Background Note by the International Labour Organization for the UN High-Level Political Forum 11 - 20 July 2016, New York

Statement | 12 August 2016


Background Note by the International Labour Organization

UN High-Level Political Forum 11 - 20 July 2016, New York


“The fundamental values of freedom, human dignity, social justice, security and non-discrimination are essential for sustainable economic and social development and efficiency.”

ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (2008)

Decent work is a means and an end to end poverty

and achieve sustainable development

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement, world leaders committed member States to end extreme poverty and to set the world on a path for sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda is also a universal call for global social justice, addressing poverty, inequality, inclusion and a commitment to leave no one behind.

The challenge is truly ambitious: the ILO estimates that 57% of those who today live in extreme poverty are working women and men. They account for 12% of the total working age population in developing countries. One third of the working-age people in the developing world are living in moderate poverty.

Promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all (SDG8) is a central feature of the 2030 Agenda. This confers an important responsibility on the ILO with our mandate to pursue Decent Work for All.

Decent work is a pathway to fair and just societies for all and in particular for those left behind. It is therefore both a means and an end for poverty reduction - both a major instrument to make development happen and also a primary objective of rights-based sustainable development.

A major challenge, but also an opportunity, of the universal 2030 Agenda is formulating and implementing policies for decent work for poverty reduction that address the diversity of those at risk of being left behind. They may be poor farmers or indigenous people in one country and or self-employed or jobless youth in another. Social and economic policy-making needs to be informed and guided by a focus on these at-risk groups so they may also benefit from social progress and fully participate in a world we want.

Today, development is still leaving too many behind

Significant but fragile progress in poverty reduction…

Over the past two decades, significant progress has been made in reducing poverty in the majority of countries, as noted by the ILO World Employment and Social Outlook 2016 (WESO). In emerging and developing countries, taken as a whole, it is estimated that nearly 2 billion people live on less than $3.10 per day. This represents around 36 per cent of the emerging and developing world’s population, which is nearly half the rate that was observed in 1990, the base year for the initial international commitments to reduce poverty. During the same period, extreme poverty – defined as people living on less than $1.90 per day – declined at an even faster rate to reach 15 per cent of the total population of emerging and developing countries in 2012, the latest available year.

These impressive gains however are fragile and uneven. While improvements have been significant in a number of countries, notably China and much of Latin America, the incidence of poverty remains stubbornly high in Africa and parts of Asia. Moreover, in developed countries, an increase in poverty has been recorded, especially in Europe. It is estimated that, in 2012, over 300 million people in developed countries were living in poverty.

… with many also left precariously just above poverty thresholds

A significant proportion of those who moved out of poverty continue to live on just a few dollars per day, often with limited access to essential services and social protection which would give them a chance to exit precarious living conditions on a more permanent basis. Also, in those developed countries where quality jobs are scarce, there is growing anxiety among middle-class families about their ability to sustain their income position.

Almost one-third of the extreme and moderate poor in emerging and developing countries have a job. However, these jobs are vulnerable in nature: they are sometimes unpaid and mostly poorly paid, concentrated in low-skilled occupations, outside the protection of labour law and, in the absence of social protection, live almost exclusively on income generated by their labour. In addition, two-thirds of the jobs are typically in low-productivity agricultural activities.

Work alone is not sufficient for people living in poverty to catch up…

The vast majority of people living in poverty – across the range of country groupings – are of working age. Yet, people living in poverty either do not have jobs or are engaged in low-paid employment, such as own-account or unpaid family work which is typically low skilled. This makes it difficult for the working poor to improve their conditions (e.g. within agriculture, where close to two-thirds of people living in poverty are economically engaged), or to find quality employment, acquire a career and thus move out of poverty. Poor households in emerging and developing countries are found to rely more on labour incomes either from wage employment or self-employment. Other sources of income are private transfers, many of which are remittances of earnings made by other family members, and non-contributory social transfers usually from public schemes. Meanwhile, people living in poverty in developed countries are most reliant on social protection. Addressing these decent work deficits, therefore, is essential for ending poverty.

In particular women and children are affected…

The gains have also been uneven across population groups. Poverty affects women disproportionately, and children to an even greater extent. In emerging and developing countries, more than half of all children under the age of 15 live in extreme or moderate poverty. Combatting child labour and poverty go hand in hand. In developed countries, 36 per cent of all children live below the poverty line.

Inequality increases the risk of perpetuating poverty.

It will not be possible to reduce poverty in a lasting manner without decent work. In other words, decent work is a necessary, though not a sufficient condition, for eradicating poverty. Although they represent 30 per cent of the world’s population, people living in poverty receive less than 2 per cent of the world’s income. Unless immediate action is taken, poverty will likely perpetuate itself across generations.

