How can SDGs contribute to the promotion of labour rights? Tonia Novitz argues that the rights of workers may, in principle, benefit from being embedded in a wider sustainability discourse. However, the text of the SDGs makes it nearly impossible to achieve transformational justice within and between generations. 

There have been longstanding debates on the international promotion of labour standards. While this has traditionally been the realm of the International Labour Organization (ILO), labour rights have increasingly become integrated in trade agreements and under the banner of a wider ‘sustainable development’ (or ‘sustainability’) discourse. Labour standards are now, on this basis, regarded as a legitimate basis for conditionality, both in trade agreements and international financial institutions. Concerns have rightly been raised concerning the potential efficacy of such provisions, and there would seem to be pragmatic steps that can be taken for their refinement and improvement. 

In this blog, I ask a slightly different question, which is whether the normative shift towards protection of workers under sustainability (as opposed to human rights) clauses are ethically defensible. In this respect, this blog has two parts. The first examines what the language of sustainability could add to the case for protection of labour standards; while the second considers the potential and the limitations of the United Nations (UN) Resolution on Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It seems to me important to engage with these issues given that sustainability has been used to justify the exercise of extensive economic power. An example is Chapter 13 of the 2018 EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement, which explicitly makes reference to ‘sustainable development’, Agenda 2030 and the SDGs.

What could a sustainability discourse offer regarding protection of labour standards?

It is not simple to define ‘sustainability’. This is an idea that has shifted  as it has progressed through various iterations in international instruments, including notably the UN Stockholm Declaration of 1972 and the Millennium Development Goals, forerunners to Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. Sustainability is most commonly associated with environmental objectives (to act within planetary boundaries to preserve plant, animal and human life) and can be understood as an approach to economic development planning

Yet, for some considerable time, arguably dating from the 1972 Declaration, there have been assertions that sustainability also has a ‘social’ aspect which encompasses labour standards. What is unclear from relevant international instruments, including as we shall see the SDGs, is the relationship between the environmental, economic and social aspects of a sustainable development agenda and how they are to be manifested in practice. 

Arguably the malleability of sustainability works in favour of maintaining the commercial interests of business, which has expressed much more enthusiasm for engagement in the drafting process for the SDGs than support for standard-setting at the ILO . Many are therefore suspicious of this discourse, but given its current influence, it may be worth exploring whether sustainability can support claims of workers and thereby operate, as Jonathan Matthysen has suggested on this blog site, as a ‘double agent’.   

My suggestion is that some preconditions need to be met, if the notion of sustainability is to serve as a suitable normative basis for enhanced protection of labour standards. The first precondition is that sustainability must have some essential content which could guide the conduct of governments and businesses. This concept cannot be an empty vessel, but must be able contain existing accepted worker rights, such as those already agreed internationally at the ILO, while adding protection for those who have been exposed as vulnerable in the contemporary world of work. Secondly, the idea of sustainability cannot be static, frozen in 1972, 2000 or even 2015, but must be capable of dynamic development in accordance with changing needs. This entails provision for collective ‘worker voice’, which we can understand as representation through familiar institutions such as trade unions and works councils, but also in other ways, such as through associations supporting those less commonly given protection, such as migrant domestic workers or even so-called ‘gig’ workers. That collective worker voice can then assist with the concretisation of sustainability norms in their application to different forms of work and their enforcement in a variety of contexts. Finally, there needs to be some mechanism, given the accepted three prongs of sustainable development, to navigate between environmental, economic and social dimensions. It is suggested here that, in this respect, the notion of ‘just transitions’ provides a helpful tool.

A core definition that encompasses and expands our understandings of workers’ rights

Arguably, while not straightforward, it is possible to identify a sensible definition of sustainability which encompasses its environmental, economic and social aspects. A common reference point is the 1987 Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future,  which states that development is ‘sustainable’ which ‘meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.  

A sustainability discourse therefore raises questions of solidarity familiar to labour activists, requiring identification of the contemporary needs of those around us in our current work relationships, but bearing in mind the requirements of those to come. These inclusive ideas of intra- and inter- generational justice articulate broader needs within and beyond any given labour market sector or even society, raising also issues of cross-border justice. The concept of sustainability can thereby help to recognise what is problematic about child labour, which affects distribution of social goods within a current generation of workers (very broadly defined), but also has inter-generational effects on the children of those denied an education. To give another example, freedom of association and collective bargaining can deliver distributional justice in terms of wage levels for extant workers, enabling access to food, housing and other socio-economic goods, while also regulating terms and conditions at the workplace to prevent long hours working or poor health and safety standards that affect reproductive care for future generations. 

