Decent Work

Decent Work
Overview

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Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men. 

Productive employment and decent work are key elements to achieving a fair globalization and poverty reduction. The Decent Work Agenda of the International Labour Organization (ILO) looks at job creation, rights at work, social protection and social dialogue, with gender equality as a crosscutting objective.

The Future of Work

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The world of work is undergoing a major process of change. There are several forces transforming it, from the onward march of technology and the impact of climate change to the impact of demographic changes in economics and employment: 

  • While the nature and location of work has always been changing, the pace of change has greatly accelerated, the scope of change has broadened, and the impact of change has deepened, affecting even existing social values.

  • The drivers of change in the world of work include aspects such as globalization, automation, digitization, demographic developments, global warming and other environmental developments, etc. Those are not new, but the speed of change has increased greatly during the last two decades: the rapid expansion and acceleration of communication technologies, the spectacular progress in automation and digitization, as well as the increase and growing importance of emerging economic sectors, such as the care economy.

  • The possible impact of such developments on the world of work could be as follows: 

    • Work may not necessarily need a work place anymore; people can work from anywhere, and remote work arrangements will become common place.
    • Employment relationships will evolve and may require new contractual arrangements, which may not always provide a sufficient level of worker protection.
    • Collaborative technologies, collective entrepreneurship and virtual team work will gain in importance, as will sub-contract and outsourcing arrangements. This will lead to an expansion of hitherto “atypical” employment relationships. Work will become more isolated, more fragile, less predictable, and less secure.
    • Businesses will seek to enhance productivity by transferring ever more tasks from the company to the user (e-banking, e-check in, e-check out etc.).
    • Production, manufacturing and services will be further decentralized (3-D printing, internet-based services etc.), while data and information will be further centralized (cloud computing, crowd sourcing, big data).
    • The age pyramid will in a growing number of countries turn upside down, thus creating new demand for goods and services designed specifically for the elderly.

Additional innovations, such as genetic engineering, cell stem therapy, nano-technology, supra-conductors etc. are likely to further impact on the world of work.

Employment

National Employment Policies

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According to the ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2019 report, there were over 170 million unemployed people worldwide in 2018. 1.5 billion people are estimated to be own-account and contributing family workers, which renders them especially vulnerable to the problems associated with informality. Working poverty remains pervasive, and non-standard, precarious forms of employment have seen an alarming rise. These challenges tend to disproportionately affect women, youth and marginalized groups, requiring integrated and far reaching policy responses. 

It is now commonly acknowledged that economic growth, while necessary, is by no means sufficient to engender sustainable and productive employment. At the same time, a lack of productive employment opportunities and the persistence of decent work deficits will impede pro-poor growth and sustainable development. 

National employment policies (NEP) pursue the overarching objective of converting economic growth into employment growth. At national level, a coherent, integrated and well-designed employment policy, which cuts across the macro- and microeconomic dimensions and addresses both labour demand and supply, is of utmost importance to tackle employment related problems. 

The formulation of national employment policies is central to the achievement of SDG 8, in particular its targets 8.3, 8.5 and 8.6. Moreover, since employment creation can be considered as the mechanism that translates growth into poverty reduction, NEPs are of great relevance to the fight against poverty (SDG 1) and inequality (SDG 10) but they can only be effective if they respond to local needs. Consensus needs to be built through extensive dialogue and transparent and accountable decision-making processes at all levels to develop legitimate employment policy measures and strategies; these issues are addressed by SDG 16, namely targets 16.6 and 16.7. The complexity of labour markets requires coordination and policy coherence. Analysing several policy areas, such as skills development, sustainable enterprise development, sectoral development policies, and macroeconomic policies simultaneously fosters a more coherent targeting of the challenges. Tripartite inter-ministerial coordination mechanisms ensure coordinated support towards comprehensible interventions aligned with national development frameworks and key stakeholders’ concerns and priorities. NEPs therefore contribute to policy coherence (SDG target 17.14) and national ownership (17.15).

Rural Economy

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Rural areas are home to most of the poor. According to ILO calculations, 88 per cent of the extreme poor live in rural areas, where poverty rates are four times higher than in urban areas and decent work deficits are typically severe. The rural/urban divide becomes even more apparent when considering poverty rates for people in employment. Nearly 20 per cent of people employed in rural areas live in extreme poverty, compared with just over 4 per cent in urban areas. 

Rural areas are characterized by governance gaps and informality. Gender inequalities in rural areas are pervasive. If women in rural areas had the same access to agriculture assets, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million. Rural labour markets are often dysfunctional. Labour market institutions are weak, as are their organization and representation. Underemployment is widespread and incomes are generally low. Access to social protection is extremely limited. Rural workers are often vulnerable, and in numerous circumstances, are not fully covered by national labour law, while more broadly, their rights are often not realized or enforced. Indigenous and tribal peoples are particularly vulnerable to discrimination. Because of this vulnerability and lack of organization, the voice of rural workers is often not heard in relation to both rural development and broader economic and social development. 

Common challenges to unleashing the potential of rural areas include low productivity; underinvestment in agriculture and non-farm rural employment; lack of adequate infrastructure; poor occupational safety and health and working conditions; and limited or no access to services, including financial services. Additional pressures in rural economies result from conflict, natural resource depletion and climate change. 

The rural economy holds considerable potential for economic growth, employment creation and promotion of decent work if the right policies are in place. However, rural areas are also characterized by great diversity and should not be considered as being exclusively agricultural. There is a mixture of on-and off-farm activities ranging from smallholder agriculture or pastoralism to highly sophisticated commercial agribusiness supplying global markets through intense regional and national linkages with industrial and services sectors.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda unambiguously states that “We will devote resources to developing rural areas and sustainable agriculture and fisheries, supporting smallholder farmers, especially women farmers, herders and fishers in developing countries, particularly least developed countries.” SDG 2 (end hunger) is the primary SDG associated with the rural economy, but many others, such as those dealing with water, energy, infrastructure, equality and the environment are of greatest importance to rural populations as well. The ILO promotes in particular SDG target 2.3: “By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment,” which is considered essential to reducing poverty (SDG 1).

The weakness of the collective voice of rural workers and employers has deep-rooted causes such as the fragmentation and low levels of membership of trade unions and employers’ organizations in rural areas. Strengthening the organization and representation of rural stakeholders – for example, through cooperatives and other social and social solidarity economy organizations – as well as improving the institutional framework for social dialogue is key for promoting decent work in the rural economy.

Active labour market policies

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The primary goal of active labour market policies (ALMPs) is to increase employment opportunities for job seekers through more effective and efficient matching of jobs (vacancies) and jobseekers while improving the employability of workers to reduce the skills mismatch. In so doing, ALMPs can contribute to employment and economic growth and reduce unemployment as rapidly as possible and with the best possible job match, by providing jobseekers with the support they need to successfully re-enter the labour market.

ALMPs are usually targeted at specific groups facing particular labour market integration difficulties: younger and older people, demobilized soldiers and those particularly hard to place, as well as those who are far away from the labour market such as people with disabilities, the youth neither in employment, education or training (NEET), and migrants. Active labour market policies may be classified in four categories:

  • employment intermediation services (job search assistance, information provision, counselling and matching);
  • labour market training;
  • subsidized employment (public employment/works programmes, wage and hiring subsidies, job retention subsidies); and
  • entrepreneurship and self-employment.

