What does the 2030 Agenda mean for labour?

What does the 2030 Agenda mean for labour?

Trade union engagement has been key to the inclusion of priorities such as decent work in the 2030 Agenda.

(Solidarity Center)

In 2015, the United Nations adopted a new framework on sustainable development, known as the 2030 Agenda. This agenda contains a set of objectives, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to which all countries have committed. The 2030 Agenda builds on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015), and has a broader scope. The MDGs were essentially framed in a North-South divide logic, whereas the 2030 Agenda is relevant for all countries – developed and developing alike – and goes beyond the sole objective of poverty eradication.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 169 targets and many more indicators are therefore a first attempt to provide a holistic framework bringing together social, economic and environmental provisions to foster universal progress.

While this is certainly a significant achievement compared to the MDGs, the 2030 Agenda still lacks teeth when it comes to implementation. In fact, the success of the 2030 Agenda depends solely on whether the countries that have committed to it will hold true to their promises.

The repeated calls from civil society organisations to have a binding multi-stakeholders framework and supervisory system backing the implementation of the SDGs have largely been ignored during the course of the negotiations. The result is an intergovernmental reporting process based only on a voluntary basis, which civil society organisations in particular will struggle to influence.

The current political and socio-economic trends pose enormous challenges to the trade union movement as a whole. Inequalities in global wealth distribution are staggering and income inequality is at an all-time high; 1 per cent of the population now holds equivalent wealth to that of the remaining 99 per cent.

Many working families face difficulties in paying for decent housing, appropriate health care, old-age security and decent education for their children. This concentration of wealth excludes the great majority and results in a polarisation which pushes people towards the growing informal economy.

Increasing inequality

The weakening of labour market institutions is one key cause of increasing inequality. The neo-liberal ‘structural reform paradigm’ employed since the 1980s by global institutions, currently experiencing a strong revival, has the effect of increasing privatisation processes and progressively reducing the role of the state in providing accessible common goods and services.

The ongoing integration of national economies into global markets and the expansion of global supply chains have intensified competition and caused global corporations to cut labour costs through restructuring, outsourcing and off-shoring. Tax avoidance and tax evasion are growing factors of concern in this respect. Furthermore, the externalising of environmental costs is a huge impediment to achieving environmental sustainability.

Business interests are also prevailing in the global trade agendas, sacrificing multilateralism for bilateral relations. Indeed, international governance is far from inclusive. Rather, it is still overly controlled by powerful economies and characterised by weak accountability systems.

Climate change and the need to shift to low carbon societies will require a massive transformation in how economies and industries work. To avoid hiding the social costs of this transformation, change must start on the work floor: national ‘just transition’plans are needed to appropriately reorient workers in high-emission industries and provide appropriate adaptation measures to workers impacted by climate change.

The labour movement must tackle these enormous challenges with the actions and instruments that characterise trade union engagement. In this sense, the SDGs certainly offer a useful channel to reinforce their efforts. This is why trade unions have been heavily engaged in, and instrumental to, the shaping of the 2030 Agenda. This work resulted in the inclusion of priorities such as decent work (Goal 8), gender equality (Goal 5), fight against inequalities (Goal 10) and just transition (Goal 13) amongst others.

The trade union recipe for SDGs implementation

Promoting the Decent Work Agenda (DWA) remains the main objective of the trade union input into the 2030 Agenda. Based on rights and democratic ownership, the DWA is the foundation for sustainable development, as opposed to palliative interventions.

Human and labour rights, collective bargaining, social dialogue, social protection and gender equality are not only essential ingredients for sustainable economic growth but are the pillars of democracy-building. Building and fortifying democratic processes is in turn the cornerstone of just development.

Trade unions are engaging at country, regional and global levels, in order to foster these priorities, through dialogue with national governments and employer organisations. In Sweden, for example, in 2016 the government appointed a delegation comprising people from different sectors of society to implement the 2030 Agenda. They have been tasked with developing an action plan “through a broad consultation with a range of different stakeholders: business, civil society and trade unions, among others,” writes Oscar Ernerot of LO Sweden in an article for the ITUC website. “LO contributes with expertise on the relation between the function of the labour market and the 2030 Agenda. The position of LO is clear, the autonomy of the social partners must be fully respected in the action plan in relation to relevant goals and targets,” says Ernerot.

However, governments and business too will have to adapt their policies and modus operandi if they are serious about contributing to the realisation of the SDGs. Achieving goals like 8, 5 and 10, requires the implementation of sound employment policy frameworks, wage policies, including minimum wage, labour inspection and social protection systems. Business should ensure due diligence to respect labour and environmental rights, as well as to ensure fiscal accountability and transparency.

These are huge tasks that have to be tackled by labour market institutions through social dialogue and collective bargaining. Bringing together workers’ and employers’ representatives, when making decisions that impact on social, economic and environmental conditions reinforces institutional stability.

Evidence shows that social dialogue can foster socio-economic progress, and can therefore be a key means of implementation of the SDGs. However, it is also true that it requires an enabling environment underpinned by the respect of labour rights and the full recognition of the role of trade unions.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in many countries, especially in the Global South.

In Zimbabwe, for example, trade unions note that “in its haste to develop the SDG Position Paper, the Zimbabwean government failed to recognise one of the clearly stated key principles for the successful realisation of the SDGs, that is, the principle of inclusivity,” writes Naome Chakanya, senior researcher at the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe (LEDRIZ), the research arm of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). In a recent article, Chakanya explains that the ZCTU was excluded from the consultation leading to the government’s 2015 position paper, as well as helping to form the implementation strategy on SDGs. “Paradoxically,” she notes, “SDG 8 is included as one of the priority goals.”

Meanwhile in Argentina there is no dialogue whatsoever between the government and trade unions on the implementation of SDGs. “The government has determined on multiple occasions that inclusive alliances are to be made with the private sector. Meanwhile, the labour sector has only been consulted once on the issue of SDG indicators, in the context of an ILO event,” says Marita Gonzalez of Argentina’s Confederación General del Trabajo.

These examples clearly highlight the need for both bipartite and tripartite social dialogue to be fostered and supported at country level. The existence of social dialogue should become a key requisite in the context of the global review process of the 2030 Agenda.