Workers’ Rights: Everything You Should Know

Are you clued up on the rights you have as an employee? Our guide will walk you through the most essential labor laws and policies.

Workers' rights portrayed with fists raised in the air

Work is a big part of most people’s lives. Regardless of whether you love your career or you dread showing up to work every morning, there are certain workers’ rights that your employer must guarantee. It is vital that you are familiar with these, so you can protect yourself and demand what you are legally entitled to.

Below, we will walk you through a list of some of the most important workers’ rights that are there to protect you as an employee.

What are workers’ rights?

Workers’ rights are a set of principles defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency that aims to guarantee fair, healthy and equitable work conditions for employees by setting forth international labor standards through conventions and treaties, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Articles 23 and 24, 1948) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).

The ILO has 187 countries as its members, which have incorporated these principles into their own legislation. This means that these principles, which encompass a large array of human rights, from the right to safe work conditions to protection against discrimination, are enforceable in all countries that are members of the ILO.

Therefore, as an employee your rights are safeguarded, and you can demand that your employer abides by these international labor laws.

What are my rights at work?

These are the basic rights you need to know:

1. Compensation equality

Compensation equality means that employees that perform the same job and are required to have the same abilities and training to perform it must perceive equal compensation. This applies not only to the base salary but also to bonuses, overtime pay, equity and any other form of compensation you may be granted by your employer.

This has been a recurring concern in many countries, with women and members of minority groups usually making a lower salary than their male counterparts fulfilling the same role.

2. Freedom to join a Union

This right is based on Article 11 of The Human Rights Act, and it protects the freedom that employees have to join an association that can represent their interests and get them more beneficial working conditions through collective bargaining.

No employer can intimidate an employee to prevent them from joining a union, nor impose any sanctions or consequences for those employees that decide to do it.

The following activities are protected under this right:

  • Organising and participating in meeting to discuss union matters and devise strategies for representing the union’s interests
  • Reading and distributing union literature in non-work areas (such as parking lots) during non-work hours
  • Signing petitions on any job-related matter, such as demanding an increase in benefits
  • Talking to other employees about the union and asking them to join at free will

3. Safe workplace

All employers must guarantee safe working conditions that will not cause employees to be injured, sick or killed. In order to safeguard this principle, employees have the right to:

  • Know about health and safety conditions of a company, and receive as much information, instruction and training as needed to ensure their health and safety
  • Participate in matters that could affect their health and safety at the workplace and have an input on the measures to be taken by the employer in this regard
  • Refuse to perform tasks that could affect their and others’ health and safety.

Moreover, your workplace must comply with occupational safety and health standards that have been defined for your activity. For example, there are specific rules for the safety of workers who enter confined spaces and others to prevent exposure to harmful substances like asbestos and lead.

Your employer is also responsible for providing you with any personal protective equipment and training you may need to ensure you can work safely in a hazardous environment.

4. Harassment free workplace

A safe working environment also means that employees are protected against harassment. All companies are required to put policies in place that will protect employees against any form of harassment based on:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Nationality
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Quid pro quo

Companies must set forth policies that address what are the expected behaviours towards building a harassment free workplace, and what the consequences are for those who go against these policies and inflict harm on others.

5. Non-discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, religion, sex, political opinion, national or social origin, and other grounds must be strictly forbidden.

Moreover, employers cannot discriminate against a qualified individual who has a disability.

When employers make decisions regarding compensation, hiring, firing or promoting an individual, they cannot discriminate against them based on any of the attributes mentioned above.

In order to ensure this principle is enforced, companies need to enforce non-discrimination policies and clearly detail the resources employees have at their disposal if they feel discriminated against.

6. Family and medical leave

Family and medical leave involves your employer protecting your job if you need to take leave for a medical condition or to take care of family members that may have a serious health condition. This means you can take time off for a period of time without jeopardising your job.

In general, qualifying conditions would be an incapacitating illness, a condition requiring hospitalisation, and childbirth.

The amount of time an employee can get for family leave varies from country to country, and so do the conditions of these leave periods. Some countries offer paid leave of up to six months, or even a year, while others can only grant unpaid leave.

Additionally, some employers offer paid time off, and other more favourable perks, as part of their benefits package, although they are not obligated to.

7. Minimum wage

Employers must pay employees a salary equal or above their country’s national minimum wage, which is determined by factors such as poverty threshold, prevailing wage rates, and socio-economic indicators (i.e., inflation, employment figures).

Minimum wages are enforced to guarantee that employees earn a liveable salary, and to make sure they are compensated with dignity and fairness.

Minimum wages vary depending on location; some are defined country-wise, and others are specified for each state or territory.

8. Retaliation-free workplace

Employers must give assurance that employees will not suffer retaliation, such as wrongful termination, if they come forward with information of wrongdoing in the company that may or may not affect them personally.

Employees that inform of such activities are called whistle-blowers and need to be granted confidentiality as part of protection against retaliation, since coworkers may ostracise them or create a hostile working environment for them if they feel affected by the report that was filed. 

9. Rights violations assessment and investigation

If you file a complaint, or report a situation that violates your rights, you are entitled to a proper investigation conducted by your employer. Your employer is also obligated to communicate the outcome of this investigation to you.

This goes both for what you may consider less harmful violations, like an unfair performance review, to more serious complaints like those involving harassment.

Usually, employers are required to engage a third party to conduct these investigations so as to have an unbiased person in charge.

10. Accommodation for employees with disabilities

All employees with disabilities must be granted access to the resources required for them to perform their jobs comfortably.

This includes providing reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. These accommodations should include not only those necessary for the employee to perform their job but also to give employees with disabilities equal opportunity to benefit from any trainings and advance their career.

Failure to comply to these requirements may constitute discrimination and the employee could take legal action against their employer.

11. Right to strike

Strikes occur when employees refuse to work in order to protest an employer’s decision that impacts them negatively. For example, closing a branch and causing major loss of jobs or the failing to grant safe working conditions. Most unions use strikes as part of their negotiation process.

Even though the right to strike is protected by law in most countries, not all strikes are considered legal. To be considered legal, a strike must be held to:

  • Protest an unfair labor practice by the employer
  • Demand better working conditions or higher salaries

That said, even if the strike is considered legal due to its object, it will become illegal if employees:

  • Engage in violent acts or threats
  • Physically preventing others from entering or leaving the workplace
  • Refusing to leave the workplace

How do I make an official complaint?

If you feel that your rights in the workplace are being overstepped, take the following into account in order to make an official complaint:

1. Make sure you know what your rights are

Although we covered your basic workers’ rights above, your country or your company may have different employment laws, regulations and policies. Familiarise yourself with them before proceeding with a complaint, so that you are well-informed and prepared.

2. Go through the appropriate channels

Companies usually have instructions for filing a complaint in their employee handbooks. Ensure that you read up on proper procedure and follow suit.

3. Be assertive

It’s important to stand by your beliefs and request the rights you are entitled to. Remain calm and professional while at the same time being clear about the reason of your complaint.

4. Document your complaint

If, for any reason, the matter is not resolved within the company, you may need to seek support and guidance from a lawyer to take legal action. Keep all documentation that can be used as evidence of your company’s negligence and inaction towards the issue as this might be essential proof.

Final thoughts

Taking the time to educate yourself on your rights at work is crucial and will equip you with the necessary knowledge to deal with any situation that may arise.

While the list above will help you establish the necessary foundations, but it’s also wise to read up on local laws and policies regarding your workplace rights.

Can you think of any other important employee rights that everyone should know about? Share them with us in the comments section below!

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 24 February 2015.