Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Feb18/12)
20 February 2018
Third World Network
The SDGs and realization of the right to work
Published in SUNS #8625 dated 20 February 2018
Geneva, 19 Feb (Kanaga Raja) - Implementing the Sustainable Development
Goals and targets applicable to work in accordance with a human rights-based
approach will make a significant contribution to the realization of
the right to work.
This is one of the main findings of a report by the Office of the
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to the upcoming thirty-seventh
session of the UN Human Rights Council.
According to the UN report, in developing and implementing policies
designed to give effect to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),
States should respect, protect and fulfil the rights of marginalized
and vulnerable individuals, groups and populations as a priority,
ensuring that no one is left behind and that the furthest behind are
It said that empowering the vulnerable, as called for in the 2030
Agenda for Sustainable Development, requires operationalizing the
human rights principles of accountability and participation in all
institutions, processes and mechanisms charged with following up on
the work-related Goals and targets.
"It is only by mobilizing the political will to advance these
commitments, rooted as they are in human rights, that the people-centred
2030 Agenda will come into its own."
The report examines the relationship between the realization of the
right to work and the implementation of relevant targets of the Sustainable
Development Goals, and highlights several challenges and best practices.
The report was prepared pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution
34/14, in which the Council requested the Office of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to prepare an analytical
report on the relationship between the realization of the right to
work and the implementation of relevant targets in the Sustainable
Development Goals, in accordance with States' respective obligations
under international human rights law.
RIGHT TO WORK AND THE 2030 AGENDA
According to the OHCHR report, the right to work is well established
under international human rights law, and is recognized, inter alia,
in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (arts. 23 and 24), the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (arts.
6, 7 and 8), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(art.8 (3)(a)), the International Convention on the Elimination of
All Forms of Racial Discrimination (art. 5(e)(i)), the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (art.
11(1)(a)), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 32), the
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant
Workers and Members of Their Families (arts. 11, 25, 26, 40, 52 and
54) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
As understood in article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights, work must be decent work, respecting the
fundamental rights of the person (such as the physical and mental
integrity of the worker) as well as the rights of workers in relation
to remuneration and occupational safety.
The normative content of the right to work has the following additional
(a) Availability, which requires States to have specialized services
to assist and support individuals in identifying and securing available
(b) Accessibility, to ensure that the labour market is open to everyone
(c) Acceptability and quality, which cover the right of the worker
to just and favourable conditions of work, in particular to safe working
conditions, the right to form trade unions and the right freely to
choose and accept work.
Core obligations in relation to the right to work include ensuring
the right of access to employment, particularly for disadvantaged
and marginalized individuals and groups, and avoiding measures that
result in discrimination against and unequal treatment of them or
in weakening protection mechanisms available to them.
States are furthermore required to adopt and implement a national
employment strategy and plan of action to address the concerns of
the entire workforce based on a transparent and participatory process
in which employers' and workers' organizations participate.
As with all the rights protected under the International Covenant
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States should ensure the
progressive realization of the right to work by taking measures aimed
at achieving full employment.
Similarly, States have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right
to work. Respect requires refraining from direct or indirect interference
with the enjoyment of the right, protection calls for measures to
prevent third-party interference, while fulfilment includes the obligations
to provide, facilitate and promote the right to work.
"Legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial and other measures
to ensure its full realization are implicit in these obligations,"
the report underlined.
It noted that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in a significant
departure from the Millennium Development Goals that preceded it,
is guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United
Nations, including full respect for international law, and is grounded
in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human
rights treaties, among other instruments.
With regard to work, States pledged in the 2030 Agenda to create conditions
for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity
and decent work and to work to build dynamic, sustainable, innovative
and people-centred economies, promoting youth employment and women's
economic empowerment, in particular decent work for all.
These pledges are complemented by a commitment to adopt policies that
increase productive capacities, productivity and productive employment.
Sustainable Development Goal 8, on promoting sustained, inclusive
and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and
decent work for all, is the most comprehensive goal applicable to
the right to work, in particular the targets 8.3, 8.5, 8.6, 8.8, 8.9
A number of other Sustainable Development Goals and targets are of
broader relevance to the right to work. The realization of this right
has a clear and direct impact on the achievement of Goal 1 (on ending
poverty in all its forms everywhere) and Goal 2 (on ending hunger,
achieve food security and improve d nutrition and promoting sustainable
The report said with regard to health, target 3.4 aims at reducing
premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention
and treatment and the promotion of mental health and well-being, while
target 3.9 aims at reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from
Such objectives are directly linked to the duty of States to ensure
safe and healthy working conditions, it added.
