Is there such thing as a “right to a job”? Working gives us a sense of identity, dignity, and a place in society. At the extremes, it is the difference between making ends meet or not. Since the early 1800s, the concept of a “Right to Work” has existed, and since 1948 has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, the Right to Work is usually conceived of as a negative right (a freedom from interference in the process of finding employment, rather than a guarantee of a job). After the Second World War, however, governments often considered it one of their primary tasks to guarantee “full employment”.

This might seem abstract and philosophical, but it matters. Disruptive new technologies such as automation and machine learning are predicted to have a huge impact on the way we work, so it’s important we have a clear conception of what it means to be employed. Should governments work to guarantee work for as many people as possible? Or should they just stay out of the way?

What do our readers think? We had a comment from Eric, who argued in no uncertain terms that he believes work should be considered a ‘privilege’:

A job is not a ‘Right’, it’s a privilege. The problem some people have is they think they have a right to everything, they have a right to work even though they are stupid, they have a right to have children even though they cannot afford to support them, they have a right to live off others even though they are too lazy to get off their backsides.

When did gifts, favours and privileges become rights? You don’t have the “right” to live off my taxes. Sorry, I’m not a socialist, I work bloody hard, run my own business, don’t take hand-outs, and came from nothing. If you can’t or won’t do the same then tough!

Most of our readers would probably find Eric’s comments too strongly put, even offensive (particularly the implication that people are unemployed because they are ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’). Nevertheless, we wanted to get a response, so we put his comment to Esther Lynch, Deputy General Secretary at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). How would she respond?

I would say to Eric that he’s quite wrong to think that people who haven’t got a job don’t want one. You only have to look at the number of applications for jobs when they’re advertised – hundreds of people will apply for, say, a job advertised in the local supermarket or coffee shop. A lot of people will apply for those jobs.

Then, when people get jobs, they work really hard. They turn up, and they bring all of themselves to work; they bring everything that they have invested in themselves, whether it’s the education that they’ve got, the fact they’ve bought their clothes to go to work, they’ve paid their bus fair or transport to go to work, their car park, their childcare, they’ve paid all of that and they turn up and do a good day’s work. And to say that’s a privilege I think is so out of touch with the reality of working people’s lives. And it’s part, actually, of what’s gone wrong with our society, in that we don’t seem to be able to have a full understanding and empathy for the people who are working for us. And I read more and more about narcissistic managers who only see themselves, they don’t see their workforce, they don’t see how important to society it is that there’s a role for everyone and that everyone is respected and given a chance and opportunity.

Also, certainly, people who are finding it hard to get a job, the last thing they need is that type of disrespectful attitude. What they need is assistance to get retraining, to get the chance of work experience. Certainly, that’s what the trade unions in Europe are trying to do; trying to ensure that Member States around Europe don’t treat people as if you just pick them up and put them on the scrap heap when it doesn’t suit you anymore. That rather, you have a proper approach that identifies workers whose skills won’t be needed because they’re going to be replaced by artificial intelligence or robots, and you already start investing courses for people, time off for people to do those courses. And you don’t see that as people getting something they’re not entitled to, that instead you see that it’s good for society if we have everybody in society able to actively contribute the best they can, and for them to achieve what everybody wants in life, which is that you do a good week’s work and get a good week’s pay.

To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think tank based in the UK. What would he say?

It’s a rather hard-edged way of putting it, and I certainly wouldn’t put it like that and, in fact, I wouldn’t actually agree with all of that.

I think he’s right to say that if you are unemployable, how can you really think that you have a right to work? If we’re going to go to extremes like that and, let’s say – rather theoretically – that there are people who are simply unemployable, what do we do in that situation?

Well, I don’t know what Eric would do with them – perhaps he’d leave them to starve, I don’t know. I believe in having a welfare state to provide a safety net for people, not to necessarily create jobs for people, although I do actually think that people are better off in work than they are on benefits, so we don’t have people dying in the streets. And I don’t think that’s a hugely socialistic way of looking at it.

Is a job a privilege? Well, I think that’s too strong a word, again. If you’re going to ask somebody else to employ you, as opposed to doing what Eric does and creating his own business and working for himself, then to some extent it is a privilege or a favour if you want to look at it in those terms. But, again, I don’t think it’s a particularly helpful framing. You are providing your labour to the employer, they’re not doing you a ‘favour’ as such, it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Whereas if the government just decides to employ people to break up rocks and stick them back together so they can break them up again, which would be the kind of Über-Keynesian approach, that’s not actually mutually beneficial. It’s not clear that it really benefits anybody.

Is having a job a right or a privilege? Or is it a mutually beneficial arrangement? Given the rise of automation and AI, how should we think about the concept of employment? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

Image Credits: (c) BigStock – photoboyko; Portrait Credits: Lynch (cc) Flickr – EU-OSHA



37 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    Sorry, but what comes to mind is: (deflection)

    What is the (EU’s) purpose to discuss at length the technicalities around issues lesser or more important in the ever growing list of perceived “EU human rights” overseen by the UN?

    “The UNHRC investigates allegations of breaches of human rights in UN member states, and addresses important thematic human rights issues such as freedom of association and assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of belief and religion, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the rights of racial and ethnic minorities.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Human_Rights_Council

    The latest EU governance folly by ignoring the “agreed” presidential nominating process can be considered a serious transgression against of the voters promised right to a just European democracy.

