A liberal wish-list?

| 15/08/2008

Once the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gets past all the basic, fundamental rights that nobody could seriously object to, it starts on less important concerns. It becomes more of a liberal wish-list.

Social security, full employment, decent wages, paid holidays… Those aren’t fundamental rights like the right to life, liberty, freedom of speech and freedom from torture. At least, so some commentators believe.

But that claim overlooks the theme that runs through the entire Declaration – namely, the ideal of an existence worthy of human dignity for all people. No one of the declared rights stands in isolation; the same theme connects all of them. Some rights are more important than others, but it is only a difference of degree.

The right to marry and have children may be less vital than the right to life; freedom of expression may beless valued than freedom from torture. But the Declaration is not in the business of drawing distinctions; every one of its Articles is concerned with protecting people’s right to dignity – giving them respect. It’s not enough just to let them live.

The Declaration – a statement of ideals – sets implied limits on the exploitation of individuals within the respective jurisdictions of United Nations member-states’. Article 24 declares that people shouldn’t be made to work every waking hour, for a wage that barely keeps them alive. They shouldn’t be tossed away to die in the street, when they are too sick or too old for productive employment. They shouldn’t have to sell their children into prostitution or some other kind of slavery.

Those are pretty fundamental concerns, not to be dismissed as a liberal wish-list.

It is worth noting that employers are not parties to the Declaration, or any of the human-rights Conventions. The UN is not some kind of World Government. It puts the onus on its member-states to keep their corporate citizens in line, as well as individuals in a position to exploit other individuals.

The UN doesn’t tell its members what specific action to take, and it doesn’t set precise standards. It wouldn’t make sense to fix an international minimum wage that was applicable in both Sweden and Haiti, for instance. All the Declaration says is: do your best.

If the government of one member-state thinks paid employees should not be required to work more than forty hours a week, or eight hours a day, that’s fine. If the government of another thinks the limit should be eighty or ninety hours a week, well, that’s acceptable though maybe not "fine". How many hours should a goat-herder have to work in Kenya? Who knows?

There are some security guards in Cayman, and some live-in helpers, who work eighty or ninety hours a week. That’s acceptable to the FCO – maybe they even think it’s "fine". Who knows?

How much is a fair wage? It varies from place to place, and depends on the culture. Article 23 sensibly refers to "remuneration", not "wage". Low-paid workers in Cayman may receive a reasonable wage, but is it high enough to pay their airfares to and from Manila or Bombay if they lose their jobs after a year? One wrong step, one protest about unpaid wages – maybe even one call to meet with the Chief Immigration Officer – and they could be out five thousand dollars in unreimbursed airfares. It’s not really that far from slavery, is it?

The FCO’s policy of allowing the exploitation of migrant workers in Cayman is disgraceful by any objective standard. That our MLAs condone it, goes a long way to explaining the disrespect in which they are held by those of us who believe in the moral need to preserve the inherent dignity of all men and women.



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  1. Bilbo Bloggins says:


    Thank you Mr. Barlow                                      

    No wonder "Anonymous" wants to remain anonymous with comments justifying industrial revolution factory hours.  How many 90 hour weeks has Anonymous worked?

    Well done Mr. Barlow on the essay series, and for being brave enough to point out much that is wrong with the status quo generally. 

    Many of us wish we could speak up but the work permit system together with the hysterical reaction of certain locals renders the concept of political free speech in Cayman a myth  The offensive reaction to the proposed Filipino residents meeting shows how bad things really are.   


  2. Anonymous says:

    All workers have to have return tickets and I doubt any worker is working every minute except when they are sleeping.  I crunched your numbers and that’s what I got: 11 hours off a day.  You are such an alarmist.  Would it kill you to write something positive about the people of the Cayman Islands?