The SDGs are not achievable without unions and progressive policies


On 19 July, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), a foundation that promotes the values of social democracy, freedom, justice and solidarity, hosted a forum at the 14th United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Conference (UNCTAD 14) focusing on the progress we have made toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to end poverty and create a better, healthier, more sustainable world by 2030.

I spoke at this panel, providing insights from the international labour movement. I began by noting that, from the point of view of working people – who provide the engine of every sector of every economy around the world – there are serious questions about how we will achieve the SDGs given the policies included in and missing from the SDG 2030 Agenda. Of particular concern is the failure to put unions at the centre of the goal of liveable wages and decent work.

The term “trade union” does not appear a single time in the entire SDG 2030 document. Not even once. Why do the SDGs ignore research by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others that unions are key to addressing income inequality? Research also shows that unions can help raise productivity, a critical factor in growth. So it is disappointing that unions, which have much to contribute, aren’t even mentioned in the SDGs.

In addition, among the four pillars of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Decent Work Agenda, social dialogue is the only one not explicitly recognised among the targets and indicators of the eighth SDG.

On a related note, the SDGs do not directly confront corporate governance or the incentives that corporate decision makers face that often lead to the exploitation and abuse of working people, the environment, and small businesses at the bottom of the supply chain. Social dialogue, co-determination, corporate by-laws, and national laws governing corporate entities all have an important role to play in eliminating the race to the bottom and achieving the SDGs.


Corporations aren’t always right

Regarding progress toward the SDGs, unfortunately, the current “market fundamentalism” (i.e., “corporations are always right”) that governs global trade and investment policy is getting in the way of achieving the SGDs. For example, paragraph 68 of the SDG declaration begins: “International trade is an engine for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction, and contributes to the promotion of sustainable development.”

The absence of any qualifiers in this sentence (like “can” or “sometimes”) ignores the reality that international trade can also be an engine for wage stagnation and inequality. Important work done by Rodrik, Bivens, and Capaldo, Izurieta & Sundaram (among others) proves this. But the SDGs just focus on “more trade” instead of the right kind of trade.

Unfortunately, this myopia about the current model of globalisation is compounded by existing trade and investment agreements and pending ones including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Like other existing trade agreements, the TPP puts states in competition to attract investments by driving down costs. This disincentivises the enactment or enforcement (or both) of labour market policies and workplace protections that would drive wages up, increase demand and raise living standards. As it is, labour share of income is at historic lows across the globe.

Similarly, to drive down costs and attract investment, the TPP incentivises tax abatements and ever lower corporate tax rates. These can undermine needed investments in labour market institutions, industrial and social transfer policies, infrastructure, health and education by limiting government revenues. [Read the Capaldo study Trading Down to learn more about this relentless competition to attract capital.]

In addition, the TPP contains the investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS), which undermines democratic governance by providing foreign investors with special rights and private tribunals they can use to bully governments out of enacting health, worker training, environmental and other needed reforms.

Importantly, there is no data available on the number of times investors have threatened but not filed cases once the policy they opposed was withdrawn or amended. However, we know the ‘chill factor’ caused by the threat of such cases undermines democratic choices about how best to enact policies needed to achieve decent work for all and other SDGs.

The TPP also undermines access to affordable medicines and health technologies, undermining the third SDG. By including many TRIPS-plus disciplines such as patent extensions, patent evergreening and minimum market exclusivity periods for biologic medicines, US trade policies delay entry of generic medicines and devices and tend to raise health care costs for patients and government health care programs.

Finally, the TPP is unlikely to help ensure labour rights and increase workplace safety. Although it requires parties to adopt and maintain fundamental labour rights, the US has a poor record of monitoring and enforcing such obligations. In reality, labour conditions degraded in Mexico and Central America after trade deals between the US and those countries went into force.

To achieve the SDGs, including inclusive growth and shared prosperity, the working people of the world need an effective collective voice in the workplace, not mere lip service. To walk the talk, global institutions like UNCTAD must turn away from neoliberal trade policies toward more progressive, inclusive ones.