These may be directed at specific groups of labour market participants, such as the (long-term) unemployed and retrenched workers, the youth as well as other disadvantaged population groups, such as rural women, those in informal employment, and indigenous peoples (particularly women). The objective of these measures is primarily economic – to increase the probability that the unemployed will find jobs or that the underemployed will increase their productivity and earnings. However, the case for active labour market policies has also been linked to potential social benefits in the form of the inclusion and participation that comes from productive employment. In developing countries, public works have mostly served as a poverty alleviation measure rather than a labour market re-integration tool, especially when skills acquisition is not an important component of the programmes.

Investments in physical, financial, natural, human and social capital are not only necessary, but also have significant potential to contribute to building climate resilience and disaster risk management. These employment intensive programmes can restore and protect the productive capacity of lands, build resilient infrastructure capable of addressing climate change and natural disasters and at the same time, create livelihood and income security for the most vulnerable. The development of appropriate climate resilient infrastructure can also contribute to environmental preservation, land conservation and productivity. In addition, such infrastructure can mitigate the impacts of future disasters – disaster risk reduction – and provide jobs to the communities that need them the most.

ALMPs are situated at the intersection between the employment (seen in broad terms – quantity and quality) and social protection dimensions of the Decent Work Agenda, and are designed to add social value to economic investments, and economic value to social expenditures. Consequently, ALMPs address both the economic and the social dimension of sustainable development and in specific cases, the environmental dimension as well. ALMPs are primarily linked to SDG target 8.5, “by 2030 achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value”. They will also play a key role in supporting target 8.b, which calls for a global strategy on youth employment and 9.a, 9.b and 9.3 which aim to facilitate sustainable and resilient infrastructure development in developing countries, support domestic technology through employment-intensive public works interventions and promote access of small-scale industrial and other enterprises to financial services and their integration into value chains and markets.

Productivity

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Low productivity is one of the root causes of the “working poor” phenomenon: people who work long hours, often in the informal economy or in subsistence agriculture, but still do not earn enough to feed their families. Raising productivity – and ensuring that the productivity gains are equitably shared between business owners and investors (higher profits and shareholder value) and workers (higher wages and better working conditions) – is, therefore, of critical importance in efforts to reduce poverty. The virtuous circle of productivity, employment and development can be fuelled through the re-investment of productivity gains into product and process innovations, plant and equipment improvements, and measures to enhance the skills and improve the work environment of the workforce.

Productivity refers to how efficiently resources are used; it can be measured in terms of all factors of production combined (total factor productivity) or in terms of labour productivity, which is defined as output or value added divided by the amount of labour used to generate that output. Labour productivity increases when value added rises through the better use, coordination, etc. of all factors of production. Value added may increase when labour is working smarter, harder, faster or with better skills, but it also increases with the use of more or better machinery, reduced waste of input materials, or with the introduction of technological innovations. Labour productivity measures the efficiency of a country with which inputs are used in an economy to produce goods and services and it offers a measure of economic growth, competitiveness, and living standards within a country.

Governments, workers and employers are united in their pursuit of enhanced productivity because greater productivity is the primary source of improvements in living standards, the most sustainable route out of working poverty, and the basis (and measure) of competitiveness in global markets. 

Productivity growth may have employment-displacing effects and can even cause the disappearance of entire job families. These effects are central to the discussion around the Future of Work since new technologies and the automation of work processes may cause profound disruptions in the world of work. However, experience has shown that in the longer term and at the aggregate level, productivity growth may not necessarily reduce employment growth in a country. Productivity gains can work their way through the macro economy so that job losses in one location or sector is compensated by job gains in another area or sector.

Employment is the primary means of income generation for the poor. Increasing productivity of the poor, improving their employability and creating productive employment opportunities for them is an important way to fight poverty.

The term “productivity” appears in SDG targets 2.3 and 2.4 (agriculture, in particular subsistence agriculture) and in SDG target 8.2 (total factor productivity), thus recognizing that greater productivity is essential to combat hunger, advance decent work and boost economic growth. 

Skills and employability

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Breaking the vicious circle of poor education, low productivity and persistent poverty is crucial for promoting inclusive economic growth and decent jobs for all. Education, as well as being an end in itself, is also a means to getting a decent job, especially for young people, while lifelong learning is indispensable in order to keep up with the changing skills needed for the labour market. Skills development is therefore an essential prerequisite for sustainable development. It can also contribute to facilitating the transition from the informal to the formal economy. Skills development is also essential to address the opportunities and challenges to meet new demands of changing economies and new technologies in the context of globalization.

Governments, workers' and employers' organizations around the world are working to improve the employability of workers, move young people into productive employment and decent work, and increase the productivity of enterprises through better quality and relevant training. Skills development strategies are high on the priority list of countries in all stages of development, for at least three reasons: 

  • Skills matching: to better forecast and match the provision of skills, both in terms of relevance and quality, with labour market needs;
  • Skills upgrading: to adjust skills development programmes and institutions to technological developments and changes in labour markets so that workers and enterprises can move from shrinking, low-productivity economic sectors and professions to expanding, high-productivity sectors and occupations. Such adaptation requires permanent and regular re-skilling, skills upgrading and lifelong learning for workers to maintain their employability and enterprises to remain competitive; and
  • Skills for society: to build up capabilities and knowledge systems within the economy and society which induce and maintain a sustainable process of economic and social development. 

SDG 4 on education includes two targets on skills development, namely target 4.3 (equal access for all women and men to affordable quality technical, vocational and tertiary education), and 4.4 (number of youth and adults who have relevant skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship). In addition, skills development is indispensable for the achievement of target 8.6 (by 2020 substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training) and 8.b (youth employment). Skills development is also crucial for the achievement of SDG 5 (gender equality), as well as SDG target 4.5 (gender disparities in education).

In the same vein, skills development is of essential importance to the Decent Work Agenda and the promotion of productive employment. However, it is recognized that “skills development will not by itself lead to improved productivity and employment. Other critical factors include employment and productivity policies to influence the demand side of the labour market, respect for workers’ rights, gender equality, and health and safety standards; good labour relations and social dialogue; and effective social protection.”

Youth employment

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In 2018, 59.3 million youths around the world were without a job. In addition, 138 million (nearly one in three) young workers earn less than US$3.20 per day. In total, almost 40 per cent of the global youth labour force is either unemployed or working yet living in poverty. The cost of youth unemployment to economic and social development can be very high. It perpetuates the inter-generational cycle of poverty and is sometimes associated with higher levels of crime, violence, civil unrest, substance abuse and the rise of political extremism. 

The youth employment challenge is, on the one hand, closely related to the more general, qualitative and quantitative employment situation in a country. Unless productive employment is at the heart of macroeconomic and social policies and the aggregate demand for labour is expanding, it is not possible to have successful programmes to integrate disadvantaged young people into the labour market. On the other hand, the youth labour market has its own particularities. The age-specific difficulties that young women and men face in making the transition from school to work include: lack of employment experience; strict labour market regulations; mismatch between youth skills and aspirations and labour market demand and realities; constraints on self-employment and entrepreneurship development; and lack of organization and voice, meaning that youths have fewer channels through which to make their concerns or needs heard. 

