Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Special rapporteur to UN: bring labour rights and human rights together

The state is the only force large enough to defend workers’ rights from big business, so why is it so often batting for the wrong team?

Amol Mehra Penelope Kyritsis Maina Kiai
1 November 2016

UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai. United States Mission Geneva/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nd)

Maina Kiai, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, presented his fourth report to the UN General Assembly on 21 October 2016. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with Maina after his speech in the General Assembly and discussed, along with his colleague Amol Mehra of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, the main themes of the report as well as the window they see for the human rights and labour movements to finally come together.

Penelope Kyritsis (BTS): What should be the state’s role in protecting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the workplace?

It's one thing to have the laws and nothing to implement them, but something else entirely to let violators know there is a price to pay.

Maina Kiai: I think the state is paramount. It has to enact laws. It has to enact policies. It has to say – in a very public, moral way – that we must protect people and that people must have the right to assemble and associate. It also has to enact and give a level of accountability. It's one thing to have the laws and nothing to implement them, but something else entirely to let violators know there is a price to pay. That's where we're lacking a lot. Moreover, the largest employer of people in most of the world is the government. So it even needs to work on this internally. It needs to work on itself, and then look at those other employers that exist – including at the domestic level with domestic workers, which we talked about today. So the role of the state is paramount.

Amol Mehra: I would absolutely agree. I think the states set the conditions for the market. So they must put out front and centre that these issues are rights that need to be realised, and build policy around them. They are the duty bearers of human rights at the end of the day. 

Penelope Kyritsis (BTS): And so what should be done to make this more effective?

Amol: One of the things that we'd like to see more of, certainly from the civil society side, is prosecutions and criminal sanctions against companies, or officials, or others who may be violating human rights. We'd like to see more robust enforcement through criminal sanction. I think that would shift the paradigm much faster than any other way.

Penelope: Speaking of human rights, why do you think that labour rights have been treated as being separate from human rights historically?

With labour and human rights both on the defensive, this is the best time to come together.

Maina: I think that is almost accidental. It happened over time, people got comfortable within their silos. I like to say that, perhaps if we stopped seeing our work in different sectors as a project, or as work, and started seeing it as a struggle for human dignity, we'll inevitably come together. I think this has come up for a number of reasons, but if you look back at history, all the major successes have always resulted when diverse movements and diverse alliances come together. People come from different aspects and say, 'from this perspective we care about this cause, so let's move it forward'.

I think that's where we need to go. I feel now that with labour on the defensive, and with human rights on the defensive, this is the best time for us to come together. Hopefully we can then do things differently, including by bringing the business side in as well. One of the things we have to do from both labour and human rights is put pressure on business to join us as an ally, as opposed to being the enemy.

Maina: Right now, business is on the side of the state. It has to be able to join that debate, and be pressured into joining. That's a difficult equation, as human rights and labour can barely talk to business until they come together.

Amol: Maina's last report here is emblematic of the leadership gap, and the role leadership can play in bringing these communities together. To do a report on labour rights issues for the human rights council is extremely important. It sends a signal to those human rights advocates that use the mechanisms of the human rights council that they should be paying attention to these issues too. So it's bridge building, and it's helping to fill the leadership gap.

Penelope: With your mandate ending in May 2017, what message do you have for your successor?

Maina: The message is this: everybody has their own style, their own agenda, their own vision. But for me the big thing is that you have to understand that the freedom of assembly and association is basically about civil society, writ large. That's your constituency, and your target, and your people are going to move within civil society. So labour unions, movements, business people, NGOs, women's rights groups – they're the ones you need to keep happy. They're the ones you're working for. Then everything else will come through when you focus on that.

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