June 22, 2021
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Decent Work Overview

Decent Work Overview

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:

  • Non-discrimination at the workplace with respect to race, religion, gender, disability, ethnic or political background.[2] These issues are addressed in I.L.O conventions #100 and #111.
  • Abolition of forced labour, including slavery and bondage. Such situations occur where workers are compelled to comply with the requests of employers, failing which they are threatened with physical violence, sexual abuse or imprisonment. Labour trafficking and the confiscation of workers’ identity documents are further examples of behaviours that the I.L.O seeks to address, through conventions such as #29 and #105.
  • Abolition of child labour. In considering this category, it is important to note that all work performed by children does not amount to child labour. Take for example, cases where a child either assists his parents in their shop after school or sells newspapers on a weekend. Neither of these would be deemed child labour. However, any work activity that impedes a child’s right to education, exposes them to dangerous working environments and compromises their morals (prostitution, pornography, drug trafficking, etc) would qualify as child labour under the benchmarks outlined by the I.L.O. These issues are addressed in I.L.O conventions #138 and #182.
  • Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. This category refers to the rights of both workers and employers to establish organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation. It also addresses the right of workers to be protected against acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of their employment. (These issues are addressed in I.L.O conventions #87 and #98).


(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 adoption of sound macro-economic policies by Government
  • securing market access for local goods and services in international markets
  • the creation and moulding of an entrepreneurial culture
  • attracting foreign direct investment into the country
  • increasing the employability of the labour force through education and training.

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:

  • Loss in productivity through absenteeism, to a worker injured on the job.
  • Increased burden on the social services, in terms of payments for injury and disability claims by injured workers.
  • Industrial unrest arising from workers protesting against unsatisfactory and unhealthy conditions of employment.

(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.

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