An ILO Approach to Decent Work

Anneliese Fernandes

Policy Brief: An ILO Approach to Decent Work

Overview of the Governing Body Meetings

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has declared sustainable development to be a central goal and one that is vital to a post-2015 development agenda. The March 2015 323rd Governing Body (GB) meeting on “Global employment and social challenges: Emerging trends and the role of the ILO”, reviewed the challenges to global employment and the development goals set out by the ILO (GB.323/HL/1). The discussions began with statements from the Director General, the UN Special Advisor, and the Turkish Presidency.

Amina Mohammed, UN Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning, stated that poverty eradication is the highest priority and the underlying challenge to sustainable development. She further highlighted that inequalities extend beyond income to include gender and age, in that unemployment disproportionately affects young people and women workers. During the subsequent discussions, the GB participants emphasized the importance of decent work and job generation as being vital to sustainable development. There has been widespread agreement that labour rights and social protection should be extended to migrants working in all member countries. However, it still remains a challenge, especially where policies serve to marginalize migrants, women and young people (GB.323/HL/1).

The 2005 World Summit on Social Development was the first time where employment and decent work appeared as global goals which were fully incorporated into a declaration. This included employment indicators, which ensured continuous recognition of the importance of decent work (Report V, 102nd Session 2013). Sustainable Development, which incorporates environmental and social needs, has been highlighted for some time now and was further emphasized during the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Report V, 102nd Session 2013). This conference also underscored the important role of decent work in supporting development and framed much of the ILO discussions on employment and sustainable development (GB.323/HL/1).


What are the challenges?

The 2008 economic crisis has been a major set-back to the efforts made in combatting unemployment. Unemployment has risen greatly since 2008, with the effects of the crisis being felt globally. As a result of this, the world economy is expected to grow at a much slower rate (GB.323/HL/1).The inclusion of women, minorities and young people into the workforce have become even greater challenges for governments and the international community.

During crises, governments’ priorities are geared towards a quick recovery and situation alleviation, which can in turn mean that less attention is paid to the quality of jobs being provided. The creation of decent work is a long-term process and it is often difficult to maintain an emphasis on decent work during and directly after a crisis.  This is particularly the case during political crises where outcomes are unpredictable and highly unstable (e.g the Syrian crisis).

Decent work and its possibilities

The term “decent work” refers to the ILO’s agenda based on a set of principles: Respecting and promoting fundamental principles and rights at work, the creation of sustainable institutions and economic environments, development and advancement of social protection measures and lastly, the promotion of social dialogue and tripartism (Promoting Decent Work for Migrant Workers 2015). As Amina Mohammed highlighted in her speech at the Global Employment and Social Challenges meeting, a move beyond GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as the only measure of development and prosperity is needed. In order for sustainable development to be achieved, other measures such as access to resources and educational levels should be taken into consideration, with recognition that these vary across and within countries. (GB.323/HL/1).

Firstly, the development of social protection measures improves the quality of work as they focus on regulatory and justice systems. These are important systems in promoting and enforcing the rights of all workers. Efforts should be made to build institutions that enable social protection, and social dialogue amongst workers, employers and governments. Often, workers are unaware of their rights or what laws are in place to protect them and this is particularly true of migrant workers. The ILO therefore attempts to promote fundamental principles and rights of workers.

Capacity Building is another task the ILO performs to improve working conditions and employment relations. The emphasis here is on developing the ability of government agencies, such as public employment services and labour inspectorates, to perform core functions and enhancing the knowledge and capabilities of employers and trade unions. Furthermore, the organization works with governments and local communities in training low-skilled workers and the unemployed so as to improve their chances of employment. To illustrate, a project to build a water pipe can be assisted by the ILO and the organization will help to train workers. On successful completion of the pipe, the workers will be awarded a certificate, certifying their skills and thus allowing them to act as trainers or continue in similar lines of work. This demonstrates a practical way for the ILO to directly alleviate unemployment and increase the number of skilled workers. The development of local training centres enables the sustainability of such projects as it promotes the participation of locals in the programs. Development programs are more likely to succeed long-term when locals are directly involved and committed to them.

Additionally, because of high levels of unemployment in some countries, especially in developing ones, workers tend not to mind low quality jobs as long as they are employed and are able to earn a living. In such situations the ILO recognizes that the need for a job outweighs considerations relating to its quality. This poses a challenge to the organization, especially when workers move into the informal sector in search of jobs. Regulating labour standards in the informal sector is especially difficult and poses a great challenge to the promotion of decent work and its enforcement. In such cases, the ILO attempts to ensure working environments are safe and that rights are enforced through collaborating with governments in relation to minimum wage policies, for example.

As it can be seen, having a set of principles that enables flexibility for a decent work agenda is what is required. Although having significant common measures of development such as GDP helps with generalizations and macro analyses of countries and their economies, flexibility is needed in responding to unpredictable factors and outcomes that lead to some countries performing better than others (GB.323/HL/1). Flexibility with an understanding of the vast differences amongst regions is what may possibly lead to all three groups (workers, employers and governments), accepting ILO conventions and working together, as they will be able to accommodate their different needs and interests. Furthermore, flexibility allows for different approaches to be taken in order to meet the needs of those that tend to be marginalized. The ILO’s approach to decent work will be central to the success of effective sustainable development programs which can offer great opportunities for all.


GB.323/HL/1 (March 2015) “Global employment and social challenges: Emerging trends and role of the ILO”, High-Level Section, Governing Body 323rd Session, Geneva.

ILO Declaration (2008) “ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization” adopted by the International Labour Conference at its Ninety-seventh Session, Geneva.

“Promoting Decent Work for Migrant Workers” (2015), International Labour Organization.

Report V (2013) “Sustainable development, decent work and green jobs” 102nd Session, International Labour Conference, International Labour Office Geneva.


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