EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Decent work

Decent work is a term originally coined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in a report published in June 1999, when it described the goal of decent work as ‘not just the creation of jobs, but also the creation of jobs of acceptable quality’. It made it clear that the level of employment (quantity) cannot be divorced from its quality. The ILO report recognised that all societies had a notion of decent work, but that the quality of employment could mean many things. It could relate to different forms of work, and also to different conditions of work, as well as to feelings of value and satisfaction. The ILO saw the need to devise social and economic systems that would ensure basic security and employment while remaining capable of adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances in a highly competitive global market. For the ILO, decent work lies at the ‘heart of social progress’ and has thus become one of its major strategic policy concepts.

The decent work agenda is defined as being based on an integrated and gender-mainstreamed approach consisting of four pillars, which are:

  • productive and freely chosen work;
  • rights at work;
  • social protection;
  • social dialogue.

In 2007, the ILO, in response to the adoption by the United Nations of a Ministerial declaration on full and productive employment and decent work, stated that this would help strengthen efforts by the UN and the multilateral system aimed at creating jobs, cutting poverty and providing new hope for the world’s 1.4 billion working poor during the next decade. In 2008, the ILO adopted its Declaration on social justice for a fair globalisation, in which it stresses its key role in helping to achieve progress and social justice in the context of globalisation, through the decent work agenda. This is the third major statement of principles and policies adopted by the International Labour Conference since the ILO’s 1919 Constitution.

The European Commission, in a 2006 Communication, Promoting decent work in the world, noted that half the world’s workers earn less than two US dollars a day and that the concept of decent work for all is a way of tackling these inequalities. Aiming to go beyond just ensuring minimum labour rights, the Communication gave a clear indication on how promoting decent work could be achieved: through the promotion of job creation; through improved governance and social dialogue; by identifying and addressing decent work deficits; by better cooperation between the main stakeholders; and by reducing corruption. The Communication also stated that there was a business case for decent work as it had been proven to contribute to improved economic performance. On 1 December 2006, the European Council endorsed the Commission’s proposals to strengthen EU policies, actions and programmes aimed at promoting decent work, both inside and outside the EU.

Decent work can be measured through statistical indicators which the Commission recommends could include intrinsic job quality, skills and lifelong learninggender equalityhealth and safety at work, flexibility and security, inclusion and access to the labour market, work organisation and work-life balancesocial dialogue and worker participation, diversity and non-discrimination, and overall work performance. The Commission is also committed to emphasising the need for decent work in its agreements and cooperation with countries outside the EU, including candidate, neighbouring, developing and developed countries. In October 2011, the European Commission issued a Communication entitled Increasing the impact of EU development policy: an agenda for change, in which its reinforces the EU’s commitment to promoting decent work throughout the world, covering the issues of job creation, guarantee of rights at work, social protection and social dialogue.

In the EU context, decent work is also relevant to initiatives such as the European Employment Strategy’s goal of creating more and better jobs in the EU, and to the practice of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which refers to the practice of companies voluntarily going beyond what the law requires to achieve social and environmental objectives during the course of their daily business activities. This covers areas such as the Europe 2020 Strategy (particularly in areas such as new skills and jobs, youth and local development), business and human rights, reporting on CSR practices, and socially responsible public procurement.

The ILO and the EU worked on a joint project entitled ‘Monitoring and Assessing Progress on decent work (MAP)’, which aimed to strengthen the capacity of developing and transition countries to self-monitor and self-assess progress towards decent work. The project ran from 2009 to 2013 and involved government agencies, national statistical offices, workers’ and employers’ organisations and research institutions.

The European Commission has a web page devoted to employment and decent work. There is also an annual world day for decent work, coordinated by the International Trade Union Confederation. 

See also: quality of worksocial securityworking conditions

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