It is, therefore, critical that the national development framework adopt a comprehensive, rights-based approach to the issues of young people, especially related to productive and decent employment. Those frameworks must simultaneously promote pro-employment economic policies, sound educational and training systems, gender-sensitive programmes to ease the school-to-work transition; labour market policies that are sensitive to the constraints and needs of young women and men, as well as measures to ensure that young people have access to better health care, and a voice in decisions that affect them.

The 2030 Declaration recalls that “Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is a major concern”. Youths are singled out as a specific target group in many sections of the text, and appears as such in several SDG goals and targets. Of particular importance from a decent work perspective are SDG targets 4.4 (skills for youth employment), 8.5 (full employment), 8.6 (reduction in youth unemployment), and 8.b (a global strategy for youth employment).

Youth employment is not just about jobs; youth employment can be decent only if it incorporates the other three dimensions of decent work as well: rights, protection, voice and representation. 

The Global initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth is an alliance of commitment partners taking action at country, regional, and global level across a variety of thematic priorities, sharing knowledge and leveraging resources for more and better jobs for youth.

Environment and green jobs

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Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat to sustainable development of the 21st century, and the global concern about this phenomenon paved the way for the adoption of the Paris Agreement  by the COP 21 in December 2015. The changing climate itself; the adaptation to these changes by the people, countries and economic sectors most affected; and the mitigation measures required to reduce, if not arrest global warming and to move towards low-carbon economies have far-reaching implications for economic and social development, for production and consumption patterns and, naturally, for employment, productivity and incomes. The effects of climate change will alter the structure of employment; new jobs and new job families will emerge, others will disappear or become unsustainable, and enterprises must find ways to organize work and production differently. Moreover, the impacts of climate change, and mitigation or adaptation measures that exclude women in decision-making and overall ignore their specific needs, can compound the challenges of achieving gender equality in the world of work. At least half of the global workforce – the equivalent of 1.5 billion people – will be affected by the transition to a greener economy. 

Sustainable development is only possible with the active engagement of the world of work. The actors in the world of work – governments, workers and employers – can be agents of change, able to develop new ways of working that safeguard the environment for present and future generations, eradicate poverty and promote social justice by fostering sustainable enterprises and creating decent work for all.

Environmental sustainability constitutes one of the three dimensions of sustainable development, and several SDGs are considered primarily “environmental”: SDG 11 (human settlements), SDG 12 (sustainable production and consumption), SDG 13 (climate change), SDG 14 (oceans) and SDG 15 (ecosystems). 

Environmental sustainability is a precondition for sustainable development and decent jobs. Progress towards the "SDGs for decent work for all" objective will require societies to move towards sustainable consumption and production patterns that safeguard the natural environment. 

Employment-rich economic growth

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Economic growth alone does not necessarily translate into more and better jobs, especially for the poor, vulnerable and those at risk of being left behind. Economic growth is a prerequisite for increasing productive employment; it is the combined result of increases in employment and increases in labour productivity. Hence, the rate of economic growth sets the absolute ceiling within which growth in employment and growth in labour productivity can take place. However, the pattern or nature of growth matters, too. The impact of economic growth on productive employment creation depends not only on the rate of growth, but also on the efficiency by which growth translates into productive jobs. The latter depends on a range of factors, such as the sector composition of growth and the capital/labour intensity of growth within the individual sectors. There is usually a need to increase both the number of jobs and the productivity as well as incomes from employment. A review of economic development from an employment perspective should therefore assess to what extent economic growth has met the need for more jobs and for higher productivity/incomes. Such an assessment needs to be broken down by economic sectors to yield meaningful insights. The extent to which economic growth is associated with and driven by a productive transformation is of major importance to the sustainability of economic development in the medium and long term.

Indicators that measure the ability of an economy to generate sufficient employment opportunities for its population can provide valuable insights into the economy’s overall development performance. These indicators include unemployment rates, employment-to-population ratios, labour force participation rates, and the employment intensity of growth or elasticity of employment with respect to output – this last indicator measures how much employment growth is associated with 1 percentage point of economic growth. The decline in the employment content of growth is a matter of policy concern. Explicitly integrating employment and decent work into economic growth and poverty reduction policies helps to maximize the benefits for people and to ensure that growth is both sustainable and inclusive. 

The situation of the “working poor” must be a matter of particular attention, especially in countries where the formal economy is small, and where many women and men work – often arduously and for long hours – but are simply unable to earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. When combining paid and unpaid work, women work longer days than men, and this time-poverty impacts on their ability to access decent work.

The very formulation of SDG 8 “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” recognizes that economic growth will be inclusive only if it creates jobs and decent work. Because of the strong link between growth, employment and poverty reduction activities in support of SDG 8 will also support the achievement of SDG 1 (poverty) and 10 (equality). The targets associated with SDG 8 cover a wide range of aspects linked to the Decent Work Agenda, such as productivity (8.2), entrepreneurship (8.3), green jobs (8.4), job creation (8.5), youth employment (8.6), child and forced labour (8.7), OSH (8.8), LED (8.9) and access to finance (8.10). SDG target 8.b calls for the implementation of the ILO Global Jobs Pact (2009) whose fundamental objective is to provide an internationally agreed basis for policy-making designed to reduce the time lag between economic recovery and a recovery with decent work opportunities. 

Enterprise development

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Enterprises are central to the Decent Work Agenda (DWA) and sustainable development: enterprises create jobs, observe and implement labour standards, contribute to social protection through taxes and own contributions, and constitute the place where workers and employers interact on a daily basis.

The term “enterprise” covers a broad variety of business ventures of different sizes (ranging from own-account informal economy operators to multinationals controlling entire global supply chains); ownership structures (family owned, limited company, shareholding company, state-owned or parastatal, as well as cooperatives, mutual benefit societies, and similar social economy ventures); business orientation (commercial enterprises, social enterprises, public enterprises, community enterprises) or economic activity (agricultural, manufacturing, services, or a combination of those).

The approaches to the promotion of enterprise development have evolved over the years. Three intervention models can be identified. The first aims to promote entrepreneurship and build the capacity of individual enterprises through increased access to relevant business development services (BDS), including access to finance. The second model seeks to assist governments and social partners in establishing a conducive and enabling environment for enterprises (including the legal and regulatory framework, the rule of law, the right to secure property and land rights). The third intervention model seeks to improve the functioning of markets and sectors through integrated and systemic value chain development, including through bottom-up approaches to “make markets work for the poor”. In addition, local economic development strategies have been devised to embed enterprise development into the local context. 

The intervention models are being adapted to the type of enterprise in view: SMEs, multinationals or cooperatives. The enterprises and organizations belonging to the “social and solidarity economy” (SSE) contribute to all four pillars of the DWA by creating and sustaining jobs and livelihoods, extending social protection, strengthening and extending social dialogue to all workers, and promoting the application and enforcement of standards for all. In addition, given their principles and values, including solidarity, mutuality, reciprocity and voluntary participation, autonomy, as well as the “people of profit” imperative, SSE enterprises are particularly well placed to contribute to the three dimensions of the 2030 Agenda in an integrated manner. 

