Multilateralism and COVID-19

Multilateralism, SDGs and COVID-19: What role for workers'organisations?

Why Multilaterialism and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are even more relevant as overarching responses to the COVID-19 pandemic? Maria Helena ANDRE, Director of the ILO’s Bureau for Workers ‘Activities shares her thoughts on the critical role to be played by Workers'organisations to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic…

News | 21 April 2020
Contact(s): Hilma Mote,
Maria Helena ANDRE, Director of the ILO's Bureau for Workers'Activities (ACTRAV)

ACTRAV INFO: Why do you think Multilateralism is one of the most overarching response to the COVID-19 Crisis?

COVID-19 is the gravest and multi-faceted crisis many of us shall witness in our lifetime. Given its scale and unpredictable impact, it has the potential to shake the trust in Multilateralism and its institutions, but that shall be a devastating mistake. While not comparable in totality to the global economic and financial crisis experienced 10 years ago, it is safe to say that the economic and social impact of that meltdown would have been far worse if not for the extraordinary policy and pragmatic response measures adopted by many governments. The measures were coupled with the commendable assistance provided by the various development partners including the UN agencies and the international financial institutions and multilateral development banks.

ACTRAV INFO: In your view, what is the role of SDGs in this crisis?

The full-scale effect of COVID-19 on sustainable development (SDGs) efforts at the national, regional and global levels is yet to be determined. However, and without a doubt, the crisis has more than anything revealed that even in the current challenging times, SDGs and in particular, goal 8 on Decent Work and Economic Growth; is the most wide-ranging response measure as it contains social, economic and environmental dimensions. It contains targets on social inclusion, decent work, sustained economic growth, equitable distribution of wealth and environmental preservation. In addition, SDG 8 has already called on all of us to critically re-think and change our relations with the environment, accumulation and consumption modes and behaviours.

However, making progress on SDGs in the current realities critically depends on a number of interrelated factors. First, it is on how social partners’ workers, employers, governments and development agencies participate more effectively in the United Nations Development System (UNDS) to respond quickly in policy  and programmes. Second, the resolute of the national leadership to keep resources committed to the set SDG objectives and their ability to adjust to new emerging policy demands and initiatives. Third, the amount of resources (human and financial) mobilized locally and through global and regional multi-stakeholder partnerships to address the immediate and long-term challenges. Finally, the political understanding that to a large extent, the measures being taken to respond to COVID- 19  are part of the implementation of Agenda 2030 albeit induced by the crisis.

ACTRAV INFO: Why is it necessary for workers'organizations to continue engaging with the UN processes on sustainable development during this crisis? 

The ongoing crisis should give workers’organisations even more reason to engage further and better with the United Nations Development System (UNDS). The UN reformed system supports the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at national level. The Cooperation Framework (CF) on the other hand, is the instrument that guides the entire programme cycle. It is the central instrument for planning, implementation, monitoring, reporting and evaluation of collective UN support for achieving the 2030 Agenda. As such, the framework captures country needs and tailors the UN development system (UNDS) response and presence on the ground with the overall aim to improve coordination, efficiency and transparency within the UN development system.

Moreover, the UN sustainable development processes offers trade unions and social partners in general the space and impetus necessary to participate in democratic and transparent multilateral decision-making processes. It also offers them the space to demand enhanced policy coherence, improved enforcement and better accountability. Trade unions on the other hand can demonstrate the important role of social dialogue and social partnership to national development. Most importantly, they have to ensure that the countries do not lose sight of the structural impediments to national development while responding to the short-term needs. SDGs offer sustainable solutions to structural challenges; they are preventive in scope and multi-faceted in approach.

ACTRAV INFO: What is the likely impact of this crisis on workers'organizations and trade unions in particular?

As countries face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of a fit-for-purpose trade union organizations within a functional tripartite social dialogue system become paramount. This is in view of the fact that the only way we can reshape the social, economic and environmental protection systems post the crisis is through multilateral development co-operation as well as national and regional multi-sectoral partnerships embedded in strong social dialogue institutions and culture. No country and certainly no single UN agency can deal with this crisis alone. It is for this reason that the ONE UN Agenda is about more inclusive global governance, better policy coherence, multilateral and sectoral institutional coordination and alignment of priorities.

Given the multi-faceted nature and unpredictable impacts of the crisis, there will be a temptation and perhaps even reality to advance policy responses unilaterally rather than through multilateral actions. Therefore, trade unions have to remain vigilant and insist on the use of social dialogue mechanisms at all relevant levels for decision making throughout the crisis. Trade unions can help their countries to emerge stronger from this crisis by mobilizing their membership behind SDG, demand urgency and action from governments and provide new and innovative proposals for sustainable development from a trade union perspective.

ACTRAV INFO : What is your final message to workers’ organizations?

The ongoing and post COVID-19 crisis need more responsive trade union organizations, with strong political and technical competencies to engage and influence the global development Agenda 2030 (SDGs) at all levels. Hence, trade unions should:
  • Reach out to UN country teams especially Resident Coordinators and offer solutions from a trade union perspective;
  • Use the CF as the appropriate vehicle through which to demand alignment of national social, economic policies and strategies from common country analysis development to post crisis recovery plans;
  • Use the CF to assist their governments to make critical social, economic and environmental protection policy decisions such as how to save jobs without risking the health of workers, how to implement the necessary COVID-19 measures without destroying livelihoods, how to mobilize and allocate the human and financial resources necessary without exacerbating the national debt crisis. How to extend social protection to the most needy and how to protect incomes, jobs, and rebuild, reshape and reorganise the economic and social infrastructure and priorities beyond the crisis;
  • Make use of the existing social dialogue mechanisms to reach tripartite consensus on critical issues of mutual importance thereby together with employers’ organizations demanding accountability to the social partners as more than ever, social dialogue institutions become more indispensable;
  • Fundamental principles and rights at work and other international labour standards provide a strong basis for the development and implementation of measures to address the impact of COVID-19 at national level;
  • Decent Work Country Programs (DWCPs) are effective instruments for alleviating the extreme employment and labour related impacts of the crisis as they promote the ILO Decent Work Agenda on guaranteeing rights at work, safeguarding jobs, extending social protection, social dialogue and promoting jobs with gender as a cross-cutting theme;
The ILO-ACTRAV stand ready to support institutional capacity development efforts of Unions in relation to development policies and more particularly in the UN development systems processes.