Low-Wage Workers Deserve Human Rights, Too

All people, including low-wage workers, are entitled to enjoy fundamental human rights.

All people, including low-wage workers, are entitled to enjoy fundamental human rights.

The recent celebration of Human Rights Day, which marked the 69th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), gave us all an opportunity to reflect on the rights that all workers are due.

Among other rights, the UDHR establishes that all people have the right to work, favorable work conditions, protection against unemployment, just and favorable remuneration, rest and leisure, reasonable limitations on working hours, and a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their families.

Yet despite the vital contributions they make to our economy and society, tens of millions of American low-wage workers, especially women and people of color, are denied those rights. You encounter these workers every day. They pour your coffee. They detail your car and bag your groceries. They care for your preschoolers or elderly parents. And they clean your hotel room or office when you’ve left for the day.

The federal minimum wage is unlivable.

A full-time worker paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 will earn just $15,080 a year — far below the income necessary for a family to secure an adequate living standard in even the least expensive area in the United States. Yet 2.2 million workers currently make the federal minimum wage or less.

Because structural racism and gender bias push women and people of color into low-wage jobs, the low minimum wage disproportionately burdens these groups. Almost two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. Moreover, people of color constitute about 40% of minimum wage workers even though they make up only about a third of the overall labor force.

In every industry, low-wage workers face unpredictable work schedules that undermine their financial stability.

Low-wage workers often have limited or no advance notice of their work schedules, and their scheduled work hours and days may change substantially week-to-week. To make matters worse, many of these jobs require workers to always be on call, even though the job does not provide full-time hours or a living wage.

Uncertainty in number of work hours and income can be devastating. It means families are less likely to be able to cover their basic living expenses. It makes finding child care difficult and negatively affects children’s cognitive and behavioral development. It also makes it difficult for workers to hold a second job, attend or save for school, maintain a long-term financial plan, or plan for retirement.

Minority workers disproportionally have unpredictable working schedules. Despite sharing similar levels of education and age as their white counterparts, Black and Latino retail workers are driven into the low-paid positions most likely to involve erratic scheduling and inadequate hours. Roughly half of Blacks and 46% of Latino workers received their hours with a week or less of notice, compared to 41% of workers overall.

Low-wage workers generally lack paid family and medical leave, which hinders their right to work and be protected from unemployment.

Only 5% of workers in the bottom quarter of earners have paid family and medical leave through their employer, compared with 21% in the top quarter. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does provide for unpaid family and medical leave, but many low-wage workers are not eligible for FMLA and, even if covered by the law, many cannot afford to take it. The inability to receive pay while taking time off work to care for themselves or a loved one puts workers at a significant financial risk.

The lack of paid leave disproportionally affects low-income women and their families. Mothers without a high school degree are 3.5 times less likely to have received some kind of paid parental leave as compared to those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet low-income women workers are more likely to be a primary breadwinner for their family. Women with no access to paid family and medical leave are more likely to lose income, and lack of paid leave can also limit a child’s health and development.

Low-wage workers deserve to have their human rights protected.

On this anniversary of the UDHR, the United Nations is conducting a fact-finding tour to examine whether people living in poverty in the United States enjoy fundamental human rights. The Shriver Center has urged that the United States Congress raise the federal minimum wage to a livable wage, pass legislation that curtails unpredictable scheduling, and institute a national paid family and medical leave program. Advancing these and other progressive public and workplace policies would be an important step forward towards addressing poverty and ensuring the human rights of low-wage workers.

About the Author

Militza Pagán
Militza Pagán
Militza Pagán

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