Millions of US workers live in poverty: That may be a human rights violation

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The United States has long lagged behind its Western counterparts in guaranteeing the rights of workers and providing public assistance to those in need. Now, the situation for the working class has deteriorated to the point of drawing scrutiny from a United Nations human rights expert. In a recent report and a spate of allegation letters, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, has called attention to the millions of workers living in poverty in the wealthiest country in the world—an indictment of a failing US system. 

On October 20, the Special Rapporteur, the UN’s top independent expert on poverty, released a report to the UN General Assembly on in-work poverty—drafted with support from the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic—which paints a staggering portrait of the working and living situation of low-wage workers in the United States. Ten days later, he published letters sent to some of the largest US employersAmazon, DoorDash, and Walmart—raising allegations that they contribute directly to the problem of in-work poverty. The Special Rapporteur sent a separate letter to the US Department of Labor raising allegations that the government has failed to adequately protect workers and that US laws and policies directly contribute to this disaster.

The letters, sent through diplomatic channels, address reports that these companies utilize illegal tactics to stymie unionization efforts, exploit public assistance programs to supplement insufficient wages, and do not pay all employees a living wage. Amazon and Walmart have replied but largely failed to address the specific allegations raised despite vague commitments to human rights principles. Certainly, their response did not adequately assuage concerns of labor abuses. 

In his letter to DoorDash, the Special Rapporteur raised allegations that the company’s opaque payment policies and failure to resolve employee complaints contribute to in-work poverty. While DoorDash is merely one example, platform-based work as a whole—growing alarmingly fast—is typically characterized by precarious employment, low pay, and nonexistent benefits. The Special Rapporteur’s letter to Amazon raises similar allegations of dismal working conditions. Despite a $15 starting wage, Amazon workers frequently depend on public assistance to make ends meet. The company has also been under fire recently for its grievous workplace injury rate—Amazon warehouse workers are twice as likely as other warehouse employees to be seriously injured at work, and a recent independent study found that 51% of Amazon warehouse workers who worked there more than three years suffered an injury on the job. When workers attempt to unionize, Amazon responds harshly—drawing consistent claims that it improperly surveils, intimidates, and even fires employees to quash unionization efforts. In early December 2023, Amazon fired a leading union organizer, Connor Spence, for organizing a walkout.

A staggering 6.3 million US workers have incomes below the US poverty line, which is a scant $14,580 for an individual and $19,720 for a family of two. Women are far more likely than men to be among the working poor, with more than 5% of working women below the poverty line. Gig workers are also particularly affected, with 14% earning less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and 30% enrolling in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). Tipped employees are also more likely to experience poverty: more than 14% of tipped employees in US states with the federal tipped minimum wage ($2.13 per hour) were estimated to be below the poverty line in 2021. 

There are a number of factors contributing to such a dire state of affairs. The United States offers some of the lowest wages in the industrialized world, with the current federal minimum wage at just $7.25 per hour. Moreover, it was last updated in 2009 and is not automatically adjusted for inflation. A one-bedroom home is out of reach for a full-time minimum wage worker earning even the highest state minimum wage of $15 an hour. And real wages for workers with a high school diploma in the United States actually decreased between 1979 and 2017. Globalization and automation have weakened the bargaining power of workers across the globe. 

Union membership has been decimated in the United States, with private-sector union membership plummeting from 35% in the 1950s to just over 6% in 2019. Companies in the United States frequently violate labor laws with impunity, aggressively squashing union organizing and retaliating against workers. For example, like Amazon, Walmart has a documented track record of systematically and successfully suppressing unionization over the many decades of the company’s history. Rampant wage theft also contributes to in-work poverty in the United States—in 2019, US employers stole $9.27 billion just from workers earning less than $13 per hour who were subject to a mandatory arbitration agreement.

The United States desperately needs to reimagine its labor regulations. Congress should increase the federal minimum wage, peg it to inflation, and amend major labor laws like the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier for workers to organize. Further, regulatory agencies should step up their enforcement of existing labor laws. Many have long criticized US labor law for failing to adequately protect workers seeking to unionize and for providing incomplete remedies to those whose rights are violated—while penalties for employers are too insignificant to properly deter illegal anti-union behavior. Another answer to the declining power of organized labor could be to adopt sectoral bargaining so that employees need not organize workplace by workplace and individually contest each new union election.

If true, many of the allegations raised in the Special Rapporteur’s letters would constitute violations of human rights and international law. International human rights law recognizes a right to a living wage; workers should, at a minimum, make a living wage, regularly adapted in accordance with the cost of living. Also protected are the right to organize, freedom of association, and collective bargaining free from harassment, intimidation, or reprisals. 

The Special Rapporteur’s report on the working poor is yet another demonstration that the US economy does not work for everyone. It is embarrassing that a country with so much wealth should struggle to meet workers’ basic needs, and it is long past time for US government officials to take steps to address these widespread economic rights abuses.