Sustainable development isn't just about jobs - it's about decent work for all

Published date
02 Jul 2019
A self-congratulatory new government report glosses over the work of trade unions to support decent work around the globe.

Not all jobs are decent jobs. Unfortunately, our government doesn’t seem to grasp this.

Last week, the UK government published a report on its progress towards meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at home and abroad.

One of these goals – goal 8 – focuses on promoting “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”.

That’s a lofty ambition, but what does decent work actually mean?

Well, the International Labour Organisation says it means respecting workers’ rights, full and productive employment, having a voice in policy making through social dialogue and social protection so we can all live in dignity.

And you can’t secure decent work for everyone without strong trade unions around the globe.

The report doesn’t really recognise this, and many of its other claims around achieving the international aspects of goal 8 just don’t stand up to scrutiny.

And as we said last week, the report also fails to take account of the rise in insecure work, modern slavery and the lack of training for workers in the UK.

Trade unions key to delivering decent work

The International Labour Organisation is clear that collective bargaining arrangements and freedom of association are crucial to delivering decent work.

Trade unions around the globe are striving to deliver this for all workers.

In Kenya the national trade union centre (KOTU) used social dialogue to negotiate an 18 per cent increase in the minimum wage, increasing pay for domestic workers from $30 to $130 a month.

And action by the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines helped ensure that the National Health Insurance Act included workers in the informal economy.

The government’s report highlights ‘jobs’ supported and enabled by the UK, including by the government’s development finance institution, the CDC Group.

But it doesn’t say if these are decent jobs, which is what goal 8 is all about.

The situation for women

Global supply chains have created millions of jobs for women around the world.

But for many, work is poorly paid and insecure, with no voice and bargaining power. Violence and harassment in the workplace is also commonplace.

Unfortunately, DFID’s strategy on gender equality doesn’t even mention decent work, and this report doesn’t recognise the importance of collective bargaining to achieving gender equality.

Trade and decent work

The government’s Brexit strategy also poses a threat to decent work.

The US, for example, has much lower standards on workers’ rights as well as health and social standards, but the chief US trade negotiator has admitted that lower standards would be a necessary condition for a trade deal with the UK.

The report also claims that “the UK offers enhanced market access for developing countries and assistance to take advantage of this access”. But the government is currently trying to make this access conditional on developing countries accepting tariff free goods from the UK in five or so years’ time.

Trade unions in Africa, the EU and UK have raised concerns that the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) currently being negotiated with many African countries would put domestic industries in African countries out of business.

If that happens good jobs will go and more workers will be forced into the informal economy, especially women.

Modern slavery

The government makes a lot of noise about eradicating modern slavery in its report, but much more needs to be done to tackle the root causes of modern slavery such as low pay and a lack of labour rights.

At the moment the Modern Slavery Act (2015) doesn’t even apply to the public sector, which has huge purchasing power within global supply chains.

And existing rules allow a company to comply with the legislation simply by saying “We’ve taken no steps to tackle modern slavery”.

If the government is really serious about supporting decent work, this is not good enough.

Public services

We need gender responsive quality public services if we are to achieve the SDGs.

But the World Bank and IMF have been criticised for “aggressively” promoting widespread privatisation of basic services without regards for human rights implications or consequences for the poor.

Evidence also shows that privatisation of key public services (including Public Private Partnerships) often reduces the availability of jobs and job security.

The UK government is an influential stakeholder at the Bank and IMF and a major donor to the Bank, so it has the power to pressure both to do more to meet our SDG targets on decent work.

What do we want to change?

If the UK is to meet its obligations on goal 8 the government needs to change course. That’s why we’re calling for:

  • DFID and the CDC to put decent work at the heart of their job creation programmes, with clear indicators and measures of outcomes.
  • Government strategies to better promote respect for international labour standards, especially rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
  • Changes to the Modern Slavery Act to compel companies to carry out effective due diligence in their supply chains, and for the Act to also cover public service procurement.
  • The government to stop negotiating EPAs and allow African regions continued preferential access to UK markets.
  • An end to the promotion of PPPs both in the UK and internationally, and investment in gender-responsive quality public services.
  • Government support to build the capacity of trade unions to help deliver decent work and strengthen social dialogue across the globe.

These demands form part of the work the TUC has been doing with other organisations to keep up the pressure on the government on this issue.

This government report was published as part of the UK’s participation in the Voluntary National Review of the Sustainable Development Goals taking place in July 2019.

A more detailed overview of our position can be found in Bond's report,“The UK’s global contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals, Progress, gaps and recommendations”.