Increasing inequalities holds back domestic consumption and growth and hence the potential impact of growth on poverty reduction. In a world of limited resources, as greater gains from growth go to the top earners, so the scope for reducing poverty is reduced. By contrast growth designed to be more inclusive is also likely to be faster and less volatile.

Millions are left behind in unacceptable forms of work…

Forced labour takes different forms, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. The victims are the most vulnerable – women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage, and sweatshop or farm workers kept there by illegal methods and paid little or nothing. Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour: 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys. Of those exploited by individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation. Migrant workers and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to forced labour.

… or face discrimination

Hundreds of millions of people suffer from discrimination in the world of work. This can take various forms, including multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, race and ethnicity, religion, migrant status, social origin, disability, HIV/AIDS, and age. Indigenous groups are particularly vulnerable. Discrimination not only violates a most basic human right, but has wider social and economic consequences. Discrimination stifles opportunities, wasting the human talent needed for economic progress, and accentuates social tensions and inequalities. It risks perpetuating the status of those who are already at risk of being left behind.

Ending poverty means ending rural poverty.

Eight out of ten of the world’s working poor live in rural areas where the lack of decent work opportunities are pervasive. Therefore, the challenge of ending poverty is fundamentally one of ending rural poverty. Rural poverty has numerous causes, ranging from climate change, natural resource degradation, armed conflict, lack of opportunities, social exclusion, weak institutions, poor agricultural conditions and trade-related challenges. Rural poverty is a driver of a host of social problems, including hunger and malnutrition, poor working conditions and exploitation of children.

Ensuring coherent and integrated support to implementation of the new Agenda: the role of the ILO and the Decent Work Agenda

The 2030 Agenda stresses “the importance of system-wide strategic planning, implementation and reporting in order to ensure coherent and integrated support to the implementation of the new Agenda by the United Nations development system.” This is particularly important to realizing Goal 8 which is both a means and end to the objective of leaving no one behind.

The ILO’s Decent Work Agenda and the portfolio of policies and programmes built-in can offer valuable support to member States, particularly through strengthened partnerships within the UN development system. Strengthened partnerships with coherent and integrated support is vital given the scale of the decent work challenges and large numbers of people at risk of being left behind.

Decent work for young women and men

Over 40% of the world’s working-age youth are either unemployed or have a job but live in poverty. The challenge of youth employment is therefore of raising both quantity and quality jobs. It demands nothing less than coordinated global action.

The Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth is the first-ever, comprehensive United Nations system-wide effort for the promotion of youth employment worldwide. It brings together the global resources and convening power of the UN system and other key global partners to maximize the effectiveness of youth employment investments and assist Member States in delivering on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

This Global Initiative stimulates country-level action, scales-up existing efforts, and increases impact through knowledge and innovative, evidence-based interventions. It represents unique cooperation to tackle the youth employment challenge and assist Member States in delivering the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Vulnerable youth with little or no education are a particular focus of global and country-level policy efforts. These young women and men are much more likely to be mired in informal and precarious forms of employment without written contracts and the benefits associated with them. They are also more likely to be poorly paid and be in the ranks of the working poor.

Policies and programmes on skills development and technical and vocational training and education need to be accompanied by job search support systems, alongside equal opportunities for women and the promotion of youth entrepreneurship.

Building and extending social protection systems

Achieving substantial social protection coverage for the poor and the vulnerable by 2030 through national social protection systems and measures, including floors, is a key target in the Agenda’s strategy for poverty reduction. Social protection floors in particular, can play a vital role not only in reducing poverty, but also in preventing poverty for an entire population.

Social protection floors should, according to ILO Recommendation 202, comprise the following basic guarantees:

access to essential health care, including maternity care;

basic income security for families with children;

basic income security for persons in active age unable to earn sufficient income, in particular in cases of sickness, unemployment, maternity and disability; and

basic income security for older persons.

One of the lessons learned from the expansion of social protection coverage in many parts of the world is that impressive progress has been achieved in countries which combined tax-financed and contribution-financed social protection mechanisms to ensure universal protection for the entire population.

Investing in social protection systems contributes to spurring a virtuous cycle of development. Income security, schooling and health provision improves people’s employability and productivity, thus leading to higher household consumption and increased domestic demand. More decent jobs can be created and tax revenues can be reinvested to improve social protection for all. Social protection systems ought to be comprehensive, coherent and coordinated with employment policies to guarantee services and social transfers across the life cycle, paying particular attention to people living in poverty and vulnerable situations. At the implementation level, and especially in rural areas, some countries provide access to coherent and comprehensive packages of social protection, skills development, job placement and other services through innovative “single window services”, which ILO has piloted, for example, in Cambodia.

