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The International Labour Organization's guiding principle is the promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights. Ever since its founding in 1919, the Organization has sought to "improve the situation of human beings in the world of work" (ILO, 1999, p. 3). It seeks to position itself as "the global reference point for knowledge on employment and labour issues; the centre for normative action in the world of work; a platform for international debate and negotiation on social policy; and a source of services for advocacy, information and policy formulation" (ibid., p. 2).
In 1999, the ILO set itself a new goal: "Decent Work for All", which aims to secure decent work for women and men everywhere. The objective is the creation of not just jobs, but jobs of acceptable quality. This is pursued through four strategic objectives: full employment, improved levels of socio-economic security, universal respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, and the strengthening of social dialogue (ibid.).
Decent work is a new and welcome way of achieving the ILO's historic task, for it has shifted the focus to outcomes: what kinds of work people are doing, how remunerative and secure this work is, and what rights workers enjoy in the workplace. This redirection of ILO energies raises a new set of issues.
The first task is to render the notion of decent work more precise in operational terms. Accordingly, decent work is set in the context of core labour standards including full employment, but it goes beyond that to include the returns from employment as well.
The second task is to develop an integrated approach to economic and social policy in the context of decent work, as requested by the Working Party on the Social Dimension of Globalization in November 2000 (ILO, 2000a). To some, economic and social policies are distinct entities. In my view, however, this is a false dichotomy. Rather, economic policy and social policy are both development policies--as is decent work. They all share a common purpose: improving people's economic and social well-being through economic development. Wise policies cannot be formulated until it is known what a given country is trying to achieve. The concept of decent work helps specify the development objective.
The third task is to formulate an empirical approach for assessing the effects of economic growth on decent work in today's globalized world. Observers differ in their views on this matter. Some contend that economic growth creates more jobs and improves conditions for those already employed. On this first view, economic growth and improved employment conditions go hand in hand. Others contend just the opposite: that in today's globalized world, wages and other labour costs must be held down in order to maintain existing markets and penetrate new ones. On this second view, economic growth and decent work are competing objectives. This article will discuss the kinds of data that might be brought to bear to adjudicate between these views, and to present the results of prior studies on this subject.
The fourth task is to outline the structure of subsequent country reviews. The ILO plans country-by-country assessments of progress towards decent work. This article suggests what might be highlighted in these reviews of country experiences and policies. A structure is proposed, comprising three key data needs and three key policy areas. The factual areas are changes over time in:
* employment and unemployment;
* job mix; and
* earnings levels.
The policy areas are:
* labour demand and policies that affect private sector and public sector job creation;
* labour supply and policies that affect the quantity and quality of available labour resources; and
* labour market functioning--in particular, market and non-market institutions that determine wages, non-wage benefits, and other ways in which demand and supply intersect.
The main points are then highlighted in a brief conclusion.
Operationalizing decent work for policy purposes.
Three elements are essential to the achievement of decent work objectives: the need for jobs, the honouring of core labour standards, and the pursuit of further improvements in job quality. Because beyond some point the achievement of one of these objectives may come at the expense of another, the idea of a "decent work frontier" is also formulated.
The need for jobs
The first element of decent work is employment. It is a truism, but nonetheless true, that for a person to have a decent job, he or she must have a job. Study after study reports that jobs are what people want. The need for more jobs is central to the decent work paradigm, and full employment rightfully occupies the prime position at the forefront of the decent work effort.
In circumstances where the economy does not generate enough jobs, supplementary job programmes can make a tremendous difference. A striking illustration is an advertisement taken out in a number of leading magazines by the United Nations' World Food Programme. The advertisement--"The pay's lousy, the conditions terrible, and the workers love it"--speaks eloquently to the vital importance of Food for Work and other such programmes, on which much has been written (e.g., Lipton, 1998).
The core labour standards context
The second essential ingredient is respect for core labour standards. In the last few years, thinking in the world community has coalesced around a set of core labour standards aimed at promoting and assuring fundamental principles and rights at work. Some major associated events include the World Summit on Social Development, held in Copenhagen in March 1995, which defined core labour standards as including the prohibition of forced labour and child labour, freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively, equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value, and non-discrimination in employment. Also influential in establishing agreement on core labour standards was a study published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1996, which called for freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, elimination of exploitative forms of child labour, the prohibition of forced labour, and non-discrimination in employment (OECD, 1996). Then, at their Ministerial Conference in Singapore in December 1996, the member States of the World Trade Organization (WTO) restated their commitment to internationally recognized core labour standards, supported collaboration between the secretariats of the WTO and ILO, rejected the use of labour standards for protectionist purposes, and recognized the ILO as the competent body for dealing with this issue. The Chairman of the Conference, Yeo Cheow Tong, Singapore's Minister of Trade and Industry, further emphasized what the text of the ministerial declaration did not make explicit: "It does not inscribe the relationship between trade and core labour standards on the WTO agenda.... There is no authorization in the text for any new work on this issue" (WTO, 1997, p. 14).
A key defining moment following these developments was when the International Labour Conference approved a historical document, the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, at its 86th Session in June 1998. The Declaration affirms that all ILO member States (now 176 in number) have the responsibility "to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution [of the ILO], the principles concerning the fundamental rights", which include:
(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
(c) the effective abolition of child labour; and
(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
Subsequently, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, integrated these four core labour standards into the nine-point Global Compact of shared values and principles concerning human rights, labour and the environment, which was launched in January 1999. The Global Compact has been endorsed by business groups, individual companies, organized labour, and non-governmental organizations. In August 2000, the 33 adhering countries of the OECD incorporated these core labour standards into their revised OECD Guidelines for multinational enterprises: Global instruments for corporate responsibility (OECD, 2000a). Ongoing efforts to redress the "decent work deficit" are highlighted in the Report of the Director-General to the International Labour Conference, 89th Session, June 2001 (ILO, 2001a).
Jobs in which these core labour standards are not respected cannot be regarded as decent. In fact, they can be characterized as indecent work: work in …