The 2030 Agenda and the future of work in Europe

Greater efforts needed to achieve SDG targets

Speaking at the University of Helsinki, the ILO Director-General told an audience from the Sustainability Foundation that a lack of credible action on the SDG’s risked damaging the credibility of national and multilateral institutions.

Statement | Helsinki, Finland | 11 February 2020
Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for giving me a chance to kick off this discussion. I'm going to just make a few slightly provocative comments about this interesting subject of the 2030 agenda and the future of work. It is a good time to do so because the ILO has just marked its one-hundredth birthday with a very important reflection on the future of work, the adoption of the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, which we think adds importantly to the discussion.

At the same time, at the beginning of 2020, we are entering the last ten years of the delivery of the 2030 Agenda. And, these are not two separate or parallel lines. These are converging lines because the sustainable future that we have set out in the 2030 Agenda coincides and converges very clearly with the future of work that our Declaration wishes to bring about.

So we are talking about the right things or we are talking about the same things. Decent work is woven very strongly into the 2030 Agenda. It is not difficult to make linkages between different SDGs, and to find a connection between them and work, most obviously in respect of SDG8 which relates to decent work for all but also in relation to the reduction of inequality SPG10, the elimination of poverty SDG1, health issues SDG3, equality, etc. If you try, you can make a connection to practically all 17 of these SDGs. So SDGs are very much the ILO's business.

Here's the bad news. The first piece of bad news is, and this is the Secretary-General of the United Nations who is speaking rather than myself, the world is well behind targets. We are not delivering the SDGs one decade away from the deadline. That should focus our attention and frankly make us try harder. We should reflect on why we are not doing very well, on the consequences of what happens if we don't do better and on what are the obstacles which are getting in our way.

The ILO combines the environmental dimension of sustainability with the other dimensions of sustainability, the economic and social dimensions. We believe they have to be pursued in tandem and coherently. I will add a fourth dimension to sustainability, the political sustainability. If we don't take our citizens with us on this agenda, the political support for this agenda will collapse before this agenda is completed.

Let me turn firstly to the connections between these different dimensions of sustainability. It is a relatively new and positive state of affairs at least in the ILO that our constituents – governments, trade unions and businesses as well – have accepted the proposition which not so long ago they did not; that the advancement of economic growth, job creation and development is not antithetical to the protection of the planet. We were locked in, at least in our Organization, for a very long time to the idea that one has to choose between pursuit of labour goals and the pursuit of environmental protection. That false choice lies behind us, not in front of us.

But what does still lie ahead for us, and it is a major obstacle, is the fact that this is hard work and that the just transition that we wish to make happen towards climate neutrality is a very difficult job of labour market engineering. Our research shows that there is a very clear job dividend in the movement towards carbon neutrality. It is far from automatic; there are winners and there will be losers in this process and there is nothing automatic about it whatsoever.

When you look to public support for these issues, the phrase that comes to mind is one that was put to me by a trade unionist who said “you know whilst we all worry about the end of the planet, many of our people worry about getting to the end of the month”. And, if you make those two things unconnected you're going to lose the support of people for this agenda. That doesn't need to happen but we're not making it happen right now, we need to try harder. As the United Nations Secretary-General says, climate change is running ahead quicker than our capacity or our willingness to act upon it.

The second obstacle that seems to stand in the way of progress in my mind is the lack of credible action on one specific SDG and that is the reduction of inequalities.

The response has been very much in the same vein as we've had with climate change. There has been a growing intellectual and institutional understanding that levels of inequality as they stand today are not only a problem in social terms – and the ILO has been saying this for a very long time, but an economic problem standing in the way of job creation and growth. No lesser authority than the International Monetary Fund says this.

So this sounds great. We have an alignment of economic and of social reasons to tackle inequality and do it much better than we have done in the past. That sounds good. And yet, inequality continues, inequality is getting worse. And, we have a credibility issue here. Policymakers, institutions that recognize the problems of inequality are still failing to tackle them. The business sector, which is vital to the realization of the SDGs’ whole agenda, has major issues around remuneration and compensation in their own practices. This is credibility time. Similarly, with taxation issues.

So we have obstacles that we impose upon ourselves, obstacles which are inherent in the task we have ahead of us, and obstacles which we simply have to bring greater political will to bear upon.

The consequences of failure to deliver the 2030 Agenda could be put into two boxes, two categories. The consequences for our societies, for our environment will be bad and they could be catastrophic. This is not only an agenda where we can afford to fail to deliver in concrete terms. It will also be extremely negative, and I hope I'm not seeing this from a too parochial perspective here, it will be extremely damaging for the whole issue of multilateral cooperation and international cooperation.

The United Nations has bet very heavily on making the 2030 Agenda work. It has become a test of the United Nations, it has become the leitmotiv of reform of the United Nations system. And if it doesn't happen at a time when multilateralism is under extreme tension, the greatest strain we've seen since the Second World War, this runs the risk of, if not a nail in the coffin, then a plank in the making of the coffin.

We can't afford to fail on this agenda for both of these reasons and I repeat our performance over the next 10 years is going to have to be a lot better than it's been over the last five. If we close our eyes to that reality or consider that we are on course, I am afraid that we are heading to a failure that we can’t afford. That's not what I think will happen, but it is a warning about what can happen. So hopefully the discussion, which is going to take place could help us to accelerate and move forward with greater conviction and greater speed.