The closest relationship between enterprise development and the 2030 Agenda can be found in SDG target 8.3 which underlines the importance of enterprises and entrepreneurship in relation to productive activities, decent job creation and creativity and innovation, and stresses the need to encourage formalization and growth of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises including through access to financial services. SDG target 9.3 calls for the integration of SMEs into value chains and markets. Many additional SDGs refer indirectly to enterprises, business and the private sector in areas such as industrialization, infrastructure, energy, water, agriculture, partnerships etc. The global business community has fully embraced the 2030 Agenda, as illustrated by the Business for 2030 and Coops for 2030 web sites. The role and contribution of the private sector and business in achieving sustainable development is one of the major subjects of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development; it is also at the core of SDG 17 (global partnership for sustainable development).

Enterprises contribute to sustainable development and the achievement of SDG targets by respecting workers’ rights and contributing to decent work priorities through their day to day operations and investments. Enterprise development may therefore be seen as the private sector interface between the DWA and the 2030 Agenda.

Global supply chains

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Global supply chains have become a common way of organizing investment, production and trade in the global economy. In many countries, in particular in developing countries, they have created employment opportunities for economic and social development. There is also evidence, however, that the dynamics of production and employment relations within the global economy and in some supply chains can have negative implications for decent working conditions.

Global supply chains are complex, diverse, fragmented, dynamic and evolving organizational structures. A broad range of terms exist to describe them, including global production networks and global value chains. All of these terms focus on the same basic issues of cross-border production and trade, but with slightly different perspectives. For the purposes of this report, they are used synonymously. 

The 2030 Agenda does not refer to global supply chains directly, but points out in its paragraph 63 that “national development efforts need to be supported by an enabling international economic environment, including coherent and mutually supporting world trade, monetary and financial systems, and strengthened and enhanced global economic governance”. It is possible to enhance the contribution of global supply chains to fair and inclusive growth if there is stronger coherence between economic objectives and decent work.

Several SDG targets touch upon aspects of global trade, including 8.a (Aid for Trade support to developing countries), 9.3 (integration of SMEs into global value chains), 16.3 (rule of law at the international level) and 17.11 (boosting exports by developing countries). In addition, many of the SDG targets listed under other sections of this publications are relevant for global supply chains: working conditions, labour standards, labour migration, health and safety at work, to name a few.

Protection

Social Protection Floor

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The vast majority of the world’s people are unable to enjoy the fundamental right to social security; approximately three quarters of them lack adequate social protection. This challenge must be dealt with in order to protect populations, address ageing trends, expand sustainable systems and promote socio-economic recovery. The universal right to social protection must be built into national policies and laws and global and regional frameworks in order to reduce poverty, inequality and social exclusion and to allow such protection to act as an automatic social and economic stabilizer. Social protection both reduces poverty, and prevents people from falling into poverty. With political will, sound design, costing and fiscal space analysis, as well as inclusive social dialogue, even in times of austerity, social protection systems, including social protection floors, can be progressively established and strengthened.

Social protection floors are nationally-defined sets of basic social security guarantees which secure protection aimed at preventing or alleviating poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion. These guarantees should ensure at a minimum that, over the life cycle, all those in need have access to essential health care and basic income security. 

National social protection floors should comprise at least the following four social security guarantees, as defined at the national level: 

  1. Access to essential health care, including maternity care.
  2. Basic income security for children, providing access to nutrition, education, care and any other necessary goods and services.
  3. Basic income security for persons in active age who are unable to earn sufficient income, in particular in cases of sickness, unemployment, maternity and disability.
  4. Basic income security for older persons.

Such guarantees should be provided to all residents and all children, as defined in national laws and regulations, and subject to existing international obligations.

The concept of a social protection floor was initially developed by the ILO; thereafter, recognizing the importance and necessity of adequate social protection systems, the UN Chief Executives Board (CEB) adopted in April 2009 "the Social Protection Floor Initiative" as one of its nine key priorities to cope with the 2008–2009 global financial crisis. The initiative is led by the ILO and the WHO but involves many other UN agencies, the World Bank and the IMF, as well as bilateral partners, research institutes and international NGOs. 

Social protection is both an established human right and a central element in sustainable poverty reduction. The extension of social protection and the establishment of a national social protection floor is seen as key to reducing and preventing poverty; consequently, SDG 1 on ending poverty includes a target 1.3 which reads: “implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable”. In addition, SDG target 3.8 calls for universal health coverage, which is one of the components of the social protection floor, whereas target 8.b (a means of implementation) calls for the full implementation of the CEB Global Jobs Pact, into which the social protection floor concept had been incorporated. Moreover, access to an adequate level of social protection is a basic right of all individuals. Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security”.

The extension of social protection constitutes one of the four pillars of the Decent Work Agenda (DWA). It is closely linked to the other three pillars of the DWA since the stability, productivity and decency of jobs depend to a large extent on the existence of social safety nets. Access to and extension of social protection is the subject of many ILO standards, whereas the implementation of social protection schemes and the management of social security institutions is often (and should always be) realized through a process of social dialogue.

Health and safety at the workplace

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Based on ILO estimates, 2.3 million workers die every year from work-related injuries and diseases. An additional 160 million workers suffer from non-fatal work-related diseases and 313 million from non-fatal injuries per year. The economic costs to companies and economies is significant. The ILO estimates that more than 4 per cent of the world's annual GDP is lost as a consequence of work-related injuries and diseases.

Work-related deaths, injuries and diseases take a particularly heavy toll in developing nations, where large numbers of people are engaged in hazardous activities including agriculture, construction, logging, fishing and mining. Death and disability resulting from hazardous work is a major cause of poverty, affecting entire families. The poorest and least protected, often women, children and migrants, are among the most affected.

The agricultural sector employs an estimated 935 million workers worldwide, which is 28 per cent of the world's labour force. In terms of fatalities, injuries and work-related ill-health, it is one of the three most hazardous sectors of activity (along with construction and mining). Even when technological developments have mitigated the drudgery of agricultural work, there are new risks related to the use of sophisticated machinery and intensive use of chemicals and pesticides. Wider community exposure to pesticides may occur in the form of contamination of foodstuffs, the diversion of chemically treated seeds for human consumption, contamination of groundwater, etc. 

The conditions under which most informal workers operate are precarious, unhealthy and unsafe. Many of the micro enterprises in which they work have ramshackle structures and lack sanitary facilities or portable water. For many workers, and particularly for women, their home is their workplace and they frequently live and work in unsafe and healthy conditions – not only for themselves but also for their family members. 

The health of workers is a major determinant of productivity. Health problems can also lead to discrimination against workers (for example, those with HIV/AIDS or TB) or result in major expenditures for governments and enterprises. A vicious circle of poor health, reduced working capacity, low productivity and shortened life expectancy is a typical outcome in the absence of social interventions addressing the underlying problems of irregular and low quality employment, low pay and the lack of social protection. International organizations can help to promote health and safety at work – and the most effective measures tend to be those that actively involve workers’ and employers’ organizations. 

The area of occupational safety and health is related to the “health” SDG, namely its target 3.9: “by 2030 substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination”; the “jobs” SDG, namely its target 8.8: “protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment”; and the “institutions” SDG, namely its target 16.6: “develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels”. The wording of these three targets demonstrates that OSH touches on all three dimensions of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Addressing OSH gaps can turn the vicious circle described above into a virtuous circle of healthier lives and increased productivity which maximizes decent work and sustainable development outcomes.

