Decent work across the globe – a perspective for the 2015 Labour Government

by David Jepson, LCID Member

Things have changed a lot since 1997 when Labour came to power with a huge surge of popular support and, amongst other things, put international development as a major priority for the first time.

The Millennium Development Goals provided the wider framework and the Labour government closely followed these priorities, for example, the eradication of extreme poverty, promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and achieving universal primary education. Considerable, although patchy, progress has been made in relation to the attainment of these goals in many countries across the globe.

Over the past 15 years, we have seen the strong emergence of the BRIC economies and many other countries in receipt of UK aid have enjoyed high levels of economic growth, not only in Asia (Bangladesh for example, economy growing at 5.8% per year since 1997) and Latin America, and also in Africa with 4.9 % annual GDP growth 2000 – 2008. Although the picture is complicated and diverse, the fruits of private sector led development are not always well distributed within the societies concerned. Political and economic elites have benefitted together with multi national corporations. Major segments of populations, including the urban poor and those living in rural areas are excluded from the benefits of growth which might have been anticipated through either through enhanced public services and or through significantly increased incomes.

The adoption of decent work as a key element within our policy framework for international development post 2015 will be a very relevant response to the changing international context.

But they didn’t get better for everyone

The ILO definition of decent work revolves around four strategic objectives, creating jobs, guaranteeing rights at work, extending social protection and promoting social dialogue with gender equality as a cross cutting objective. In recent years, decent work objectives have not been high on DFIDs list with a recent evaluation of the track record of DFID in following the decent work agenda concluding that it scored just 25 out of a possible 56 points.

Labour giving priority to decent work objectives , such as rights at work and social protection,  would create “clear blue water” between Labour and the Conservative approach which places emphasis on private sector led development within deregulated markets. It will help to ensure that the fruits of growth are distributed more fairly. Moreover, increasing incomes and stability in the labour market will underpin the expansion of consumer demand and boost domestic economies. This in turn will create an environment within which smaller business can flourish and over dependency on export markets, often involving a small range of products or commodities, will be reduced. In addition, stable, secure and well rewarded employment will strengthen the indigenous tax base.

Through Decent Work Labour can make a difference

Significant impact in relation to decent work objectives, could be made with relatively small levels of expenditure, for example through provision of peer to peer support and technical assistance, creation of systems and capacity building, training and advice, to governments (for example Ministries of Labour and Social Affairs), Public Employment Services, local government, trades unions, locally based NGOs etc. Ensuring the multi-national enterprises follow the requirements of the relevant OECD Guidelines would another key feature of the approach.  The focus would be on a selected group of countries with a very different framework for fragile / failed states (such as Afghanistan or Somalia) where there is very limited  autonomous economic activity.

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