Companies often focus on preventing worst-case scenarios, instead of ensuring that their business environment never allows for even the mildest forms of labour exploitation to occur in the first place. This is unsurprising- at first glance, decent work and issues surrounding modern slavery are on complete opposite ends. However, small problems at work can lead to labour exploitation: when payment is not enough to meet needs, dependency on the worker increases and it can become harder for workers to complain, leave, or report their employers. A variety of factors such as threats due to immigration status, the power imbalance in situations where the employer holds on to their passport, or the fear of being in an even worse situation which one cannot afford may make people scared to speak out. This can leave a person trapped in a cycle of labour exploitation and could lead to forced labour situations. Therefore, whilst the steps taken to mitigate risk are necessary for the fight against modern slavery in its many forms, an important aspect of maintaining an ethical business is often overlooked- decent work.
What is Decent Work?
Decent work summarises the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers fair income security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men. The four pillars of the Decent Work Agenda are:
Productive and freely chosen work: workers should be able to choose work freely and leave when they choose as well.
Rights at work: all workers should be able to exercise their rights freely without fear of punishment
Social protection: all workers should have their rights protected and should not be forced to undergo violations such as discrimination
Social dialogue: businesses should ensure their workers have a voice and that there are effective mechanisms for workers to air the problems or speak up without fear of backlash
In 2017, the European Consensus on Development aligned the EU’s development policy with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which dedicates its 8th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG8) specifically to ensuring full, productive, and decent employment, universally (everywhere in the world) and inclusively (leaving no one behind).
Why Focus on Decent Work?
There are many root causes of modern slavery and its different forms. A few of them are poverty, inequality and discrimination, poor governance, the need to produce cheaper goods and services at a faster rate, lack of transparency in the supply chains, and crime and corruption. Businesses can play an important role in addressing the systemic causes of human rights and violations and decent work shortcomings in global supply chains. This means that businesses should work on creating decent jobs, ensure they provide good working conditions in supply chains, ensure there is access to jobs for people with disabilities, engage with youth employability, mitigate forced labour, promote worker voice, and enforce measures to improve occupational health and safety. Through these actions, businesses can contribute to the elimination of some of the root causes of labour exploitation.
Moreover, pinpointing when exploitative labour becomes forced labour is complex and difficult. By being proactive and focusing on efforts in realising the rights of workers, their families and communities, companies can significantly contribute to eliminating labour exploitation which could progress into more serious forms of modern slavery and negatively impact the company itself.
What are the Benefits of Focusing on Decent Work?
Promoting employment and ensuring decent work for everyone can have a significant impact on individuals and communities. Some of these benefits include:
- Improved Living Standards: work is a main source of income, therefore creating jobs can increase well-being, family stability and can mitigate poverty. Having a decent job and social protection can provide people with a sense of dignity and can promote social inclusion
- Raised Productivity: Jobs promotes the production of goods and services in the economy and the transition from low to high productivity can lead to economic growth for society.
- Social Cohesion: Joblessness is often seen by the public as being linked to a weak democracy. Unemployment and poor working conditions breed frustration and create feelings of social injustice. Promoting employment and decent jobs contributes to building public trust and encourages civic engagement, especially as employment helps fight social isolation.