In this way, we can see how what have been designated by the ILO as ‘core labour standards’ under the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work can, in ethical terms, be explained in terms of sustainability. 

Moreover, it may be possible to expand on the legitimate claims of those at work using the idea of sustainability. For example, Sara Seck has examined the potential for a relational understanding of the person at work as embedded in community and a broader physical environment, as well being attentive to their material welfare. A sustainability approach has thereby a capacity to achieve de-commodification, addressing the broader situational circumstances of all those at work. Instead of focussing only on those conventionally deemed ‘employees’ or ‘workers’ who are the standard subject of labour law protections, sustainability can prompt attention to those trading their labour for money, but whose contractual positions are precarious and whose migrant status is insecure, or who cannot access recompense from an employer further up the supply chain. 

Further, by promoting its synonym ‘durability’, a sustainability discourse could challenge the fundamentals of short term global capitalist growth as an objective

These facets of sustainability applied to work are, of course, the ideal rather than the reality. But ideals can be powerful and their appeal can lead to the gradual reshaping of legal texts and social movements.  

A dynamic process supported by collective voice at work

It is evident that sustainable development cannot be merely a static process, but requires constant attention to what intra- and inter-generational needs may be, given current circumstances. Arguably, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic provides an excellent example of the need to address a sudden change in labour conditions and the need to reconsider what is fair and just at work. 

If the inclusive and solidaristic aims articulated above are to be at all realizable then, where labour standards are at issue, a wide spectrum of those engaged in work will need to be represented and given voice, when designing and implementing labour standards. These must extend up and down the phenomenon of global supply chains, encompassing not just those which the ILO has traditionally regarded as in a standard employment relationship, but also (as noted above) those whose employment and migration status remains insecure. 

This also affects the subject-matter of collective bargaining and industrial action, which can traverse economic, social and environmental problems that affect those at work, including not only the immediate needs of  current workers, but also those of younger and future workers. The entitlement to participate in climate change strikes, might not readily be acknowledged at the ILO, given employer resistance to the right to strike, but can yet be articulated on sustainability grounds. 

Just transitions for workers

The idea of ‘just transitions’ stems from the capacity for conflict between environmental, economic and social objectives. This notion was introduced by trade unions experiencing such tensions in the 1970s, as they sought to negotiate a compromise between protection of workers and a move towards environmentally sustainable production and delivery of services. This was achieved by creation of public or even worker-based contribution funds which protected those workers vulnerable to losing their income (and communities). 

The aim was to gradually stage change, enabling reskilling and redeployment in ways sensitive to worker needs. In this way, the needs of future generations could be served in transitional ways, sensitive to the needs of a current generation of workers. 

On a broader scale, just transition also requires careful consideration of distribution of funding to enable change between actors in the global North and the global South. Notably, the ILO has produced its own Just Transition Guidelines which makes particular provision for social dialogue and collective bargaining in this process. Indeed, the idea of just transition was even acknowledged in the preamble to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

SDG8: decent work or economic growth?

Given the influence of business on their drafting (as observed earlier), the SDGs offer considerably less than my sustainability agenda for labour described above. The content of sustainability, as set out in Agenda 2030, remains conveniently limited, as is evident from the content of SDG 8 (and other SDGs) which seem to neglect ILO standards at least in part. There are hints that a broader and more inclusive approach could be taken to protection of those at work than is so far contemplated at the ILO, and in this way for the SDGs to offer progress. 

However, that hope is diminished by a failure to make explicit the need to encourage collective worker voice. Moreover, there is no mention of a need for just transitions in mediating between environmental, economic and social objectives.

SDG 8 seeks to ‘promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’. ‘Economic growth’ is given initial emphasis in SDG targets 8.1 and 8.2, and productive employment is stressed in SDG targets 8.3 – 8.6. It might seem promising that there is reference in the overarching SDG goal to the concept of ‘decent work’, on which the ILO has elaborated, for example in the 2008 ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization 2008. The notion of decency also arises in the context of ‘job creation’ in target 8.3 and ‘full and productive employment’ in target 8.5, although it might be observed that the focus of both targets seem to be primarily economic in nature. The indicators suggest that they are most concerned with reduction in the formal economy and greater (albeit improved quality) employment. ‘Only targets 8.7 and 8.8 tackle in more substantive terms the issue of ‘decent work’, in some ways expanding but in others limiting its ambit. 

