have confidence. On an international scale an authoritative institution is required that meets these needs. The ILO, via its conventions, is the institution McIntyre sees as having this potential.

If the ILO can be established in this authorative position, particularly, by the US government taking the conventions seriously, i.e. by signing the core conventions underpinning globalized employment standards. Workers internationally will then have the potential to act collectively in their dealings with capital. The various arguments for the US not signing up are discussed at length.

The last two chapters consider the ways NGOs and the corporate social accountability movement have and can continue to deal with labour standards internationally. The analysis uses Marx's account of factory inspectors in Capital as its reference point. The experiences of Victorian factory inspectors were similar to those of inspectors now operating on behalf of NGOs: class loyalty and accepted economic principles, now as then, pose the biggest obstacles to progress. However, the Victorian inspectors made breakthroughs by employing alliances across various interested parties. The Factory Acts that arose, in Great Britain, gave the working class the impetus to act that continued into the late twentieth century. The new inspectors might just provide a similar kick-start. The book closes by drawing together the various arguments developed by using the example of the Wal Mart supply chain to illustrate the possibilities of thinking locally to act globally, by way of consciousness-raising, to develop worker rights.

The book challenges the familiar discourses of both the right and left; in doing so it provides the industrial relations practitioner with a new ways to think about the rights of workers. Whether you are a human resources professional, a trade union negotiator or an interested worker: Are worker rights human rights? has insights that can be applied at the interface of rights and institutions from the local workplace to multinationals' supply chains. If you are in any way concerned about worker rights it is required reading.
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Location: London, UK

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