Decent Work


Background to the Decent Work Concept


The concept of decent work has emerged today to become one of the most critical labour related issues confronting employees in workplaces throughout the world. This term has its genesis in a report delivered by Mr. Juan Somavia, the current Director General of the International Labour Organisation (I.L.O).   In this report, delivered to the International Labour Conference in 1999, he stated that:


"The primary goal of the I.L.O today is to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity."


Against the backdrop of the rising popularity of the term decent work, the question may be asked as to what exactly does decent work entail.  Decent work could be defined as the converging focus of four strategic objectives that are embedded in the I.L.O's mandate and values[1].  They include:


  1. The promotion of fundamental principles and rights at work;
  2. Employment creation;
  3. Social protection;
  4. Social dialogue. 


Each of these four elements can now be outlined in more detail.


(1)       Rights of Workers


This element essentially arises out of the "declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work" which was adopted by the I.L.O in 1998.  It comprises a body of rights and entitlements for workers across the globe that, when aggregated, serve to form a "minimum social floor" to guide both workers and employers as they operate in the global workforce. A key factor in the observance of this social floor is the recognition and acceptance of core I.L.O conventions by member states, irrespective of whether they have been ratified.  The importance of these conventions lies in the fact that they are reflective of basic human rights and speak to the need to ensure that in every society, persons are afforded the opportunity to work in conditions where their dignity is not compromised. This element can itself be further sub-divided into categories such as:




(2)       Employment Creation


Not only is freely chosen productive employment critical to the formulation of economic and social policies for nations throughout the globe. It is accepted that it is an essential factor in the global fight against poverty, particularly for developing countries. This component of decent work encompasses work of all kinds performed in return for some kind of remuneration, including self-employment and employment in the informal sector. The employment creation element further refers to those measures that must be implemented, to enable employees to maximise their performance at the workplace. Three of these measures include:


(i)        Sufficient work opportunities.  The provision of sufficient work opportunities for those that are desirous of employment is a critical precondition for decent work in any society.  According to the I.L.O Global Employment Agenda[3], every attempt should be made to place employment at the heart of economic and social policies. For small-island developing states, this would involve a combination of policies and actions, including:



The fulfilment of these objectives cannot be regarded as the sole responsibility of either Government or private enterprise, but as a combined goal to be attained by both sectors, as well as the union movement and civil society.


(ii)       Access to a safe and healthy work environment.  The adherence to health and safety standards and best practices should be regarded as a key objective of both employers and workers. Collectively, both groups should strive to ensure that all actions necessary to reduce incidences of occupational accidents, injuries and diseases are pursued in the interests of everyone associated with the organisation. In embracing the decent work concept, employers take reasonable steps to ensure that hazardous chemicals and gases are disposed of in a safe manner and that disposal is conducted in accordance with the health and safety standards of the country. Employers further ensure that employees are provided with safety equipment and trained in the handling of dangerous machinery.


            On the other hand, workers would also be expected to assume some responsibility by complying with the safety rules and guidelines that are implemented by the organisation. The need for compliance to best practices on health and safety issues can be further appreciated when the consequences of neglect are considered. These include, inter alia:



(iii)      Sufficient remuneration to meet basic living requirements.  This factor places emphasis on the adequacy of remuneration for workers in a country's labour force.  An occupation that pays an income that is insufficient for a worker to satisfy his basic requirements for food, transportation, clothing and shelter would not be classified as decent work.  Where investigations reveal that there are widespread incidences of workers who receive wages that do not allow them to achieve an acceptable minimum standard of living, actions such as the implementation of minimum wages may have to be considered. Legislation to this effect could also serve to offer some protection to those vulnerable groups of workers who could be subject to exploitation from employers who seek to maximise profits at the expense of their workers' welfare. These vulnerable groups of workers include (a) unskilled workers (b) young persons (c) workers that fall outside of the collective bargaining process (d) workers with disabilities and (e) migrant workers.



(3)       Social Protection


The decent work concept embraces the need to ensure that the workers of a country are entitled to some level of protection, in the event of the sudden loss of income due to (a) injury on the job (b) redundancy (c) sickness, etc. One of the primary objectives of social protection is to extend coverage to the greatest possible number of workers. 


