Make it work: jobs hold key to achieving development goals, says UN report

To achieve ambitious global development goals, employment must be harnessed, imbalances based on gender and skills must be addressed, and greater emphasis must be placed on employment-led growth, according to a UN report.

“Work is the defining issue of our time … the world of work is changing very fast because of globalisation and the digital revolution, and these are creating opportunities as well as risks. They are creating winners as well as losers,” said Selim Jahan, director of the UN’s human development report office.

The report paints a stark picture of persistent inequality between the richest and the poorest, and between men and women, and warns that the increasingly informal nature of many jobs means more must be done to safeguard workers’ rights, benefits and dignity, and to ensure employment contributes to development.

It says that with an estimated 204 million people unemployed worldwide, including 74 million young people, and 830 million working but still living on less than $2 (£1.32) a day, human potential is being wasted.

“Considerable challenges remain, from persistent poverty and grinding inequalities to climate change and environmental sustainability in general, and to conflict and instability,” the head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Helen Clark, said in the report.

The report also includes the annual human development index, which measures 188 countries’ average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development – a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.

At the top and bottom of the table, the rankings were little changed from the previous year. Norway, Australia and Switzerland led the table, while the US slipped one place to eighth. Canada was down one place to ninth, while New Zealand rose from 10th to joint ninth place. Niger was again in last place (188) while Eritrea fell one place to 186, and Burundi fell one place to 184, just below Burkina Faso. The biggest drops came from Libya, which fell 27 places, and Syria, which slipped 15 places.

In its report, the UNDP uses a broad definition of work, which includes unpaid care, creative expressions like writing and painting, and voluntary work. The report defines a “good job” as one that enhances opportunities, and notes that unskilled workers have been particularly affected by the increased use of irregular contracts and short-term work.

“There has not been a worse time to be an unskilled worker,” said Jahan. “Productivity is increasing because of automation, and higher technologies, but the fruits of the productivity are not being translated into wages.”

For example, CEOs in the US are paid 296 times more than workers – compared with 30 times more in 1978. “Is there an economic rationale? Is there a moral justification? Is there any kind of justification for that kind of difference,” Jahan asked. “If we try to have a more rational framework, that will release a lot of resources.”

Another focus was the persistent, entrenched gender gap: globally, women earn 24% less than men and hold only 22% of senior leadership positions in the business world; 32% of businesses have no women in senior management. Women also carry out three out of every four hours of unpaid work.

“To reduce this inequality, societies need new policies, including better access to paid care services. Ensuring equal pay, providing paid parental leave, and tackling the harassment and the social norms that exclude so many women from paid work are among the changes needed. That would enable the burden of unpaid care work to be shared more widely, and give women a genuine choice on whether to enter the labour force,” Clark said.

“This is not only disappointing. This is undesirable and unacceptable”, said Jahan, adding that unpaid care work had to be recognised. Some countries already bring unpaid care into calculations of gross domestic product or national income, using satellite accounting.

“If you value it in India, their GDP goes up by 39%. In South Africa, it goes up by 15%,” he said. He added that quantifying the value in this way helped push the case for compensation with governments, who could implement a range of policies to help those who carry out unpaid work, such as flexible working arrangements.

Estimates suggest there is a global shortage of 13.6 million care workers, and that figure could grow as more people age and live longer, the report notes.

To really make employment work for development, said Jahan, countries should consider employment-led growth: creating jobs for the poorest to boost demand and consumption, before ratcheting up productivity to create a virtuous upward cycle. “Our faith in growth-led employment has not resulted in the jobs needed, both in terms of quantity and quality. So we have a phenomena of jobless growth,” he said, noting that central banks should also play their part by adopting employment targets alongside those for inflation.

“Has there been a very broad-based acceptance of this? No, we are not yet, there but at least 30 countries are trying to move forward with this sort of approach,” he said.

Governments should support the International Labour Organisation’s decent work agenda, which aims to promote jobs, guarantee rights at work, and push for gender equality, as well as consider adopting new social contracts to protect workers, especially those outside the formal sector, the report says.

Innovative taxation could also be used to shrink the gap between rich and poor, said Jahan. “The richest sections of the richest class have a larger ecological footprint. We are consuming more natural resources, more energy. Can there be a taxation on that? That needs to be looked at, and it can be innovative. The richer people also transfer money across borders, for investments, income transfers etc. Can there be a taxation on that?”

The profound challenges facing the world can also create job opportunities, for example in the renewable energy or technology sectors. Jahan said that if six countries – the US, Brazil, India, South Africa, China and Indonesia – invested 1.2% of their GDP in renewable energy, 14m jobs could be created. He stressed that this was not a magic bullet, and that other sectors – including education, healthcare and other areas targeted in the global goals – should also be considered.

“To achieve the sustainable goals in terms of education and health, you would need 80 million additional teachers and health workers. That’s a huge number,” he said.

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