Building alliances to eradicate forced labour and child labour

Significant progress has already been made towards the elimination of child labour and forced labour in the last two decades. Many challenges however remain and lessons learnt need to be critically assessed. In order to reach target 8.7, the annual rate of reduction of child labour must be accelerated, and stronger efforts are required to achieve a significant reduction in forced labour.

Concerted global action against child labour commenced in the mid-1990s, whereas the world really only woke up to contemporary forced labour in the mid-2000s. For child labour, the period 2008 – 2012 saw a substantial reduction, whereas no such decline has been witnessed yet in forced labour, despite policy and other responses being put in place in many countries.

However, 168 million children are still in child labour, with about half of them in hazardous work and other worst forms. According to the ILO’s global estimates on forced labour, an estimated 21 million people are in forced labour, more than half of whom are women and girls, and including 5.5 million children. Available data indicate that numbers of people in forced labour are not yet going down and may even be on the rise. But a robust measurement framework is still lacking and its development is a key priority for the ILO.

In order to mobilize efforts to build a world free of forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking, the ILO is current working with multiple stakeholders to establish Alliance 8.7. The Alliance aims to assist member States in accelerating the rate of reduction on child labour and forced labour, through increased global awareness and effective policies and action plans, including a sharper focus on prevention.

Rural poor and rural development

Rural poverty has numerous causes, ranging from climate change, natural resource degradation, conflict, weak institutions, the lack of opportunities, poor agricultural conditions and trade-related challenges. Increasing the overall resilience of rural communities and their capacity to address such challenges can be materially strengthened through a decent work approach. This approach is based on three main goals: increasing the voice of rural people through organization of communities and promotion of rights, standards and social dialogue; promoting an employment based rural development model through diversified livelihoods, sustainable enterprises and better integration in value chains; and providing social protection floors which guarantee minimum income and access to basic services in rural economies which are often highly vulnerable to external shocks.

Persistent rural poverty often occurs in the context of conflict and fragility and thus requires an integrated approach. For example, Timor-Leste’s long journey to independence eroded large segments of the economy and infrastructure. Despite recent and rapid oil-fuelled growth, poverty has remained acute with half the population living on less than a dollar a day. Most of people living in poverty are engaged in low-productivity subsistence work in agriculture.

ILO’s support is focused on developing market systems. From 2011 to 2015, the ILO’s Business Opportunities and Support Services (BOSS)  project helped local communities to improve farming practices, develop market access, create jobs and develop small and medium-sized enterprise. The associated Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) programme provided training to potential and existing entrepreneurs. More than 5,000 entrepreneurs were trained so far.

This integrated approach to rural development boosted pro-poor economic development and quality employment for women and men, while contributing indirectly to peace consolidation and conflict prevention.

The ILO and FAO’s joint work to promote decent work in rural and agricultural development strategies that are socially, environmentally and economically sustainable can become an important support to member States implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Decent work in Global Supply Chains

Global supply chains are a way of organizing production and distribution and are increasingly dominating international trade and investment. In many countries, particularly developing countries, they have created employment as well as opportunities for economic and social development.

There is also evidence, however, that the dynamics of production and employment relations within the global economy, including in some global supply chains, can have negative implications for working conditions. Public concern over several recent industrial disasters has reinforced calls for global action to achieve decent working conditions in global supply chains. It is evident that stakeholders all along the global supply chain do not want products which come with such terrible costs to life and health of workers and their families.

At its 2016 annual Conference, the ILO decided to ensure that economic development and decent work in global supply chains, including respect for international labour standards, go hand in hand by pulling together a wide range of policies and programmes.

One example of action is the Better Work programme, in which the ILO, in partnership with the International Financial Corporation (IFC), aims to improve garment workers’ lives by striving to secure safe, clean, equitable working environments. It focusses on building strong relations between managers and workers at the workplace who then take ownership and responsibility for continuously improving working conditions and eventually competitiveness at the factory.

Evidence from Better Work impact assessment research in Vietnam showed that improved working conditions are associated with increased well-being of workers and help companies’ profitability of companies. While not necessarily a causal relationship, the strong, positive correlation certainly suggests that improving working conditions need not be at the expense of the bottom line. In Vietnam, 65 per cent of Better Work factories have seen a rise in total sales, 62 per cent have increased production capacity, and 60 per cent have expanded employment.

However, decent work is more than workplace safety and increased worker pay to reduce poverty. In order to bring about the transformative changes required to leave no one behind, they also need to include a wider rights dimension - the right to organize and form employers' and workers' organizations and the right to bargain collectively.

