#20 work
Paola Simonetti

For a better 2030

Labour unions played a key role in designing the Sustainable Development Goals. Now they are fighting to get them implemented – nationally and internationall.

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), adopted by all UN countries. The 2030 Agenda builds on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015), and has broader scope. The MDGs were essentially framed in using a North-South divide logic, whereas the 2030 Agenda is relevant for all developed and developing countries and goes beyond the objective of poverty eradication alone. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 169 targets, and many more indicators, are therefore a first attempt to provide a holistic framework that brings social, economic and environmental provisions together 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-stakeholder framework and supervisory system to back SDG implementation were largely ignored over the course of negotiations. The result is an intergovernmental reporting process on a purely voluntary basis, which will be difficult for civil society organisations in particular to influence in a meaningful way.

The relevance of the SDGs to the world of work, and the role of the labour movement

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% of the population now holds wealth equivalent to that of the remaining 99%. Many working families face difficulties in paying for decent housing, appropriate health care, security in old age, and a decent education for their children. This concentration of wealth excludes the great majority and results in a polarisation that pushes people towards the growing informal economy.

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

The on-going 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.

To expose the social costs of this transformation, change must start on the factory floor

Business interests are also prevailing in the global trade agendas, which sacrifice multilateralism for bilateral relations. Indeed, international governance is far from inclusive. Quite the opposite, as 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 require a massive transformation in how economies and industries work. To expose the social costs of this transformation, change must start on the factory floor: national just transition plans are needed to appropriately retrain workers currently employed in high-emission industries and provide appropriate adaptation measures for 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 for reinforcing their efforts. This is why trade unions were heavily engaged in and instrumental to the shaping of the 2030 Agenda. Their efforts resulted in the inclusion of priorities such as decent work (Goal 8), gender equality (Goal 5), reducing inequalities (Goal 10), and a just transition (Goal 13).

The trade union recipe for SDGs implementation

Promoting the Decent Work Agenda (DWA) remains the main objective of the trade union input in the 2030 Agenda. Based on rights and democratic ownership, the DWA serves as the foundation for sustainable development, unlike other merely palliative interventions. Human and labour rights, collective bargaining, social dialogue, social protection and gender equality are not only essential ingredients for sustainable economic growth; they are also the pillars for democracy building, which is the cornerstone of just development processes.

Trade unions are engaging at national, regional and global levels to foster these priorities through dialogue with national governments and employer organisations.

However, governments and business will also have to adapt their policies and modus operandi if they are serious about contributing to realising the SDGs. Achieving goals 8, 5 and 10 for example, requires the implementation of sound employment policy frameworks, and wage policies that include a minimum wage, labour inspections, and social protection systems. Business should ensure due diligence in respecting labour and environmental rights, as well as safeguarding fiscal accountability and transparency.

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

Evidence has shown 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 respect for 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.

Photo: “Lone Worker 2” by Gino Zhang
2013 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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