Rights

Gender equality and non-discrimination

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Millions of women and men around the world are denied access to jobs and training, confined to certain occupations or offered lower pay simply because of their disability, ethnicity, indigenous or tribal status, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, political or other opinion, real or perceived HIV/AIDS-status or other status. The discrimination that certain groups, such as women, ethnic or racial minorities and migrants, face in the labour market makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuses such as forced labour. Barriers to decent jobs often compel parents belonging to an ethnic minority to resort to the labour of their children to make ends meet. Though discrimination can have many manifestations, it is often subtle and insidious, undermining peoples’ dignity and their future. Discrimination deprives people of their voice at work and their ability to fully participate. Discrimination stifles opportunities, wasting the human talent needed for economic progress, and accentuates social tensions and inequalities. Discrimination is a basis for social exclusion and poverty. 

An important starting point to overcome discrimination is the right to equality of opportunity and treatment in respect of employment and occupation. And the key to the success of promoting equality in the labour market is the active involvement of workers' organizations, employers’ organizations and other stakeholders. Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental human right and is essential for workers to choose their employment freely, to develop their potential to the full and to reap economic rewards on the basis of merit. Bringing equality to the workplace has significant economic benefits too. Employers who practice equality have access to a larger and more diverse workforce. Workers who enjoy equality have greater access to training, often receive higher wages, and improve the overall quality of the workforce. The profits of a globalized economy are more fairly distributed in a society with equality, leading to greater social stability and broader public support for further economic development.

In the world of work, several challenges remain to the achievement of gender equality. Significant gender gaps exist – and there has been little change over the past 20 years – with respect to both the quantity and quality of jobs: access to employment, pay, social security and occupational segregation. Women are more likely to be unemployed than men, with unemployment particularly affecting young women. Women also continue to be overrepresented in unpaid and care work, often working longer hours than men when both paid work and unpaid work are taken into account. Advancing gender equality will require addressing these gaps, including the unpaid and undervalued work undertaken by women, redistributing care responsibilities, and ensuring equal remuneration for work of equal value.

Decent work, gender equality and non-discrimination feature prominently in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 projects a vision: “We envisage a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice, equality and non-discrimination; of respect for race, ethnicity and cultural diversity; and of equal opportunity permitting the full realization of human potential and contributing to shared prosperity” (Para 8). This vision is reflected in several Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 4 (target 4.5, equal access to education), SDG 5 (gender equality, notably targets 5.2, 5.4 and 5.5), SDG 8 (target 8.5, decent work for all and equal pay), and SDG 10 (target 10.3, equal opportunity).

Forced labour

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Forced labour takes different forms, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. The victims are the most vulnerable – women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage, and sweatshop or farm workers kept there by clearly illegal tactics and paid little or nothing. Although forced labour is universally condemned, ILO estimates show that 20.9 million people around the world are still in forced labour, more than half of whom are women and girls. Available data indicate that numbers of people in forced labour are not decreasing and may even be on the rise.

According to the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), forced or compulsory labour is all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily. It can occur where work is forced upon people by State authorities, by private enterprises or by individuals. The concept of forced labour covers a wide range of coercive labour practices, which occur in all types of economic activity and in all parts of the world.

Of the total number of victims of forced labour, 18.7 million are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises, and the remaining 2.2 million are in state-imposed forms of forced labour. Among those exploited by private individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 14.2 million of forced labour exploitation. Forced labour in the private economy generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year.

Vestiges of slavery are still found in some parts of Africa, while forced labour in the form of coercive and deceptive recruitment is present in many countries of Latin America, and elsewhere. In numerous countries, domestic workers are trapped in situations of forced labour, and in many cases they are restrained from leaving the employers’ home through threats or violence. Bonded labour persists in South Asia where millions of men, women, and children are tied to their work through a vicious cycle of debt. In Europe and North America, an increasing number of women and children are victims of trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation. Trafficking in persons has been the subject of growing international attention in recent years. Finally, forced labour is still imposed by the State for the purposes of economic development or as a punishment, including for expressing political views.

The Resolution “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015, declares in paragraph 27 that “we will eradicate forced labour and human trafficking and end child labour in all its form.” This is further clarified in SDG target 8.7, which commits the global community to “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking ….”. International action to abolish forced labour also contributes to the implementation of the UN Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery (1926) which has been ratified by 99 countries. 

Forced labour in all its forms can be considered the antonym to Decent Work, and the eradication of forced labour advances the Decent Work Agenda in all its dimensions. The elimination of forced labour is the subject of two of ILO’s eight fundamental conventions, which must be observed by all ILO member states, irrespective of them having ratified or not.

Working conditions

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The ILO Constitution states: “And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled.” This sentence underlines the critical importance of establishing humane conditions of work for sustainable and peaceful societies. People aspire to have not just a job but a good job. Wages, working time, work organization and conditions of work, arrangements to balance working life and the demands of family and life outside work, non-discrimination and protection from harassment and violence at work are core elements of the employment relationship and of workers’ protection, and also affect economic performance. Working conditions cover a broad range of topics and issues, from working time (hours of work, rest periods, and work schedules) to remuneration, as well as the physical conditions and mental demands that exist in the workplace. 

The term “working conditions” is not mentioned as such in 2030 Declaration and its SDGs but many related aspects are covered under various goals and targets: SDG target 5.4 specifically addresses the plight of domestic and care workers; SDG target 8.5 calls for equal pay for work of equal value and 8.8 calls for safe and secure working environments; SDG target 10.4 seeks to achieve greater equality through appropriate wage policies; and SDG target 16.6 is about the establishment of accountable institutions, which are indispensable for the improvement of working conditions. Many other SDG targets could be cited for having a potential link with working conditions. For example, adequate wages can contribute to reducing poverty. 

Freedom of association and collective bargaining

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Freedom of association is a fundamental human right proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It is the enabling right to allow effective participation of non-state actors in economic and social policy, lying at the heart of democracy and the rule of law. Ensuring that workers and employers have a voice and are represented is, therefore, essential for the effective functioning not only of labour markets but also of overall governance structures in a country. 

The right of workers and employers to form and join organizations of their own choosing is an integral part of a free and open society. In many cases, these organizations have played a significant role in their countries’ democratic transformation. 

Closely linked to freedom of association is the issue of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is a fundamental right that is rooted in the ILO Constitution and reaffirmed as such in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Collective bargaining is a key means through which employers and their organizations and trade unions can establish fair wages and working conditions, and ensure equal opportunities between women and men. It also provides the basis for sound labour relations. Typical issues on the bargaining agenda include wages, working time, training, occupational health and safety and equal treatment. The objective of these negotiations is to arrive at a collective agreement that regulates terms and conditions of employment. Collective agreements may also address the rights and responsibilities of the parties thus ensuring harmonious and productive industries and workplaces. Enhancing the inclusiveness of collective bargaining and collective agreements is a key means for reducing inequality and extending labour protection. 

Freedom of association is a democratic human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and therefore central to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda which seeks to “realize the human rights of all”. SDG target 8.8 calls for the protection “of labour rights of all workers”; target 16.3 seeks to promote the rule of law both nationally and internationally, target 16.6 demands the development of “effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels (which are essential for the protection of the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining), and target 16.10 enjoins the protection of fundamental freedoms.

