A new approach to employment should be ‘Decent Work’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Work is vitally important to us all. As well as earning our keep, jobs put us in touch with the society around us. The concept of 'Decent Work' could help bring adequate incomes, as well as dignity, safety and respect to the workplace, writes Stephen Pursey.

Stephen Pursey is the Director of the Multilateral Cooperation Department of the International Labour Organization.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has developed the concept of 'Decent Work'. This has been fully backed by the EU and the UN. Through national and international programmes, our Decent Work Agenda has been moving things forward on a number of fronts.

Employment is an important one. Our economies must foster investment, entrepreneurship, skills development, job creation and sustainable livelihoods.

But it is just as vital to protect rights at work. All workers need representation, participation and laws that defend their interests. Rights at work are protected by international labour standards in the form of international conventions and recommendations.

Social protection has to be extended, too. To promote both social inclusion and productivity, we must see to it that everybody’s working conditions are safe. We must all have adequate free time and rest, and we must be able to combine work with family life. Access to proper healthcare is another must. And if workers lose their source of income, or their income is cut, adequate compensation must be available.

Another aim is what has become known as social dialogue. We want to see strong, independent workers’ and employers’ organisations fully involved in decisions about jobs and working conditions. That way, we can boost productivity, avoid disputes at work and build cohesive societies.

And right across our agenda, we are determined to promote equality between women and men.

Development happens through jobs. For poor households, work is the way out of poverty. If jobs are scarce or underpaid, there is less growth, less security and less development. So the Decent Work Agenda goes hand in hand with the eight Millennium Development Goals endorsed by the world’s leaders back in the year 2000. Whether reducing poverty and hunger, combating major diseases or cutting child mortality, those aims depend to a great extent on the availability of Decent Work.

Achieving those goals by 2015 is going to take a major push. The crisis of recent years has moved most countries further away from full employment. Progress on eradicating poverty is uncertain and uneven. We estimate that 45–50 million new jobs will be needed each year over the next ten years just to keep up with the growth of the world’s working-age population and tackle the unemployment caused by the crisis.

A shift to inclusive, sustainable development is in everybody’s interests. The economy and ecology of our planet depend on it. And clandestine migration, with all the tragedies it brings, is mainly due to the lack of Decent Work near the homes of the people who most need it. Nor should we forget that many people still do not have Decent Work in the industrialised countries, Europe included.

Monitoring progress on Decent Work

But real progress on Decent Work must be measurable. To make sure that it is, we have been working closely with the EU. Our joint project MAP (Monitoring and Assessing Progress on Decent Work) has just been completed. It has been equipping government agencies and employers’ and workers’ organisations to assess progress towards Decent Work in their own countries. As a pilot project, we have helped nine countries to collect data and to compile “indicators” – in other words, measurable pointers to how far Decent Work is being achieved. We have also provided guidelines and tools for measuring progress on Decent Work. And we have produced Decent Work country profiles for the countries involved in the MAP project, as well as for other countries These look in more detail at the state of Decent Work at the country level – from job openings to decent hours, equal opportunities and social dialogue.

This November, world experts met at a conference in Brussels to assess the MAP’s achievements and plan what comes next. The methodology developed in the pilot countries will be built into national Decent Work programmes elsewhere. Manuals and guidelines on monitoring decent work have been or are being produced, including a ‘Manual on monitoring decent work: lessons learned from MAP project’, and technical tools, such as a manual on concepts and definitions, guidelines on analysing data trends and preparing profiles on decent work, and a toolkit for Labour Force Survey design to collect better national data on Decent Work.

The way ahead

Following on from the Millennium Goals, the world will need a new development agenda from 2015 onwards. Decent jobs that pay a living wage will have to be high up on that agenda. And at the moment, it does look as if one post-2015 aim could be to ensure “full and productive employment and decent work for all”.

At the ILO, we have already been working on possible indicators to assess progress on a Decent Work post 2015 goal. We have suggested for instance, that working poverty rates could be used to map improvements in the livelihoods of the most vulnerable workers and households. The ILO already compiles working poverty figures for over 70 countries. Other possible targets for which we have suggested indicators include increases in the proportion in total employment of wage or formally employed workers, increased participation of women and young people in employment, and better social protection coverage.

One thing is for sure. Our linked-up world urgently needs Decent Work and social justice for all. To achieve them, we will have to set ourselves clear targets. And then measure up to them.  

Subscribe to our newsletters