Our Voices

The newest human rights frontier: the workplace

Recently, I attended a celebration of the nearly half-century career of Arturo Rodriguez, the longtime president of the United Farmworkers of America. The occasion filled me with memories of the impassioned labor leaders who were a regular feature at my childhood home. Rodriguez, along with Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta, conveyed a palpable dedication and passion for workers’ rights. This ultimately inspired my family and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ work to empower and improve the lives of farmworkers in America, work that includes the passage of New York’s Farmworkers’ Fair Labor Practices Act in 2019, legislation which took over a decade to pass.

As many of us who were privileged to work from home during have returned to the office and to attending workplace events after 20 months of only virtual connection, I’m proud to announce a new venture that builds on our long standing efforts to advance fair labor practices, as well as diversity, inclusion, economic dignity and social justice, by looking at dignity at work in a holistic way, whatever the work we do and wherever we do it.

Leaders play a central role in honoring dignity in the workplace. They set the workplace tone as we all focus on day to day things that can center dignity. But that alone is not enough. Organizations can more fully drive change by implementing dignity-advancing enhancement to systems, processes and programs that affect all employees, current and prospective workers come to know they are valued for who they are and the roles they play. This is workplace dignity, honoring and valuing employees not only at work, but in and through work.

A 2020 report released by Willis Towers Watson in partnership with our organization, found that cultures of workplace dignity translate to bottom-line gains on key talent metrics, including employee wellbeing, the ability to attract and retain diverse talent, as well as creating an innovative and more collaborative work environment, fostering team-building, employee engagement and retention.

The time is ripe for this.

Amidst a global pandemic, employers are having more difficulty attracting and retaining talent than ever, challenges that are expected to last through 2022.

According to a recent Department of Labor report, the number of those quitting their jobs has reached a record high, a reflection that the pandemic has caused a shift in mindset among workers who feel they could be better valued, compensated and managed.

During the disruption of 2020 and 2021, investors, boards and senior leadership teams, including ours, have learned that organizational resilience provides a new form of competitive advantage.

But of course, it’s more than a bottom line. It’s about stopping the endless compartmentalization of being a worker, a parent, a partner depending on the time of day or day of the week. Instead, it’s about our employers seeing us, and seeing ourselves, as valuable and whole people, whose jobs enable us to provide for ourselves and our families, and allow us to contribute toward making the world a better place.

During the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion around worker rights—about pay, paid time off, and the benefits of remote work. Make no mistake, these are all important things. It’s time that we begin considering workplace dignity as a fundamental aspect of human rights, one that is infused with and by all the other human rights work we do here at home and around the globe.

RFK Human Rights’ new Workplace Dignity initiative aims to create a better understanding of workplace dignity among organizations, increasing appreciation for how a respectful workplace culture can help it—and its employees—thrive. This reflects what is outlined in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone not only has the right to work, but to “just and favorable conditions of work,” and “remuneration that ensures human dignity.”

By providing strategies and tools designed to help prioritize people’s dignity at work, we hope to drive meaningful, actual change that goes beyond sloganeering to promote healthier workplace cultures and strengthen performance. Through the program, RFK Human Rights will also support legislation that advances workplace dignity and speak out against legislation that seeks to diminish it, creating through-lines with our other programs, which focus on schools, investors, the work experience of college students, the job opportunities of those with criminal records, and more.

When people feel valued at work, they are healthier, and there’s a ripple effect: they bring that home and their family is healthier. They and their family contribute to their communities, who are in turn healthier.

This is at the heart of social justice teaching, a natural continuation of the work of Rodriguez, Chavez, Huerta, my father and others who believed that yes, we can build a better, more just and peaceful world together.

Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights