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Time to Act for SDG 8

What will it take to ensure Decent work for all?

Sustainable Development Goal 8 on Decent Work for All is the only SDG that brings together social, economic and environmental targets. It has an impact on all other Agenda 2030 goals. Ahead of the UN SDG Summit on 18-19 September, we ask what will it take to ensure it is achieved?

Comment | 03 August 2023

The world of work is undergoing profound changes. Self-driving cars, medicine-delivering drones, generative artificial intelligence that augments human creativity, overheating megacities. These things were once the stuff of science fiction. Today they are the technological, demographic, and climate-change-related forces reshaping the way we work.

What we don’t know is whether these forces will change our world of work for better or worse. This uncertainty is increased because the changes are occurring at a time of enormous existing challenges.

Inequalities are reaching unprecedented levels. Global employment growth will be only 1.0 per cent in 2023, less than half that of 2022. Global unemployment is expected to rise by around three million in 2023 to 208 million. The cost-of-living crisis is pushing more people into poverty, including working poverty. The most vulnerable workers include 200 million people living in absolute poverty and two billion in the informal economy, where they frequently lack legal rights or social protection.

This global picture also hides significant geographic imbalances. For example, in low-income countries, employment is not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels this year. In those regions where unemployment is now below pre-crisis levels, our analysis shows this is mainly because of a shift into the informal economy, which probably postpones rather than resolves workers’ problems.

So, what can be done? How can we ensure these currents of change lead us to the more equitable, sustainable, prosperous, peaceful future that UN Member States committed to when they adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015? This will be among the key questions to be addressed at the SDG Summit in New York in September.

This is where Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8 plays a crucial role. SDG 8 seeks inclusive and sustainable economic growth and full and productive employment – in other words, decent work for all. But its impact goes beyond that, because it is the only SDG that brings together social, economic and environmental targets. In that sense, it can be seen as a ‘multiplier goal’ of the entire sustainable development agenda, since it will have a positive impact on other goals, if achieved.

© M. Crozet / ILO
As with all the goals, making good on the promise of SDG 8 will require us to restore faith in multilateralism and global cooperation. In a globalized economy, developing countries cannot be expected to act alone. We need international solidarity if we want to make a practical difference. Building universal social protection systems is an example. These can alleviate poverty, reduce vulnerability and inequalities, and help to manage conflicts and social tensions. To achieve this target, humanitarian assistance must be directed so that it supports social protection systems and reinforces state capacity.

A reorganized and rebalanced approach to globalization is essential. While concerns about automation's impact on job losses are valid, technological progress can also create new job opportunities in emerging markets. But we must ensure that the benefits are felt by everyone along these supply chains.

To bring all the components of this approach together we must have clear and transparent policies and actions and ensure that they are seen as fair. That’s why the ILO is calling for a Global Coalition for Social Justice.

The Coalition will bring together ILO constituents, UN and other multilateral bodies, global financial institutions, the private sector, civil society, and other partners. This wide range of views and expertise will help to ensure that policies reflect all facets of the issues we face – economic, social and environmental – and so achieve broad acceptance.

The Coalition will also build on the work of the Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for Just Transitions. Both are based on a solid human rights foundation, with a strong link to international labour standards and the promotion of social dialogue. While the Coalition will bring a broad range of opinions and experiences together, the Accelerator will help to channel investments from a wide range of sources – national, international, public, and private – into the extension of social protection, and into job creation, including in the green, digital, and care economies.

We know that the world of work will be different for the next generation, this is inevitable. It is up to us how we shape that change. SDG 8, with its focus on decent work for all, can direct us towards a more human-centered future that is more equitable, dignified, productive, and humane.

By Mia Seppo, Assistant Director-General, Jobs and Social Protection Cluster, International Labour Organization (ILO)