With regard to education and its role in promoting the realization
of the right to work by building a skilled work-force, targets 4.3
and 4.4 are pertinent, as they aim, respectively, to ensure equal
access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical,
vocational and tertiary education and to increase the number of youth
and adults who have relevant skills for employment, decent jobs and
In the light of the gender disparities that persist in labour force
participation and employment, the achievement of Goal 5 (on achieving
gender equality and empower all women and girls), particularly targets
5.4, 5.5 and 5.a, would do much to foster the realization of the right
to work, as would Goal 10 (on reducing inequality within and among
countries) with its targets addressing laws, policies and practices,
social, economic and political inclusion, equality of opportunity,
and the reduction of inequalities of outcome, as enshrined in targets
10.2, 10.3 and 10.4.
"In considering the relationship between the realization of the
right to work and the implementation of relevant targets of the Sustainable
Development Goals, it is important to recognize that, to the extent
that they are implemented consistently with international law, including
human rights norms and standards, the Goals and targets are a useful
framework for supporting States in respecting, protecting and fulfilling
the right to work," said the report.
The Sustainable Development Goals and, necessarily, their targets
are universal and interlinked with a view to supporting a coordinated,
comprehensive approach, it added.
In the 2030 Agenda, the General Assembly clearly noted that the inter-linkages
and integrated nature of the Goals were of crucial importance in ensuring
that the purpose of the new Agenda was realized. This reflects the
interdependence and indivisibility of the human rights on which the
2030 Agenda is based.
The report cited one example in this context, namely that since 2005,
in India, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act
has provided a minimum of 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in
any financial year to every rural household whose adult members volunteer
to do unskilled manual work.
Through this process, the Act addresses the linkage between the right
to work, the right to food and the right to life enshrined in the
Constitution of India, it said.
THE VULNERABLE AND MARGINALIZED
"Adopting a human rights-based approach to the implementation
of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals insofar as this
relates to vulnerable and marginalized individuals, groups and populations
is a fundamental element of contributing to the realization of the
right to work," the report emphasized.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the significant
progress in women's educational achievements has not yielded a corresponding
improvement in their position at work, and women continue to experience
greater challenges in gaining access to work than men.
Specifically, "barriers to participation, persistent occupational
and sectoral segregation and a disproportionate share of unpaid household
and care work prevent them from enjoying equal access to opportunities".
The gendered nature of the global workforce has meant that women are
concentrated and over-represented in lower paying occupations and
positions (such as domestic work), in non-standard employment and
in the informal sector, where social protection tends to be limited
With regard to working conditions, the global gender pay gap is estimated
to be around 23 per cent, with women earning, on average, 77 per cent
of men's wages.
A human rights-based approach to addressing gaps in the realization
of women's right to work entails, among other steps, the establishment
of a comprehensive system of protection to combat gender discrimination
and to ensure equal opportunities and treatment for women by ensuring
equal pay for work of equal value.
"It also includes the review of law and policy frameworks and
labour practices to ensure the adoption of measures necessary to align
them with human rights norms and standards pertaining to the right
to work in this area."
The report also noted that there are approximately 470 million persons
with disabilities of working age around the world. Many find it hard
to gain access to decent work, and are often forced to seek employment
in the informal sector.
As well as experiencing discrimination and marginalization in employment,
they also have limited enjoyment of other rights essential for the
realization of the right to work, such as the rights to education,
legal capacity and access to information.
An estimated 82 per cent of persons with disabilities in developing
countries live below the poverty line, and are among the most vulnerable
and marginalized. There is, therefore, a strong link between disability
Persons with disabilities face barriers of access that include the
denial of reasonable accommodation, meaning an adjustment or modification
required in the work environment or application process to enable
a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.
"This is a key part of States' obligations to ensure non-discrimination
and equality, and that no one is left behind," said the report.
Many persons with disabilities consequently rely on disability benefits
(where they are offered), it added.
Many States have, however, gradually reduced social protection programmes,
including those targeting persons with disabilities, through austerity
measures, and are continuing to do so.
Social support and assistance have been reduced, and eligibility criteria
for social assistance have been tightened, while conditionalities
have been increased and more severe sanctions for non-compliance introduced.
"Measures of this type have significantly increased the risk
of further marginalization of and poverty among persons with disabilities,
and could drive some into hazardous and exploitative work."
The implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 8 and other relevant
goals and targets must be informed by the human rights framework,
including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The respective treaty-monitoring bodies provide guidance on what the
right to work and just and favourable conditions of work for persons
with disabilities entail.
The report said that according to key guidance in this area, workers
with disabilities should not be segregated in sheltered workshops,
should benefit from an accessible work environment and should not
be denied reasonable accommodation, such as workplace adjustments
or flexible working arrangements.
"States should also take steps to ensure that workers with disabilities
enjoy equal remuneration for work of equal value and to eliminate
wage discrimination due to a perceived reduced capacity for work,"
said the report.
It also noted that although reliable data are not readily available,
estimates indicate that around 10 to 15 per cent of all international
migrants, or 30 million people, are in an irregular situation.
Irregular migrants are often vulnerable for a number of reasons, many
of which are related to their irregular situation. They are frequently
not permitted to work, although, in practice, many do work irregularly
and mostly in the informal sector.
Irregular migrants are also at high risk of exploitation, particularly
given that the sectors in which many work are often unprotected and
unregulated, such as the construction, agriculture, food processing
and fisheries industries.
The report said the implementation of the Goals and targets of the
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development relating to the protection
of labour rights should involve, in accordance with human rights norms
and standards, the adoption of legal and practical measures to prevent
discrimination against irregular migrants, the removal of laws and
rules that make access to basic services conditional on the production
of documents that irregular migrants cannot obtain, and ensuring that
irregular migrants have full, non-discriminatory access to appropriate
administrative and judicial remedies.
It also found that access to decent work for young people is a global
problem. Seventy three million young people worldwide are seeking
employment; in Europe, the unemployment rate for those under 25 is
2.6 times higher than for the rest of the population.
The number of persons aged 60 and over is rising at an unprecedented
rate, and is expected to increase from the estimated number of 962
million for 2017 to 1.4 billion by 2030. By 2050, all regions of the
world (except Africa) will have nearly a quarter or more of their
populations at ages 60 and above.
"Older persons face numerous challenges in their access to the
right to decent work, such as age-based discrimination in both the
job market and at work. Older people may face prejudice when applying
for jobs, seeking promotions or undertaking training, or may be subject
to harassment in the workplace."
The report also highlighted several other issues that are of relevance
to the implementation of the right to work and the SDGs including
adequate and accessible social security, workers in the informal economy,
precarious contracts, occupational health and safety, and trade unions.
It said that the right to decent work includes adequate and accessible
social protection. This is also included in Sustainable Development
Goal 1 (on ending poverty in all its forms everywhere), which includes
target 1.3 that requires States to implement nationally appropriate
social protection systems and measures for all, including floors.
The politically determined trend currently witnessed in many States
to reduce the role of the State, including in response to the recent
debt crisis, however, has led to a reduction in social security, particularly
assistance. States have both reduced the amount received by recipients
and/or reduced coverage by making eligibility rules tighter.
In addition, politicians and the media increasingly stigmatize those
on benefits, thereby discouraging many from claiming their entitlements.
The report said Target 8.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals calls
upon States to support decent job creation. The informal economy,
which is generally neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government,
however, is growing.
Workers in the informal economy are typically excluded from various
legal protections. They often earn lower average wages, and are rarely
provided with social security coverage or any other form of social
protection by their employers or the Government, such as health care,
pensions, education, skill development, training or child care.
The informal sector could expand further owing to future employment
developments, such as non-standard forms of employment facilitated
by increases in digital technology, or a drop in the availability
of more traditional jobs, especially for the low-skilled.
"While the rise in non-standard forms of employment can be seen
as an opportunity, unless properly regulated, it may jeopardize the
2030 Agenda for decent work," said the report.
It also noted that while the Sustainable Development Goals, and in
particular target 8.8, acknowledge the importance of protecting labour
rights, there is no mention of the role of trade unions.
Many States, often strongly encouraged by international financial
institutions, have implemented austerity- related labour measures
aimed at weakening trade unions, targeting collective bargaining systems
by, inter alia, limiting extension agreements between different sectors.
They have undermined collective labour rights, including the right
to form and join trade unions.
Multilateral financial institutions have also conditioned loans on
recipient States, thereby weakening labour protections, denying workers
a voice in the process and moving employment towards informality.
Trade union protection is a key factor in ensuring access to decent
work and equality. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and
ensure that no one is left behind, States must guarantee conditions
necessary for workers to join and form trade unions.
"It is essential that trade unions be able to operate freely.
Building a future economy where the benefits of work and profit are
shared requires legal reform in support of effective trade unions,"
the report concluded.