However, in countries that are characterised by large informal sectors, limited coverage is a commonly occurring problem.  Social security schemes in developing and developed countries alike often report that informal sector workers are generally wary of registering their businesses. As a result, innovative measures to encourage informal sector workers to register themselves in such schemes must be identified and put into action.


Another challenge to social security schemes is the fact that some countries, particularly in the developed world, are now being confronted with the problem of ageing labour forces. An ageing labour force presents a challenge in itself due to the fact that the ratio of persons of working age who are actively contributing towards the fund is falling over time when compared to the ratio of persons who are qualified to draw funds from the scheme.  To successfully address the issue, countries faced with this problem have sought to identify measures to safeguard the long term viability of their schemes. Some measures utilised by countries throughout the world include raising the retirement age, increasing the rate of contributions or some combination of these two initiatives.  Reviewing immigration policies is also another possible, though often controversial option.


Despite the long-term challenges confronting the operations of such schemes, it is generally acknowledged that they have a critical role to play in the journey towards the decent work objective. They protect the financial welfare of registered workers through a variety of benefits, ranging from sickness and maternity to pensions and employment injury. However, in a changing international environment characterised by the demise of archaic and uncompetitive industries, they must continue to re-invent themselves by identifying and implementing new ideas (such as the provision of incentives to re-train redundant workers) that serve to enhance the development of workers.



(4)       Social Dialogue


Social dialogue is increasingly being recognised as critical to the concept of "good governance" and is considered to be one of the principle objectives of the I.L.O.  Social dialogue is the fourth element on which the decent work concept is based and basically refers to the practice of workers, employers and Government coming together to engage in discussions of a labour related, economic or social nature.


In today's world, social dialogue has now evolved in such a way as to transcend labour related issues.  Fayoshin (2001)[4] notes:


"Contemporary national and international economic imperatives suggest that to confine social dialogue to labour market issues grossly understates the overwhelming influence of the macroeconomic environment on the world of work.  The reality is that the changes that are today taking place in the labour market are generally just one phenomenon in a much larger and complex macro-economic policy framework."


In some countries, social dialogue is regarded as an all-embracing concept where workers, employers and Government enter into discussions on various issues of national importance.  These discussions are varied and could range from economic issues (such as the effect of technological change on employment and job redundancies in uncompetitive industrial sectors) to social issues (crime, poverty reduction, gender equality, HIV/AIDS awareness, etc).


By engaging in social dialogue, parties to the agreement participate in a process that encourages the exchange of ideas and the consideration of each other's point of view. In more advanced examples such as the social partnership of Ireland, parties to the agreement are appraised of the latest economic and social developments affecting the country. Through continuous consultation and negotiation, all parties endeavour to identify mutually acceptable approaches to issues such as wage negotiations and redundancies in uncompetitive economic sectors. Furthermore, all parties agree to conduct discussions that are based on key principles such as trust, transparency and respect for alternate opinions.


Each party, whether worker, employer or government representative, is provided with an avenue to voice their concerns to each other.  By creating a playing field where all parties can converge and listen to each other's points of view, a mechanism is created where grievances could be solved in an amicable manner, thereby diminishing the prospect of costly industrial action that could not only harm all parties, but the economic sector in which they operate, as well as the wider economy. Moreover, the existence of such a mechanism can serve to be instrumental to the quick diffusion of any mistrust and ambiguities that could arise through the lack of communication.

The Importance of the Decent Work Concept


Decent work justifiably places emphasis on the people-centered approach to the globalisation process and the challenges that a changing international environment would bring.  These challenges are both numerous and diverse, ranging from the declining prevalence of preferential trading arrangements for developing countries, to job redundancies in economic sectors that have become uncompetitive.


Decent work acknowledges that one cannot justifiably examine issues pertaining to trade, technology, international capital flows, intellectual property rights and market access without placing equal emphasis on other issues such as poverty reduction, gender equality, social security and workers rights.  These issues have a direct impact not only on peoples' jobs, but their cultures and their very existence.  Consequently, though it is acknowledged that profits are the driving force behind all business entities in any capitalist society, the decent work concept acknowledges the fact that some equilibrium must be found between:


(i)        economic and financial matters; and

(ii)       social justice, both at the workplace and in wider society.


The concept recognises that focus must be placed not just on the quantity, but the quality of employment, regardless of the occupation in which a worker is engaged. This is a concept that should be vigorously pursued, especially in light of the challenges associated with the current economic crisis and beyond.