Moving forward together

The High-level Political Forum is an essential coordinating point in the UN system for ensuring the coherence and integration of action in support of implementation the 2030 Agenda. The ILO will take its conclusions fully into account as it further develops plans for implementation of the Decent Work Agenda, the sustainable development goals and common approaches which ensures that no one is left behind. Increased Decent Work opportunities are needed to achieve the transformative change envisioned in the 2030 Agenda.

At the 2016 International Labour Conference, the tripartite representatives on member States agreed that “In the changing world of work, given the rapidity of technological, societal, demographic, economic and environmental changes, Members’ efforts to reach the inseparable, interrelated and mutually supportive strategic objectives of decent work should be based on the urgent need to promote …greater ownership, policy coherence and complementarity of national, regional and international approaches to the full implementation of the [ILO’s 2008] Social Justice Declaration and the 2030 Agenda …”.

Decent work and sustainable investment strategies

Full and productive employment and decent work for all constitutes a primary source of resources for development by generating a virtuous cycle of income in which more and better jobs lead to rising consumption, increased savings, higher private and public investment and increased productivity. Accelerating the generation of decent work opportunities is thus both a means and an end of sustainable development. Decent Work approaches at country, regional and global level need to be at the heart of efforts to implement these commitments and the new approach to the financing of development of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. ILO estimates suggest that nearly $10 trillion is needed to eradicate extreme and moderate poverty by 2030. However, this cannot realistically be achieved by income transfers alone. The solution requires more than simply the availability of resources. Indeed, the ability of communities to sustain themselves through good jobs will need to be enhanced. Sustainable enterprises are a vital feature of the investment strategies needed to realize the 2030 goals.

Social Protection to ensure no one is left behind

In this context, a critical element to accelerate the pace and reach of anti-poverty measures will be to build on the broad international consensus that social protection is a powerful tool to create a virtuous circle of reduced inequality, social justice and economic growth based on domestic consumption. This is embedded in SDG target 1.3. A significant number of countries have implemented social protection measures and policies responding to the ILO Social Protection Floor Recommendation No. 202.

Partnerships for coherent and integrated policies

Effective cooperation and innovative partnerships across the UN System and beyond will be required to implement the multi-dimensional and integrated 2030 Agenda. The multilateral system will need to act in a complementary manner. Working towards leaving no one behind will therefore require the mobilization of all the institutions of the multilateral system through partnerships in support of member States national strategies, which bring together the programmatic strengths and delivery systems of funds and programmes and use the technical and policy expertise of specialized agencies.

In unanimously adopting the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (the Social Justice Declaration) in 2008, the ILO and its Members confirmed that their commitment and efforts to implement the ILO’s constitutional mandate and to place full and productive employment and decent work at the centre of economic and social policies should be based on the four inseparable, interrelated and mutually supportive strategic objectives of employment, social protection, social dialogue and tripartism, and fundamental principles and rights at work, with gender equality and non-discrimination also as cross-cutting issues. The Social Justice Declaration provides an important framework for better governance and policy making.

The Resolution Advancing Social Justice through Decent Work, adopted a the 105th International Labour Conference (ILC),30 May to 10 June 2016), reaffirms the relevance of the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (the Social Justice Declaration) 2008, in guiding the ILO response to the challenges related to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in integrating decent work into national sustainable development strategies. It calls on the ILO to support member States and stakeholders in aligning the ILO’s Decent Work Country Programmes with national and regional sustainable development strategies as well as with UN national planning frameworks.

It foresees the possibility of including in the ILC’s agenda recurrent items related to the ILO’s contribution to the thematic reviews and follow-up of the 2030 Agenda. In particular, it requests ILO to contribute to national, regional and global follow-up and review process by providing inputs concerning decent work trends and indicators and participating in the preparation of global reports that will ultimately feed into the annual reviews by the HLPF.

The ILO therefore looks forward to working with the UN System and Governments to:

Implement Decent Work policies and support programmes as a means and an end for poverty reduction.

Take targeted decent work measures building on ILO experience and practice to reach those left behind, and in particular young people, women, rural and working poor.

Improve the production and dissemination of labour market statistics

Establish further thematic partnerships to this effect and support existing such initiatives, such as the Global Initiative for Decent Jobs for Youth.

Address the negative impacts of trade agreements and global supply chains on social justice and poverty reduction and take hold of the positive effects well-managed global supply chains can offer.

Consider ways in which ILO follow-up and review of action on the Decent Work Agenda can contribute to the global UN system process of follow-up and review.


Leaving No One Behind: The Role of Decent Work for Sustainable Development