Is the New Urban Agenda “doomed to fail” workers?

Just over a month ago, 30,000 global representatives of government, business, urban planning, academia, trade unions and civil society descended on the Ecuadorian capital of Quito for the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, or Habitat III.

As the first Habitat – a global summit organised every 20 years – to be held at a time when the majority of the world’s population lives in urban centres, the scope of this conference was always going to be as vast as its stated aim to “secure renewed political commitment for sustainable urban development”.

The challenges are enormous. While only covering two per cent of the world’s land mass, cities are currently home to more than 50 per cent of the global population. By 2050, this is expected to rise to 70 per cent.

Cities are also responsible for just under three-quarters of all carbon emissions; inequality, poverty and social exclusion are rampant; the number of migrants and refugees is growing exponentially; and in many countries, urban growth translates to little more than informal settlements and informal work.

In addition, cities all over the world are not only grappling with the lack of affordable, decent housing, but by 2025, an additional one billion new homes need to be built.

There’s the colossal task of protecting people and cities from the devastating effects of climate change, and the urgent business of financing the multi-trillion dollar investments need to deliver the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the 23-page document which formed the crux of Habitat III by setting out a blueprint for the green, inclusive and equitable future of world cities.

But what does all this have to do with workers? Quite simply, everything, say the trade unions.

“Workers are critical to the economic, sustainable, and cultural development of cities,” Per-Olof Sjöö, president of the Building and Wood Worker’s International (BWI) global union, told delegates at the Trade Union and Workers Roundtable held during Habitat III.

“Workers build and power the cities. Workers service and maintain the cities. Workers are the engines of the cities and it is our future that is at stake here in Habitat III.”

In short, if the livelihoods of workers are unsustainable, so too are the cities they live and work in. But to what extent did policymakers agree?


Falling short

The language used in the NUA gives some indication. The term “workers” only appears a handful of times; “trade unions” are only mentioned once (in Paragraph 48). “Informal work” fares better with a number of paragraphs referencing the need to lift the millions of urban poor out of the informal economy and into formal jobs. By comparison, however, the “private sector” and “business(es)” are mentioned five times a piece throughout the document.

Together with BWI’s global campaigns director Jin Sook Lee, Daria Cibrario – a policy officer for the local and regional government sector and for multinational enterprises (MNCs) at the Public Services International (PSI) global union federation – was a member of the Workers and Trade Unions Partner Constituent Group, which worked on influencing the member state-negotiated NUA.

Prior to the conference, the trade unions drew up a 10-point agenda for fair, inclusive cities which outlined the key drivers of inclusive urbanisation from a trade union perspective.

“In our view,” Cibrario told Equal Times, “the New Urban Agenda must serve people by addressing their essential needs with policies that generate decent urban employment and secure equitable access to urban public services, rather than pushing for profit-making measures such as the privatisation of essential urban services, intra-city competition and benchmarking. We want to see workers at the centre of this Agenda and its implementation, as they are the overwhelming majority of urban dwellers, be they women, young people, migrants or precarious and informal workers.”

In this respect, she says the final document, which was adopted on 20 October, “falls far short of what we wanted”.

Take decent work as an example. While a number of the 175 paragraphs consistently support the promotion of decent work as a transformative commitment – something Cibrario says the unions “had to fight tooth and nail” to ensure – crucially, the NUA fails to mention the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Decent Work Agenda, the operational framework for using employment, workers’ rights, social protection and social dialogue as a means to combat poverty and foster sustainable development.

The failure of Habitat III to fully incorporate the policy work of the ILO speaks to the coherence issues that could impede the progress of the NUA. Habitat III is the first major UN conference to take place since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 and the Paris Climate Change Agreement in December 2015. How will governments, with their ever-dwindling resources, adhere an increasing number of international commitments, particularly at a local level where the impact of the NUA will be most keenly felt?


“The elephant in the room”

For trade unions, the issue of raising resources for the implementation of the NUA is a major point of contention. “Local and regional governments are being given mandates but these mandates are often unfunded,” said Cibrario.

The kind of financing solutions floated at Habitat III tended to focus on user-end tariffs for services such as water, electricity and sanitation, making city budgets more “efficient” and digitalising public sector jobs, as well as raising private capital. But this is unlikely to foster the inclusiveness that is supposed to underpin the Agenda, critics argue.

Dr Emanuele Lobina is a lecturer in business ethics and governance with the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) at the University of Greenwich in London. During the Roundtable, he said that “the problems with public-private-partnerships (PPPs) are the same problems as privatisation”.

Lobina rejects the idea that PPPs in essential urban services bring in extra money. “The private sector has access to the same financial resources as the public sector. The difference is that the private sector has to pay more because it carries more risks,” he said.

What PPPs do produce, according to Lobina’s research, are extra risks, extra costs (which are borne by the taxpayer), the casualisation of work, job cuts and wage cuts (due to the pursuit of profit) and higher levels of secrecy and corruption due to the huge sums of money and long-term contracts associated with PPPs.

“Remunicipalisation, public-public partnerships, inter-municipal cooperation and ultimately, the public ownership and management of essential urban services, are a much better and viable option than PPPs,” said Lobina.

However, there is another answer on how to finance the NUA, according to unions – it’s just not an easy one.

“One of the big omissions from the discussions is tax justice,” said Cibrario. “It’s the elephant in the room”.

According to estimates, US$30 trillion of unpaid taxes are currently sitting in tax havens, US$12 trillion of which comes from developing countries.

“Everyone talks about the need to finance municipal resources, but nobody talks about that the fact that African cities, for example, are stripped of the corporate taxes they’re entitled to by a global taxation system that allows companies to routinely practice tax-base erosion and profit-shifting,” said Cibrario at the Roundtable.

In addition to progressive tax systems, trade unions are also calling for an end to the offloading of private debt on public finances (the post-2008 bank bailouts is a prime example), as well as an end to ‘above-the-law’ settlements in trade agreements such tax breaks, fiscal incentives and economic processing zones.

Particularly alarming is the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism embedded in trade agreements, through which a single corporation can sue an entire country. According to PSI estimates, there are currently 26 multi-million dollar ISDS cases in arbitration. In one example, PSI estimates that the US$3.7 billion tax bill US corporations have avoided paying in Brazil could have employed 100,000 extra teachers.


Trade unions are crucial for inclusive cities

Also missing from the NUA is any mention of labour clauses in public procurement contracts and infrastructure financing to promote and safeguard decent work. According to Gunde Odgaard of the Danish construction union BAT-Kartellet, 72 out of 98 municipalities in Denmark have adopted labour clauses to ensure decent wages, full employment, training and health and safety precautions for workers, as have a number of major infrastructure projects in countries like Uganda, Cambodia and Panama.

“Having labour clauses in contracts moves workers to a higher level – to formal jobs, to training and also to have labour rights so that they can organise and negotiate,” said Odgaard. It also leads to the localisation of decent work, according to Sjöö, which allows local governments to upgrade and expand cities and stimulate the local economy while ensuring workers’ rights.

The focus now that Habitat III is over is on making the New Urban Agenda a living, breathing document, even if it is non-binding.

Social dialogue will be key to this implementation but trade unions are concerned that they are being excluded from vital conversations.

“Trade unions should not be included as an optional cherry on the tree but as an essential social partner on an equal footing with local authorities and business,” said Cibrario. One that is “incorporated into the UN Habitat governance mechanisms that will implement the delivery of the Agenda,” while acknowledging the very specific role trade unions play in terms of tripartite social dialogue and collective bargaining.

“Without this, the New Urban Agenda is doomed to fail big time,” she said.