With Dignity: The Right to Rest and Leisure

Marika Straw

“Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”

Why is this a human right?

If you’re asking this question, I would recommend you look into the histories of labor movements around the world. For centuries, laborers have demanded the right to rest and leisure, which is often guaranteed through paid holidays and limits on working hours.

Take a look at the birth of the labor movement in Wisconsin in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Listen to some Woody Guthrie songs. Look up the strong history of miners’ unions in Chile. Look up why we have weekends.

Labor movements pushed hard for guarantees of the right to rest and leisure. Why? Let’s take a look at a contemporary group of workers that is denied this right.

Farm workers in the United States are currently denied many human rights, including but not limited to the right to join trade unions — yes, this is also a human right — the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to rest and leisure.

Among many other abuses against both international human rights and our own federal laws, they are often forced to work extremely long days — we’re talking about 12 to 16 hours/day — for extremely low pay.

In Florida, workers must pick more than two tons of tomatoes per day just to make the state minimum wage of $6/hour. They do not have weekends. They do not get paid for working overtime.

For most employers of farm workers, the concept of paid holidays or even sick days is a joke. Workers aren’t even entitled to mandatory breaks for meals. As one farm worker described it, “They want us to work more than a machine can.”

The denial of rest and leisure, indeed of any time off at all, has serious long-term effects for farm workers in many realms of their lives. As one doctor explained at a TEDx Talk given in Oakland, Calif. last Friday, working with no breaks, weekends, or holidays — as they do — leads to chronic medical conditions such as tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and the early onset of arthritis, all of which often persist for years after farm workers have stopped working.

Farm workers are unable to spend time with their families, particularly since their families are often in another country, waiting for the paltry wages they send each week. Perhaps most heartbreaking is the loss of educational opportunities for farm workers.

Although education is also a human right, children as young as 12 years old are allowed to work in the farming industry. Children who work in farming are unable to go to school and therefore, are deprived of the opportunity to receive an education and have a better future.

The effects of the long-term denial of rest and leisure are even more damaging psychologically. For a very tame comparison, consider your state of being after a solid week of continuous cramming and sleep deprivation.

Chances are you’re not at your best. In fact, you’re probably downright snarly, about to burst into tears or just depressed.

The creators of the UDHR understood this. They understood that to fully experience being human, to truly be yourself, and perhaps more importantly, to treat other people well, you need some down time. In other words, rest and leisure are necessary to uphold human dignity.

Think of your state of being after midterms, compounded by factors of hundreds and time periods of years, combined with the realities of living in a state of chronic poverty. We have it pretty good, don’t we?

Here at Lawrence, we often bemoan our lack of free time, our high-stress schedules, our overburdened calendars. Yet we do not stop to consider that it is our choice to do many of the activities that sap our time.

No one is forcing us to work 12 hours every day. With a few exceptions, we are not required to attend class on weekends. We are even given a break in the middle of the term to rest and rejuvenate for the rest of the term.

We often get wrapped up in our lives here at Lawrence and forget about the rest of the world. We forget how lucky we are to be able to study and live here. Spend a bit of time this reading period reflecting on the rights Lawrence gives us and appreciating your right to rest and leisure.

Let this weekend of rest — however brief it may be — rejuvenate you so you are better able to do the work you need to do. Spend some quality time resting and playing so that you can go forward with more grace and compassion.

Marika Straw is the social justice programs coordinator at the Volunteer and Community Service Center; please contact her with any questions regarding her weekly column.