Benefits to be accrued from the adoption of the Decent Work Concept


It can readily be acknowledged that the adoption of decent work principles is critical to the development of any labour force. In turn, it can be further argued that a well trained, educated, flexible and productive labour force is critical to the sustainable economic development of any country, whether industrialised or developing.


Some of the benefits of adhering to decent work principles include, inter alia:



Challenges that might be encountered in the adoption of the Decent Work Concept


A commitment by a country to the adoption of the concept of decent work would necessitate that a number of mechanisms, policies and programmes be formulated (and/or updated) in order to facilitate the full acceptance of the decent work concept, along with the institutional strengthening of some key public sector entities.  Some actions that would need to be taken are now outlined below:


The passing of laws to ensure the well being of the workforce and the protection of that workforce from exploitation is one of the major factors to be addressed in embracing decent work. For instance, the implementation of safety and health legislation to protect a country's workforce would be critical, along with legislation to protect the rights of both the employee and the employer. Minimum wage legislation to assist workers in attaining a basic standard of living would also be of extreme benefit.




One of the primary pre-conditions for the widespread embracing of the decent work concept is the need to provide accurate and timely information to objectively assess any progress being made towards the attainment of the goal.  Information needs in themselves are diverse and could include:


(i)        Continuous labour costs and wage surveys, to monitor wage and salary levels, their movements over time and to ascertain whether such changes are in line with changes in productivity levels.  This information would also facilitate comparison to any established minimum wage levels;


(ii)       An updated informal sector survey, to obtain an estimate of the numbers of persons working in the informal sector, the physical working conditions with which they are faced and the areas of economic activity in which they are involved;


(iii)      The establishment of an updated poverty line to ascertain the number of persons that are living below some minimally acceptable economic level;


(iv)      If decent work is to be adopted as a goal to be achieved, it would be extremely advantageous to establish a "decent work statistical database."  Such a database would satisfy the need for tangible performance indicators to measure the success (or failure) in achieving the various decent work principles. Some information requirements that could be deemed as critical include:




Vulnerable groups of workers include workers with disabilities and migrant workers.  In the case of the former, training policies aimed at increasing the employability of this vulnerable group must be promoted in tandem with awareness campaigns aimed at employers.  Such campaigns should be designed to encourage employers to bring disabled persons into their organisations. 


It must be recognised that the interests of disabled persons go well beyond ensuring that they have ready access to public buildings and parking spaces.  They must be provided with the opportunity to access training and education programmes, so that they are empowered to make a living for themselves in the changing international environment. Where necessary, employers must be prepared to physically re-configure their workplaces, to ensure that the requirements of the disabled worker are provided in order for them to function effectively.


Migrant workers also need to be provided with every opportunity to benefit from the decent work concept.  Migration itself is an occurrence that if properly managed, can result in positive synergies. In general, a country can benefit from increased numbers of non-national workers through (i) the supply of labour to address any shortages occurring in its labour market and (ii) the taxes and contributions towards the social security system that documented migrant workers provide. However, it is acknowledged that for many migrants, the work experience has been anything but positive.  Some are faced with overt discrimination, both at the workplace and as they go about their daily lives. Many are exposed to dangerous working conditions and receive insufficient levels of remuneration from unscrupulous employers, who show little respect for their well being and basic human rights. To address these concerns, migrant worker policies must be formulated, promoted and disseminated to the general public, to facilitate an awareness of their unique challenges. It should have the dual intention of protecting the basic human and social rights of migrant workers, as well as their work-related interests as they seek to integrate into the host country's labour market.



It could be argued that the achievement of the decent work concept could be hindered if poor standards of behaviour and attitudes are exhibited by workers at all levels.  Decent work can only thrive in an environment in which a commitment exists to the attainment of the highest standards of professional conduct and where workers and employers alike adhere to key workplace principles such as positive attitudes, honesty, performance and good customer service.   


[1] Website of the International Labour Organisation:

[2] This can also cover workers with life threatening illnesses such as persons infected with HIV.

[3] an initiative adopted by the I.L.O's governing body in 2003

[4] Social Dialogue: Fostering economic development through Social Partnership by Tayo Fayoshin

[5] Incidentally, these goals are (i) combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases (ii) Ensure environmental sustainability and (iii) Develop a global partnership for development.


© 2009 Barbados Ministry of Labour.