Decent work for all: six priorities for this week’s UN summit

Abigail Hunt, Mareike Schomerus, Richard Mallett, Andrew Shepherd, Alberto Lemma, Francesca Bastagli
8 April 2019
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Homeworkers and their families in Indonesia. Photo: ILO/Ferry Latief 2012 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This week, governments and high level stakeholders will gather at the UN General Assembly in New York to discuss decent work.

This is an important moment to review progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG8): to achieve full employment and decent work by 2030, and to generate buy-in at the highest levels about what needs to change.

Ahead of the event on 10 April, our experts set out their priorities and recommendations for those attending.

Abigail Hunt: enough high-level summit commitments – workers need to see real change

This high-level summit can’t come too soon. While the clock is ticking on the SDGs, evidence suggests that access to decent work is actually declining in many countries. And persistent inequalities mean that women are among those left furthest behind.

There is a large (and, in some regions, growing) gender gap in labour force participation. Globally just 48% of women were in the labour force in 2018, compared to 75% of men. Projections based on current trends suggest little or no overall improvement between now and 2030.

Women also face unequal access to decent work. Women are overrepresented in the most vulnerable forms of employment, notably in the informal economy. Informal workers often have limited access to labour and social protections, as well as the collective voice and bargaining rights vital to improvements in conditions. This harms their economic security, well-being and empowerment.

The UN General Assembly won’t be the first to talk about this. In January, the International Labour Organization’s Future of Work Global Commission provided its view on how to make sure the future is bright for workers. And with the High-Level Political Forum and SDG Summit later this year there will be plenty more opportunity for discussion.

It’s great that decent work is on the agenda. But to achieve the SDGs, we need to see action. Positive examples abound – from minimum wages for domestic workers in South Africa to improving the safety of homeworkers in India.

Now is the time for high-level politicians to put their money where their mouths are and support the initiatives proven to improve decent work. Otherwise SDG8 risks remaining a distant dream, spoken of only in conferences far removed from the lives of the world’s most marginalised workers.

Mareike Schomerus: bad jobs make for bad recovery from conflict

Employment is good, sure – but not just any kind of employment. It’s a myth that after violent conflict, any work is better than what existed during the war because any job will spur economic growth.

When it comes to helping young people recover from a conflict and have a better life, bad employment is bad. Really bad.

What makes employment bad? Research by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium spells it out: low and irregular pay, often coupled with dodgy employment terms and job uncertainty. To make matters worse, bad employment is ‘socially undesirable’ and exploitative.

The problem is that bad employment is the norm in a place recovering from conflict. But why should we expect crap jobs to help people and communities get better?

The World Bank argues that jobs are key to solving development problems – including economic recovery after a conflict. Yet the link between post-conflict recovery and employment is not straightforward.

Labour markets in low-income countries often do little to improve lives, particularly post-conflict. Rather, the ‘bad work’ situation can be so entrenched that it becomes part of a landscape of hopelessness, creating grievances that make a situation volatile. Being an entrepreneur is extremely difficult, particularly where cash is tight – paying back loans is, too.

Realising that opportunities are not leading to improvements means that people postpone taking action to improve their situation. This presents itself as ‘laziness’ or ‘idleness’ but is actually a rational response to a situation in which applying oneself brings little benefit. 

Programmes for job creation need to support good job creation: work that makes lives better. This can only be achieved through a more informed perspective on what kind of job might be sustainable in the existing economic system. Making sure that people feel their employment terms empower, rather than exploit, is crucial. Because not any employment is good employment.

Richard Mallett: bad jobs undermine labour migration’s ability to reduce global poverty

We already know that labour migration, especially across international borders, is one of the best ways of responding to global poverty and crisis. Remittances continue to dwarf aid flows, and temporary work visas have been shown to bring astounding economic gains for those fortunate enough to participate.

But take a closer look and the missed opportunities begin to reveal themselves. Migrants make up a significant share of the world’s precarious workforce, disproportionately concentrated in low-skilled jobs that are not only badly paid but weakly protected and highly insecure.

In our recent stock-take of the evidence, we document how workplace characteristics like these undermine migration’s poverty-reducing potential.

Recent cross-country estimates suggest that ‘decent work deficits’ deprive migrant workers of significant earnings – often equivalent to as much as double the initial recruitment and travel costs. In many cases precarious work both impedes migrants’ ability to integrate into their new surroundings and leads to skills downgrading.

Punitive ‘hostile environment’ policies tend to aggravate these problems, creating a hyper-exploitable migrant workforce lacking voice, redress or viable exit options.

Agencies seeking to maximise the developmental impacts of migration therefore need to pay close attention to the terms on which migrants are incorporated into international labour markets.