Child labour

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Significant progress has already been made towards the elimination of child labour in the last two decades. However, many challenges remain: while the global number of children in child labour has declined by one third since 2000, 168 million children are still in child labour and more than half of them, 85 million, are in hazardous work. 

Considerable differences exist between the many kinds of work in which children are engaged. Some are difficult and demanding, others are more hazardous and morally reprehensible. Not all work done by children should be classified as child labour that is to be targeted for elimination. Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling, can be regarded as something positive.

The term “child labour” in the narrower sense is defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that deprives them of the opportunity to attend school, obliges them to leave school prematurely, or requires them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

In its most extreme forms, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age. Labour that jeopardises the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or because of the conditions in which it is carried out, is known as “hazardous work”.

Recent ILO statistics on child labour reveal that: 

  • Asia and the Pacific still has the largest numbers (almost 78 million or 9.3 per cent of child population), but sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region with the highest incidence of child labour (59 million, over 21 per cent).
  • There are 13 million (8.8 per cent) of children in child labour in Latin America and the Caribbean; and in the Middle East and North Africa there are 9.2 million (8.4 per cent).
  • Agriculture remains by far the most important sector where child labourers can be found (98 million, or 59 per cent), but the problems are not negligible in services (54 million) and industry (12 million) – mostly in the informal economy.
  • Child labour among girls fell by 40 per cent since 2000, compared to 25 per cent for boys. 

Child labour is a violation of fundamental human rights and has been shown to hinder children’s development. There is a strong link between household poverty and child labour, which also contributes to perpetuating poverty across generations by inhibiting upward social mobility based on proper education and schooling.

The elimination of child labour is explicitly referred to in SDG target 8.7 which commits the global community to “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”. SDG target 8.7 refers to the “people” dimension, the social pillar and the rights-based nature of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Work related to child labour also supports SDG target 16.2: “end abuse, exploitations, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children”, and contributes to the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990. 

Equality

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There is growing evidence in the world today of a shift towards returns on capital and away from labour, together with increasing income inequality. The labour share in national income is declining while that of profits is rising in many countries. The current patterns of growth tend to favour the better-off more than the poor. Wage inequality has been increasing. In some countries, there has been a sharp rise in earnings of the highest paid, with important gender dimensions; in other countries, skilled workers in high demand in the labour market have received growing wage premiums. On the other hand, labour market reforms designed to promote flexibility and lower labour costs, causing cuts to welfare benefits, less progressive tax policies, weaker collective bargaining and an absence of tripartite social dialogue, as well as low minimum wages, have all contributed to weakening the position of the lower 50 per cent of income earners in many countries.

Inequality weakens the link between economic growth and employment creation in general and between economic growth and both the reduction of poverty and working poverty, as well as other dimensions of decent work deficits. Inequality has not only material, but also many non-material dimensions, such as unequal power and voice, unequal access to rights, social protection, social capital etc. These different dimensions of inequality are often linked and tend to reinforce each other. The focus of this section is primarily on the income aspect of inequality; other dimensions of inequality are discussed in the section on gender equality and non-discrimination, though they are very relevant to income inequality; in particular, there is a clear link between unequal pay between women and men and income inequality. 

The Gini coefficient is commonly used to measure income inequality. Considering income distribution of all human beings, the worldwide income inequality has been constantly increasing since the early 19th century. There was a steady increase in global income inequality according to the Gini score from 1820 to 2002, with a significant increase between 1980 (a Gini coefficient of 0.43) and 2002 (0.71). This trend appears to have peaked and begun a reversal with rapid economic growth in emerging economies, particularly in the large populations of the BRIC countries. Latin America and the Caribbean region had the highest net income Gini index in the world at 0.48, on unweighted average basis in 2008. The remaining regional averages were: sub-Saharan Africa (0.44), Asia (0.40), Middle East and North Africa (0.39), Eastern Europe and Central Asia (0.35), and High-income Countries (0.31). South Africa had the highest income Gini index score of 0.68.

In many countries, inequality starts in the labour market. Changes in the distribution of wages and paid employment have been key factors behind recent inequality trends. In developed economies where inequality increased most, this was frequently due to a combination of more wage inequality and job losses. A number of emerging and developing economies have experienced declines in inequality. In these countries, a more equitable distribution of wages and paid employment was a predominant factor. 

To combat inequality the ILO proposes the following policy responses: 

  • Promoting job creation: Job creation is a priority in all countries, and access to, or loss of, paid employment is a key determinant of income inequality. In developed economies, job losses that disproportionally affect low-income workers contribute to increasing inequality. In emerging and developing economies, the creation of paid employment for those at the bottom of the wage structure, who are disproportionately women, contributes to reducing inequality.
  • Fiscal redistribution through taxes and social protection systems: Fiscal policies can compensate to some extent for inequality in the labour market, through both progressive taxation systems and transfers that tend to reduce inequality in household incomes. Emerging and developing economies should increase tax revenues through a variety of measures, including by broadening the tax base through the transition of workers and enterprises from the informal to the formal economy as well as by improving tax collection; this would allow for the extension of social protection systems to unprotected segments of the population.
  • Minimum wages and collective bargaining: Recent research suggests that governments have considerable space for using minimum wages as a policy tool. On the one hand, research shows that there is either no trade-off between increased minimum wages and employment levels or that such increases have very limited effects on employment, which can be either positive or negative. On the other, it shows that minimum wages do contribute effectively to reducing wage inequality and reducing the gender pay gap.
  • Special attention to disadvantaged groups of workers: Extending minimum wages and collective bargaining to low-paid workers will generally be helpful in reducing inequality among women, migrants and vulnerable groups, who are over-represented among these workers. However, these policy tools alone will not eliminate all forms of discrimination or wage gaps, which constitute a significant source of inequality. A wider range of policies is required to overcome wage gaps across groups that are not explained by human capital and labour market characteristics. For example, achieving equal pay between men and women requires policies aimed at combating discriminatory practices and gender-based stereotypes about the value of women’s work, effective policies on maternity, paternity and parental leave, as well as advocacy for better sharing of family responsibilities.

The issue of equality is central to the 2030 Agenda which strives “to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality”; consequently, the Agenda includes an “equality” goal 10 that seeks to “reduce inequality within and among countries”. From a Decent Work perspective the most relevant targets under this goal are 10.1 (income equality), 10.3 (equal opportunity) and 10.4 (fiscal, wage and social protection policies for equality). In addition, many other SDG targets (namely 1.4, 2.3, 5.5, 5.a, 5.c, 8.5 and 16.3) all call for equal rights, equal access, equal opportunities or equal pay. 

The struggle for greater equality is fundamental to the Decent Work Agenda. The promotion of social justice as the principal strategy to achieve greater equality is highlighted in the very first sentence of the ILO Constitution: “Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice…”; it was reaffirmed by the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944), which states that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue their material wellbeing and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity". The Social Justice Declaration (2008), also underlined that the “four strategic objectives are inseparable, interrelated and mutually supportive”, and that gender equality and non-discrimination cut across all the strategic objectives; this was more recently related by the 2016 Resolution on Advancing Social Justice through Decent Work. In fact, the simultaneous promotion of the four pillars of decent work agenda has the potential to significantly reduce inequality. Moreover, the implementation of the recommendation adopted in 2004 by the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization under the title “A Fair Globalization” would contribute greatly to reducing inequality among countries (SDG 10).