    THIS is an important right to demand EU accountability- not an EU privilege!

    The primary need is good & trusted governance producing a striving economy, happy voters before speaking of elusive theories around select EU human right issues.

    It is the step by step destruction of the European National States which should give the EU sleepless nights and a mention in the UNHC & investigated! Why do the EU jolly fellows get away with Nation’s suicide & supranational murder?

    They all are highly privileged to still have a job! For how much longer?

  2. avatar
    Olivier

    Having a job is a reward for training skill intelligence….

  3. avatar
    Любомир

    It’s neither. No one should be obligated to give you a job “just because”, and jobs aren’t medieval feudal titles that people get rewarded with. Employment is an agreement for mutual benefit of both sides. If one of the sides can’t bring anything to the table, then there could be no agreement.
    The USSR and the countries in the former socialist block had a “guaranteed jobs for everyone” policy, and this only led to people working very inefficiently, because their job was guaranteed and it didn’t matter if they are good workers or not. In the long run this led to a very inefficient and unproductive economy that, in combination with other bad policies and decisions, bankrupted the whole socialist system. We still have a joke in Bulgaria about this, we say “They lied to me that they were paying me well, and I lied to them that I was working well.”

    • avatar
      Lia

      Nice joke … I happens the same in Greece 🙃

  4. avatar
    Miguel

    it should be a right and not a privilege but we live in a world that incresingly wants jobs to be a privilege

  5. avatar
    Chris

    It is a right. It is written in the constitution that everyone has the right of labor and the right of decent pay. The only people who can secure these rights are the left-wing people.

    • avatar
      Konstantinos

      yes, constitutions in principle secure your right to work. They cannot oblige anyone to employ you. That’s what you need left-wing people for, to dump that constitution, democracy and civil rights, so they can oblige employers to hire you

    • avatar
      Chris

      When if comes to human and civil rights violations, right-wingers are UNDISPUTED champions.

    • avatar
      Tony

      left wing? Those that through out history have instilled forced labor and in current history the highest unemployment numbers. LOL

    • avatar
      Chris

      High unemployment rates are cause by the financial crisis which was not caused by leftists. All good ideas that turned the Western civilisation into the most advanced civilisation were left ideas. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of cooperation, of worship, of thought etc.

  6. avatar
    Alfredo

    Having a job is the reward you get for your skills. Not a privilege, not even a right, is something you work for.

    • avatar
      Uli

      but everyone argues that everyone is supposed to work..so why not make it a right?

    • avatar
      Uli

      a right guarantees a minimum. skills is a plus. I think they are not exclusive

    • avatar
      Jacques

      Yes it’s both… First a right after to be rewarded for it….

  7. avatar
    Chris

    Everyone’s right to survive in decency, priviledge in case of access to wealth generation.

  8. avatar
    Sárdi

    It should be a right. But people should also have the right to choose whether to make use of that right, or not. We should have the right to a civilization without forced production, forced labour, taxes and so in. We should have related rights, other than the status quo at the moment, to the right to work.

    • avatar
      Uli

      thats the meaning of right compared to obligation

    • avatar
      Sárdi

      every right has an obligation.

    • avatar
      Uli

      for other parties, yeah. but it not equates to labour force…When you have the right for a job there may be obligations to provide a job but no requirement to work.

    • avatar
      Chris

      High unemployment rates are cause by the financial crisis which was not caused by leftists. All good ideas that turned the Western civilisation into the most advanced civilisation were left ideas. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of cooperation, of worship, of thought etc.

    • avatar
      Sárdi

      that was not the point of my comment.

  9. avatar
    GC

    Both, depending on what you do and how you like it :-)

  10. avatar
    catherine benning

    Is having a job a right or a privilege?

    It’s neither. However, it is a necessity for most of us. Which is why the men and women of our collective nations can so easily be exploited by the few at the top who protect themselves from being forced from office by our democratic vote.

    How Switzerland can stand this collusion is an enigma to me.

  11. avatar
    Paul

    This tendancy to label things as “rights” is a very slippery slope. ..people then equate that to “entitlement” which is not at all the same.
    NO-ONE is “entitled” to employment…to be happy….to not be offended etc etc.

  12. avatar
    Oscar

    Your right to be employed would be an obligation to someone else.
    You have the right to live, to be free and try and better your life. Your rights end where those of others start. You cant force people to hire you if they dont find you suitable for a position. The right to freedom encompasses that of a job, you can work without having someone employ you. You can improve your standing to be more employable, but you cant be born with the right of being hired by someone some day.

    • avatar
      Sarah

      👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏

  13. avatar
    Carlos

    That’s a treat or trick question …but everything is possible among nomenklatura apparatchic’s at aeuropalia that don’t know what to do while working people pay taxes for their welfare bruxhell / Strasbourg standards of living …

  14. avatar
    Margarida

    In the times that run and a privilege, understanding work as right work because moonlighting many have.

  15. avatar
    Leela

    It` tending to be a privilege…

  16. avatar
    Γεώργιος

    A good well paid safe and fair job is fundamental right

  17. avatar
    Maria

    we shouldnt talk about working. its a very wrong word today. robots should do the job. people should get money to learn how they should save their micro-inviroment and offer their services and skills to the society. Working in its tradiotional meaning brings only problems. Do nothing for a change.

  18. avatar
    Irene

    In Europe now it’s a privilege unfortunately!!!

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