One would hope, given the apparent deference to human rights protections in Agenda 2030 that those labour standards which have long been understood to meet that threshold retain such protection, but we cannot be certain of this. Certain ‘core labour standards’ recognised by the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work do receive explicit protection, such as prevention of forced labour and child labour in SDG 8.7 (and again arguably in SDG 16.2). They do so alongside recognition of established norms regarding modern slavery and trafficking established elsewhere in the international community. There is further recognition of the significance of anti-discrimination measures in SDG 8.5 and 8.8 (which can be read together with SDG 5 on gender equality). What is also promising is the way in which targets 8.5 and 8.8 do seem to expand the scope of legitimate concern ‘to all’, including migrant and other precarious workers. Arguably, the latter goes beyond what it is possible for the ILO with its tripartite constitution to achieve at this political moment. Even so, in order to achieve sustainability as broader solidarity, it seems necessary to look beyond SDG 8 to SDG 10 which aims to ‘reduce inequality within and among countries’ and in the context of trade conditionality use this objective to inform SDG 17 which seeks to ‘strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development’ in trade and finance. 

The ILO notion of ‘decent work’ is universally understood (by virtue of both the 2008 and 1998 Declarations) to encompass freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. This is not referred to explicitly in either the SDG 8 and 16 targets, receiving only some brief reference in connected indicators. The right to strike, recently been the subject of controversy generated by employers at the ILO, is not mentioned at all. 

A long way off to climate strikes

Perhaps these targets and indicators may be re-interpreted in light of a 2018 report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, which states that SDG target 16.10 has to be understood in its protection of ‘fundamental freedoms’ to encompass freedom of association and therefore protection of all legitimate trade union activities including a right to strike. I have also argued elsewhere that SDG 16.7 may also be helpful insofar as this target seeks to ‘ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels’. 

The ILO International Labour Office in its 2019 Report to the High Level Political Forum has considered global compliance with SDG 8, and stressed the importance of inclusive and non-discriminatory freedom of association encompassing precarious and migrant workers to be important for achievement of all the SDGs. Nevertheless, the parameters of ILO tripartite politics mean that this report does not contain any assertion relating to industrial action. 

Instead, it was a joint report of the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2019which stressed again the significance of a right to strike for freedom of association. The current situation leaves any endorsement of climate change strikes in the workplace a long way off.

Agenda 2030 attempts to treat environmental, economic and social objectives in a non-hierarchical way, such that they are ‘integrated and indivisible’. The potential tensions between them are not mentioned nor is any mechanism offered to resolving these. In this respect, it is problematic that no mention is made of the idea of ‘a just transition’ for labour and the ILO Guidelinesseem to be entirely overlooked. A pretence that the different pillars of sustainable development will never come into conflict arguably enables those who are more powerful to more readily achieve their ends. Transparent and representative dialogue, in which those at work had a voice, would have been much more helpful. 

Beyond rhetoric

The President of the Economic and Social Council reporting in August 2019 conceded that: ‘The international community is not on track to achieve the [SDGs]. A deeper, more ambitious, transformative and integrated response is urgently needed.’ This blog argues that, while there is scope for labour standards to be ethically grounded within a sustainability discourse, and thereby achieve transformational intra- and inter-generational justice, the text of the SDGs makes this very difficult to achieve. The omission of explicit protection of collective worker voice is a particular problem. 

I have argued that sustainability need not only be a callous rhetorical device in the trade-labour context, but could have identifiable and meaningful content, capable of being put to use by means of freedom of association and a just transitions framework. However, those objectives have not been realised in the SDGs. Even if the global community were making palpable progress according to the 2017 indicators towards achieving the SDG targets, the failure to make provision for protection of collective worker voice would be problematic. Indeed, as the International Labour Office has observed it may be that this failure is one of the reasons why such targets are unlikely to be reached.  

I referred to Chapter 13 of the EU-Vietnam FTA at the beginning of this blog, by reason of its treatment of sustainable development and Agenda 2030. This might seem more promising as an instantiation of the SDGs, for ‘freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining’ are actually mentioned in Article 13.4 with reference to the 1998 ILO Declaration, as is ‘social dialogue’ on one occasion later in Article 13.14. However, just transition (and the way in which worker voice could be incorporated in any transitional process) receives no mention at all. 

For the reasons I have given here, I would be loath to abandon the idea of sustainability entirely and consider it has promise in the labour field. However, as matters currently stand, international instruments which would make trade conditional only on the SDGs must be viewed as problematic. While their content and the scope of their implementation remains so limited, a wider normative base is required.

Tonia Novitz is Professor of Labour Law at the University of Bristol. Her research interests focus predominantly on labour law, international and EU trade and the protection of human rights.

The Dutch version of this blog was published on MO*Magazine.