What makes this particularly pressing right now is the fact that jobs are becoming increasingly central to policy debates about what effective migration management looks like. Think, for example, of the recent move towards ‘jobs compacts’ in countries hosting large numbers of refugees.

It is vital that these debates and initiatives go beyond the numbers alone. Creating opportunity or facilitating access is one thing; ensuring decent work and defending labour rights is quite another.

Andrew Shepherd: sustained escapes from poverty require ‘growth from below’

As I walked into a meeting in the International Labour Organization (ILO) building in Geneva to review progress towards SDG8 on growth and jobs last week, I heard a recommendation that the informal sector should be formalised.

The ILO is pushing this agenda, which is also a target within SDG8. Some low-income and lower middle-income country governments are trying to implement it, or would like to.

But my message to the group was: take care. Including the informal sector in taxation and regulatory systems can be destructive of incomes, jobs and wellbeing. Policy-makers should consider how these efforts could negatively affect the poorest, and start with positive rather than punitive policies.

The broader message from our research on poverty dynamics is that sustained escapes from poverty depend largely on ‘growth from below’. This includes small, usually informal investments in the urban informal sector. It also includes the rural non-farm economy, smallholder agriculture, natural resource-based activities like fishing and forestry, and migration.

This is not to say that ‘growth from above’ cannot produce jobs. Labour-intensive manufacturing has a good record of creating jobs, which have taken many people out of poverty in Asia. But even where labour-intensive manufacturing is happening, the evidence shows that sustained escapes from poverty are mostly through growth from below.

To promote this, governments and municipal authorities need to stop being hostile to the urban informal sector. Cities should become migrant-friendly. And policy-makers should focus on the rural non-farm economy, an overlooked area ripe for innovation.

Smallholder agriculture does better in terms of policy support, but should include the smallest farms and livestock development, and avoid punitive policies to small-scale fisheries and forestry. Wage workers across all these sectors are badly neglected; ministries of agriculture rarely focus on them, they are usually beyond the reach of ministries of labour.

Alberto Lemma: private investments can create decent jobs – if investors know how

Millions more young people are entering the labour market each year, and not enough jobs are being created to keep up – especially in low-income countries. An additional 35,000 jobs need to be created each day in sub-Saharan Africa; 13 million a year until 2030.

As the aid architecture tilts towards the private sector, firms need to include decent job creation as a core component of their investment strategies, taking inspiration from development finance institutions (DFIs).

DFIs co-invest with private firms, reducing risks for first movers in low-income countries, leveraging aid to promote further investment. They can help create decent jobs by promoting growth in their co-investors and suppliers, and through economy-wide effects.

DFIs can also provide a template for how investments can include decent work as a core impact – this is a strategic focus for both bilateral and multilateral DFIs. In 2016, ongoing investments by members of the European DFI group were estimated to have contributed to 4 million jobs. By 2017 this had increased by 1.4 million, with approximately 2 million direct and 3.4 million indirect jobs supported by these investments.

But for private investors to learn how to replicate decent job-maximising investments, these processes need to be well monitored. DFIs put a lot of effort into understanding their employment impacts, and often drive innovations in employment impact evaluations. Widening these practices towards private investors could help them focus on not only creating jobs, but creating decent jobs.

Francesca Bastagli: social protection is an essential part of decent work

Well-designed and implemented social protection policies and systems are key to transitions to improved work conditions and to tackling barriers to decent work. They’re also critical to harnessing the opportunities for expanding decent work associated with migration, demographic change and new technologies.

Yet social protection coverage and adequacy remain low in many countries, especially in certain sectors and types of work.

Three issues need to be addressed as part of the decent work agenda: social protection policy design, financing and political will.

1. Get policy design right

Social protection policy design interacts with the reality of labour markets to determine work conditions and labour relations. Persistent inequalities in the distribution of unpaid work and the undervaluation of care work, high informality and the rise in non-standard employment pose challenges to social protection designed on assumptions of continuous, full-time employment.

Policy-makers should take effective measures to ensure the extension of adequate social protection to excluded groups and the promotion decent work, for instance among women and migrant workers.

2. Bring policy financing into the picture

Financial constraints are commonly cited as a barrier to adequate social protection. Yet there are a range of options for financing social protection, including through a combination of contributory and tax-financed schemes.

Policy-makers should discuss these options not just in terms of revenue-raising potential, but also in terms of the role they play in regulating labour relations and responsibilities for social protection provision – as well as related equity and sustainability outcomes.

3. Step up political will

This high-level summit provides an important opportunity for policy-makers to underscore the central role social protection plays in the decent work agenda. The time has come to step up support for global and national efforts to strengthen social protection systems, for instance through the historic Universal Social Protection USP2030 Initiative