Labour migration

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International migration today is a global phenomenon of growing volume and complexity. Many countries are now origin, transit and destination countries for migrant workers. Labour migration movements have the potential to greatly impact the social and economic well-being of their countries of origin, transit and destination. In destination countries, labour migration can rejuvenate the workforce, allow labour-intensive sectors such as agriculture, construction and personal services to function, promote entrepreneurship, support social protection schemes, and help meet the demand for skills. Countries of origin benefit from remittance flows, and transfer of investments, technology and critical skills through returning migrants and transnational communities (diaspora).

The ILO global estimates on migrant workers show that in 2013, migrant workers accounted for 150 million of the world’s approximately 232 million international migrants. Migrant workers represent 4.4 per cent of the global labour force, higher than the proportion of international migrants in the global population (3.3 per cent). More migrant women than non-migrant women participate in the labour force (67 per cent as compared to 50.8 per cent), whereas participation rates of migrant and non-migrant men are essentially the same (78 per cent as compared to 77.2 per cent). While migrant workers contribute to growth and development in their countries of destination and origin, the migration process implies complex challenges in terms of governance, migrant workers' protection, migration and development linkages, as well as international cooperation. 

The complexity of labour migration and mobility, including refugee flows, is growing. Many countries are under-equipped to handle this situation, which, owing to poor labour market functioning and weak governance, results in irregular migration, underutilization of skills, job mismatches, discrimination, widening inequality and exploitation, including in recruitment. If not well governed, labour migration may exacerbate such decent work deficits for migrant workers and their families, and also result in long-term adverse socio-economic costs to countries of origin and destination. Whether labour migration will be of benefit or not depends very much on the policy framework of countries of origin and destination as well as on the bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation among them. No country can effectively deal with labour migration in isolation.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda Declaration in its paragraph 29 states that: “We recognize the positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development. We also recognize that international migration is a multi-dimensional reality of major relevance for the development of countries of origin, transit and destination, which requires coherent and comprehensive responses. We will cooperate internationally to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration involving full respect for human rights and the humane treatment of migrants regardless of migration status, of refugees and of displaced persons.” 

This objective is further concretized in SDG target 8.8: “Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment” and in SDG target 10.7: “Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies”.

Labour standards

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When adopting the 2030 Agenda the world’s leaders declared that “In doing so, we reaffirm our commitment to international law and emphasize that the Agenda is to be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the rights and obligations of states under international law.” Indeed, the 2030 Agenda “has a strong normative character and sets a truly human rights centred path for sustainable development. (…) that underlines the correspondingly central role of international labour standards in its realization.”

Rights at work are addressed in international labour standards, which include binding Conventions and non-binding Recommendations, Codes of Practice and guidelines. International labour standards are debated, constructed and adopted by means of a tripartite process involving governments, workers, and employers, thus reflecting broad support for those standards from the social partners, who are the key actors in the economy. Standards are adopted by a two-thirds majority vote of the ILO’s constituents and are therefore an expression of universally acknowledged principles. At the same time, they reflect the fact that countries have diverse cultural and historical backgrounds, legal systems and levels of economic development. Indeed, most standards have been formulated in a manner that makes them flexible enough to be translated into national law and practice with due consideration of these differences. Other standards have so-called “flexibility clauses” allowing states to lay down temporary standards that are less stringent than those normally prescribed, to exclude certain categories of workers from the application of the Convention or to apply only certain parts of the instrument. 

Since 1919, the ILO has adopted 189 Conventions, 6 Protocols and 204 Recommendations covering a wide range of issues related to the world of work. In addition, dozens of Codes of Practice have been developed. As can be expected, some of these instruments no longer correspond to today’s needs. The ILO Governing Body has reviewed all ILO standards adopted before 1985 and determined that some 71 conventions, including the fundamental conventions and those adopted after 1985 remain fully up-to-date and should be actively promoted, and that the remainder require revision or withdrawal. This work is ongoing, and the Governing Body decided in 2016 to review 235 international labour standards organized into 20 thematic sets of instruments.

Conventions, even if not ratified by a member State, and Recommendations which do not need to be ratified, both provide solid policy directions for a wide range of employment and labour issues and therefore serve as a major resource for action in any of these areas. They must be considered when tackling any economic, social or developmental issue, inevitably linked to productive activity. The tripartite nature of the discussions leading to Conventions and Recommendations provides a sound basis for the provision of advice or the promotion of policies in support of the international agenda, including the 2030 Agenda. As Conventions are binding international treaties, once ratified, they enable the establishment of agreements and partnerships to carry out any development strategy at the local and national levels. The ILO’s unique supervisory bodies engage governments in dialogue on the application of standards and serve as useful sources of information on law and practice in particular countries.

International labour standards are being used for a number of purposes:

  • As models for national labour law: International labour standards serve as templates for developing national law and practice in a particular field. Even if a country does not ratify a particular Convention, it may still bring its legislation into line with it;
  • As sources of international law applied at the national level: In many countries, ratified international treaties apply automatically at the national level. Their courts are thus able to use international labour standards to decide cases on which national law is inadequate or silent or to draw from definitions set out in the standards, such as “forced labour” or “discrimination”.
  • As guidelines for social policy: International labour standards can provide guidance for developing national and local policies, such as work and family policies. They can also be used to guide improvements in administrative structures such as labour administration, labour inspection, social security administration, employment services, etc. Standards can also serve as a source of sound industrial relations applied by labour dispute resolution bodies, and as models for collective agreements.
  • As a legal or policy basis for other areas: For example, increasing consumer interest in the ethical dimensions of products has led multinational enterprises to adopt voluntary codes of conduct to improve labour conditions along global supply chains. Reports on the application of standards are regularly submitted to the United Nations human rights bodies and other international entities. Advocacy groups and NGOs draw on international labour standards to call for changes in policy, law or practice. A number of countries and regional organizations have incorporated respect for international labour standards into their bilateral, multilateral or regional trade agreements.

In addition to the explicit commitment to human rights cited above, the 2030 Agenda Preamble, Declaration, Goals and Targets contain many references to human rights. Among them are two of particular importance to the world of work, SDG target 8.8: “protect labour rights of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment” and target 16.3 “promote the rule of law at the national and international levels, and ensure equal access to justice for all”. 

Dialogue

Social dialogue and tripartism

Fair terms of employment, decent working conditions, safety and health at work and development for the benefit of all cannot be achieved without the active involvement of workers, employers and governments through social dialogue.

Social dialogue is defined by the ILO to include all types of negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information between, or among, representatives of government, worker and employers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy. Social dialogue takes many different forms. It may exist as a tripartite process, with the government as an official party to the dialogue, or it may consist of bipartite relations between the representatives of labour and management at company level (or trade unions and employers' organizations at higher levels). Social dialogue may be informal or institutionalized, and often involves both. It may take place at the national, regional, international, cross-border or local levels. It may involve the social partners in different economic sectors, within a single sector or in a single company or group of companies. 

