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Worker Rights: An International Covenant?

Ron Wolff: The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), a multilateral treaty promoted by the United Nations, commits its parties to work toward stated objectives for all its citizens. As of December 8th, 160 countries had ratified it. Not us. The United States has "signed," but the Senate has never ratified.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), a multilateral treaty promoted by the United Nations, commits its parties to work toward stated objectives for all its citizens. As of December 8th, 160 countries had ratified it. Not us. The United States has "signed," but the Senate has never ratified.

Metalworker

Metalworker

Part III, Article 6, of the ICESCR says that the parties "recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in this country in January, 2010, was 9.7%, representing 14.8 million individuals. (Remember that to be considered unemployed, you must be seeking work and not "under-employed"; people working part-time and those who have at least temporarily given up the search are not counted.) This "average" unemployment rate fails to note significant differences among demographic groups. The unemployment rate for teenagers was 26.4%; for blacks, 16.5%, and for Hispanics, 12.6%. Since the start of the recession in December, 2007, "payroll employment has fallen by 8.4 million."

Part III, Article 11, of the ICESCR recognizes "the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions."

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce (Census Bureau), 13.2% of the U.S. population had income below the poverty threshold in 2008 -- 0.2% higher than the previous year. "The estimated number of people in poverty increased by 1.1 million to 39.1 million in 2008." The report notes that the statistics only partially reflect the impact of the recession that began in December of 2007 -- so the picture today is undoubtedly more bleak. Once again, averages mask vast differences among demographic groups. The poverty rate in Mississippi was 21.2%; in New Hampshire, it was 7.6%. In households that included married couples, the poverty rate was 5.8%; in single parent households, the rate was 26.6%. Among Caucasians, the rate was 8.2%; among blacks, it was 24.7%. 21% of children live in poverty, but 46% of African American children live in poverty.

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Part III, Article 12, of the ISESCR recognizes "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" and "the creation of conditions which would assure to all [people] medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness."

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, "lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States." A separate study conducted by Harvard University and published in the American Journal of Public Health cited a much higher figure: 44,800. (Statistics are from Wikipedia.) The U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than most of the world's industrialized nations, according to the CIA. The life expectancy "gap" is growing between the rich and the poor and as a function of educational level -- but narrowing between men and women and by race. Accoring to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks close to the bottom of nations for which data are available in terms of years of potential life lost due to lack of health care. On the plus side, the U.S. has an excellent record in terms of treatment of cancer.

Ron Wolff

Do you care to speculate about why the U.S. has not officially ratified the ICESCR? (Please don't tell me it's because the Heritage Foundation officially opposes it -- which it does.) Your comments are welcomed.

Ron Wolff

Ronald Wolff publishes the blog Musings from Claremont, where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.