What are Labor Rights?

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  • Written By: Felicia Dye
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Images By: Pavel Losevsky, Marzky Ragsac Jr., Andreas Karelias, Kheel Center
  • Last Modified Date: 06 February 2020
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Authorities outline labor rights, also known as workers' rights, to protect employees. Workers’ rights are often a matter of law and can require employers to do certain things and prevent them from doing other things. While labor rights can greatly vary from one place to another, some common examples include the right to timely payment of wages, the right to breaks, and the right to safe and humane working conditions.

Since labor rights are generally embodied in law, a worker cannot be denied her rights when they apply. If an employer attempts to deny or violate employees’ rights, this is generally an offense that can be remedied through a special procedure or a court. Many jurisdictions make it illegal to take action against an individual who aims to protect her labor rights or who reports an employer for violating them.

The absence of labor rights could create difficult and unfair situations for employees. History holds many examples of ways employers abuse their positions. This includes forcing employees to work excessive hours without proper rest and without paying them in a proper or timely fashion. Without laws to provide leverage, in many instances, people would be helpless even when they recognized the injustice of their situations.


Many workers’ rights are the result of the efforts put forth by labor unions. These are groups that act on behalf of groups of workers to ensure they are treated fairly. These groups also act as watchdogs to prevent the violation or denial of the labor rights of their members.

All employees may not have the same labor rights even though they are in the same location. In the United States (US), for example, states are generally allowed to form the majority of workers’ rights, which apply to employees within their jurisdiction. The Federal Railway Labor Act, however, often supersedes those state laws, creating special conditions for employees such as railway workers and airline workers.

Having several jurisdictions of workers' rights is not unique to the US. In Canada, for example, the federal government outlines some laws while provinces are granted the liberty to outline others. The European Union (EU) also outlines certain labor guidelines for its members, while allowing individual countries the authority to outline others.

Certain labor rights are often denied to certain groups because granting them presents the likelihood of more harm than denying them. In South Africa, for example, retail workers have a right to strike. Military personnel and doctors, however, are denied this right because their duties to society are fundamental.


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