In discussing the issue of human rights in relation to the Disability Rights Movement, James I. Charlton asks in Nothing About Us Without Us, “Is the right to work a basic human right?” This question is raised in a peculiar context, however, because it is preceded by a description of democracy as meaning being included in decision making, equality as meaning the fair distribution of wealth, and sovereignty as meaning the even distribution of international power. Within this context, Charlton asks, “Is the right to work a basic human right?”
The more liberally-minded amongst us are likely to jump to a quick ideological cry of “Yes!” Sadly, they’re wrong; but luckily, they’re right, too.
Work is both “employment, as in some form of industry, especially as a means of earning one’s livelihood” and “exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil.” We all have the right to exert ourselves in order to accomplish something and the vast majority of us are capable of some form of work. We are not all entitled to be provided with employment, however, which is what most people mean when they talk about a right to work.
In the United States, employment occurs when an individual or an organization with the means to pay someone and with the need to hire someone to do a job selects someone to do a specific kind of work for a specified pay. In the United States, this occurs within a relatively free market: people do not have to select someone they do not want to hire and people do not have to agree to do a job they do not want to do. If employment were considered a human right, then neither of these could be true.
Consider a phenomenon that has been said to occur in the military, particularly with regards to draftees. A person who has experience and training in the food service industry is selected to work on the front line with a gun in his hand; a person who has little or no experience or training in the (civilian) food service industry is selected to work as an army cook. The drafted solider has no choice but to do the job to which he was assigned—or to leave without permission (go AWOL) and risk being shot as a deserter. Neither the commander (employer) nor the soldier (employee) has much choice in the matter.
Outside of the military, the world is rife with similar examples that can be equally disturbing. There are countries that assess children (usually excluding people with disabilities or other undesirable traits, including, possibly, female anatomy or minority status) for a variety of career tracks. Their education and opportunities are shaped by the results of these assessments. They are practically guaranteed a job, as long as they submit to the status quo and apply themselves in the education and career track in which they have been placed.
In both of these examples the right to work is assured, as long as you conform to the position to which you are assigned, but this right is not a human right, because many people are excluded from the process of assigning work based on gender, ability, nationality, ethnicity, and/or political ideology (of self or of family, friends, and notable associates). Furthermore, it is not only the person’s work that is impacted. Many other freedoms are given up to ensure this privilege exists, namely the freedom to make your own decisions about your life.
On the other hand, we all have the right to exert ourselves. Most of us have the ability to exert ourselves in a way that—with creativity, tenacity, and other advantageous attributes—can be used to earn a living. Often this living may exist in the form of employment; however, some of us have to be more entrepreneurial and to create the opportunities we need to make our living through self-employment. This is the only way to ensure our “right” to work doesn’t take away unalienable rights from others, including rights that are legally protected by the Constitution.