ILO conventions that are particularly important for social dialogue include: the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No.98), the Tripartite Consultation Convention,1976 (No.144), and the Collective Bargaining Convention, 1981 (No.154). Further guidance is provided by the Collective agreements Recommendation, 1951 (No. 91), and the Co-operation at the Level of the Undertaking Recommendation, 1952 (No. 94); the Consultation (Industrial and National Levels) Recommendation, 1960 (No. 113); the Communications within the Undertaking Recommendation, 1967 (No.129); the Examination of Grievances Recommendation, 1967 (No. 130); the Tripartite Consultation (Activities of the ILO) Recommendation, 1976 (No.152); and the Collective Bargaining Recommendation, 1981 (No. 163)

Institutions for social dialogue, which is based on the rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining, take into account each country’s cultural, historical, economic and political context. There is no standard model of social dialogue that can be applied uniformly across countries or exported from one country to another. Adapting social dialogue institutions and practices to the national situation is key to ensuring effective representation in the process and its outcomes. 

Social dialogue includes: 

  • negotiation, consultation and information exchange between and among the different actors;
  • collective bargaining between representatives of employers and of workers;
  • dispute prevention and resolution;
  • tripartite social dialogue on matters of economic and social policy; and
  • other instruments of social dialogue, including international framework agreements.

Social dialogue can only function effectively if certain preconditions are in place. These include: 

  • strong, independent workers' and employers' organizations with the required technical capacity and access to information;
  • political will and commitment to engage in social dialogue on the part of all the parties;
  • respect for the fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining; and
  • an enabling legal and institutional framework.

Sound industrial relations including consultation and cooperation, collective bargaining and minimum wage setting through tripartite social dialogue are means to promote better wages and working conditions, as well as peace and social justice. As instruments of good governance, they foster cooperation and democratic participation, helping to create an enabling environment for economic growth and for the realization of the objective of Decent Work at all levels. Engaging in tripartite social dialogue, governments and representative workers’ and employers’ organizations help build strong labour market institutions that contribute to long-term social and economic stability and peace.

Social dialogue needs democratic participation of partners who have the capacity to engage in the process effectively and responsibly, as well as the strength and flexibility to adjust to contemporary circumstances and exploit new opportunities. In some countries, the quality of social dialogue suffers from the limited capacity of workers’ and employers’ organizations, preventing them from effectively participating in governance processes and providing efficient services to members. In other countries, the Ministries in charge of labour issues may sometimes be side-lined in key policy and budgetary decisions; and yet in other countries, the weakening of social dialogue institutions – often with the motive of lowering labour costs and boosting competitiveness – has not necessarily led to the expected effects on economic growth, while it has seriously aggravated inequalities, along with a rapid decline in collective bargaining coverage.

While the terms “social dialogue” and “tripartism” do not appear as such in the 2030 Agenda; the Agenda calls for the full recognition and observance of labour rights (SDG target 8.8) with specific mention of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights (8.8.2), for the rule of law (16.3), for accountable institutions (16.6) and for responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels (16.7) – all issues that lay the foundations for social dialogue. The 2030 Agenda’s pledge to involve non-state actors in the national development process can be seen as an opportunity to rejuvenate tripartite social dialogue. Moreover, social dialogue can contribute significantly to “enhancing policy coherence for sustainable development” (17.14). It is therefore important that the global workers’ and employers' organizations – the IOE  and the ITUC  – are actively involved in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Decent Jobs for Youth

What is Decent Jobs for Youth?

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The Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth is the first-ever, comprehensive UN system-wide effort for the promotion of youth employment worldwide. It brings together the global resources and convening power of the UN system and other key global partners to maximize the effectiveness of youth employment investments. It is an alliance of commitment partners taking action at country, regional, and global level across a variety of thematic priorities, sharing knowledge and leveraging resources for more and better jobs for youth.

The initiative aims to address fragmentation of youth employment investments (despite increased policy attention) as well as the dual challenge of high unemployment and low quality jobs among youth. The goal is to scale up action and impact on youth employment through effective, innovative and evidence-based interventions. 

Key elements

  • Guiding Principles

15 guiding principles steer the actions of partners and youth employment investments. These principles highlight the how and the what – embedding elements such as gender equality, attention on both demand and supply sides of the labour market, and the attention on both quantity and quality of jobs. 

  • Thematic Priorities

Decent Jobs for Youth focuses on interventions that are locally owned, aligned with national development priorities, and based on rigorous evidence of what works in different contexts. Our work is clustered around eight thematic priorities that present immediate and long-term opportunities to tackle the global youth employment challenge.

Digital skills for youth

Youth entrepreneurship and self-employment

Quality apprenticeships

Transitions to the formal economy

Youth in the rural economy

Youth in fragile situations

Green jobs for youth

Young workers in hazardous occupations


  • The Engagement Platform

Launched by partners, it is a unique platform for interested stakeholders to commit to Decent Jobs for Youth, sharing knowledge, promoting and showcasing the work on creating more and better jobs for youth.

  • The portfolio of commitments reflects partners’ actions targeting over 18 million young women and men across the globe. 
  • The platform showcases partners’ work on youth employment and offers a channel for sharing knowledge, information, and collaboration opportunities.

Who, why, and how to become a Partner?

Joining the Global Initiative implies a commitment made public on the engagement platform. Commitments can be ongoing or upcoming initiatives, programmes and projects; operate at local, country, regional or global level; and be delivered as technical cooperation. All youth employment stakeholders are invited to register individual or joint commitments in pursuit of decent jobs for youth. We highly encourage commitments based on partnerships of two or more entities. 

  • Access a vast network of resources and convening power to help create real positive change for young people. The secretariat facilitates coordination and cooperation with partners working in similar areas and offer guidance and support implementation of the commitment. Partner page
  • Utilize the unique platform with a global community of youth employment stakeholders as an exceptional channels to highlight and promote partners’ work through events and communication channels within its network. Event page
  • Gain further global recognition by positioning the organizations’ youth employment actions in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to be shown on UN Partnerships for SDGs platform.
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Partner composition of the initiative: An Inclusive Partnership

 

Tools and Methodologies

International Labour Organization

The only tripartite U.N. agency, since 1919 the ILO brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member States, to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.

DW4SD Resource Platform

Sustainable development cannot be achieved without decent work, and vice versa. Hence, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Decent Work Agenda (DWA) are intimately related and mutually reinforcing.

The DW4SD Resource Platform offers integrated guidance and working resources on the relationship between Decent Work and Sustainable Development for constituents, ILO staff, UN country team members, development partners and other stakeholders to support national SDG processes. These resources can be accessed in two windows below: through the 2030 Agenda’s SDGs or through the DWA Outcomes.

World Employment and Social Outlook

Explore the ILO's set of estimates on employment around the world. Create charts and download data with the WESO Data Finder.

Skills for Employment Knowledge Sharing Platform

The Global Public-Private Knowledge Sharing Platform on Skills for Employment (Global KSP) aims to help strengthen the links between education and training to productive and decent work by sharing approaches, knowledge and experiences that governments, employers, workers and international organizations have found effective in addressing these issues of common concern across the world. 

SEKSP

Decent Jobs for Youth - Knowledge Platform

The Decent Jobs for Youth knowledge facility is a digital platform of tools, publications, databases, thematic resources and more to support evidence-informed action on youth employment.

It leverages the collective experience of multiple partners to share curated, state of the art knowledge and to facilitate learning opportunities for the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of youth employment policies and programmes

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Decent Work