Can we have Full Employment and Decent Work for all without Trashing the Planet?

(A shorter version of this appeared in the Huffington Post, as part of their Development Unplugged series initiatied by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.)

The United Nation’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a sweeping set of goals that all member countries have resolved to meet by 2030.

Goal 8 recognizes the importance of labour rights, access to decent work for all while also emphasizing sustained—and sustainable—economic growth. Some see this focus on economic growth as a bridge between the two main themes of the SDGs: highlighting the need for resources from a growing economy to provide for basic needs, but in a sustainable way. Others see it as a chasm: certain that sustained economic growth is not environmentally sustainable, particularly through a capitalist system where private profit from resource exploitation and ever-increasing private consumption takes precedence over preservation of the planet.

As Alnoor Ladha and Thomas Pogge have written, “we cannot fix deeply entrenched social problems with the same logic that created them in the first place…More growth in the absence of structural change is only going to worsen the lives of the world’s majority.” In a world where inequality has increased to the extent that just 85 individuals own as much as more than half the world’s poorest, more of the same type of economic growth won’t achieve the goals of reducing poverty and meeting basic human needs, without more profound changes to our economic system.

Few make the connection between preserving and sustaining our global environmental commons and meeting basic human needs by growing our common wealth: through an expansion of collective public goods and services. Yet, the only way we can sustainably improve the standard of living for all is by expanding and improving the collective public goods and services that we share, instead of through ever-rising individual private consumption driven by profit-driven production. This requires stronger commitments towards basic social protections, including income security and social services.

That said, Goal 8 does include important targets on “full and productive employment”, “decent work for all“, “equal pay for work of equal value” and to “substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training” by 2020. It also includes the commitment for all nations to “protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment” and to implement the Global Jobs Pact of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

These are all unequivocally positive commitments. While labour rights in Canada are protected to some degree by our own Charter of Rights and by ILO conventions we’ve signed, this commitment provides further international support, especially after efforts in recent years to erode these rights.

But to make these commitments meaningful, we need clear definitions of what we mean by “full employment” and “decent work” and, most importantly, our governments must put a priority on policies to achieve these and other SDG commitments.

The commitment to decent work for all is important not just because it means we should all be able to earn a living income with a decent job, but also because it promotes social inclusion and allows everyone to contribute productively to society with dignity.

Full employment when virtually all those who are able and willing to work are able to find employment. It doesn’t mean zero unemployment because there will always be some frictional unemployment of workers moving between jobs. In practical terms, it wuld mean an unemployment rate of about 2-4% depending on the circumstances.  Canada hasn’t had unemployment rates this low since the 1950s and 1960s, when—not unco-incidentally—economic growth rates were also considerably higher than they have been since.

Decent work is defined as “work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and eqaulity of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”

At a fundamental level, it means our governments must put a priority on policies to achieve full employment, ensure decent living wages, social protections, labour rights and equality rights, including pay and employment equity. This means abandoning misguided monetary and fiscal policies that have been used to prevent full employment, including those expressly used to keep unemployment high so wages don’t rise. It means our governments should abandon fiscal austerity measures which have resulted in rising unemployment and slow wage growth.

It also means introducing programs to create jobs, and in particular jobs which help achieve the SDGs – both basic needs and environmental sustainability. In particular, this means jobs in health, education and social services and “green jobs”, such as in public transit, retrofits, renewable energy and environmental protection and remediation. Many of these will be in the public sector.

A good example of measures to meet these goals are the successful youth guarantee programs introduced in Europe, as well as job guarantee programs that would ensure decent productive jobs for all those who want them.

Finally, full employment doesn’t mean everyone should have to work full-time to gain a living wage. On the contrary, with rising productivity, one way we can achieve full employment is to reduce the work week, with commensurate increases in wages and in the “social wage” – the value of free universal public services. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes foresaw a world a hundred years hence (in 2030, the year for achievement of these Sustainable Development Goals) where we would be eight times as well-off and so people could work 15 hours a week if we should “make what work there is still to be done as widely shared as possible”.

On the surface, the SDGs may appear to be a mishmash of barely coherent objectives, including some that appear trite or wishful thinking. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some connection between the major goals or that they aren’t achievable. But it does mean that to achieve these important goals, we’ll need to break out of our narrow ideological frames and introduce policies that put people and the preservation of the planet ahead of profits.

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