We need to ‘municipalize’ our discussions on ensuring decent work

Bolstering Sustainable Development Goal 8 will require shifting the focus away from the national and enterprise level toward cities and local authorities.
A hat vendor plies a beach in Rio, 2014. Several cities in Brazil have spearheaded municipal dialogues with a specific focus on decent work. (Juliana Swenson/Flickr/cc)

“Gated communities are a sign of bad urbanization,” UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos is fond of saying, referring to well-off communities that barricade themselves from the rest of a neighbourhood. In fact, there is an even more disturbing phenomenon on the other side of the spectrum: compulsory gated communities of poor workers, who are bonded to their contracts.

Unfortunately, examples aren’t hard to find. Look at the textile sweatshops of São Paulo. In the construction industry in many countries, migrant workers are not allowed even to leave their dormitories except to go to building sites. In both examples, workers contribute to the building of cities yet hardly enjoy the fruits of their labour.

In other cases, these extremes meet: gated communities of the rich built by construction workers living in bonded communities. Indeed, gated communities epitomize many of the problems related to decent work in urban areas. The lack of good job opportunities leads many people to fall into bonded contracts — at times even being physically locked up themselves. In the opposite extreme, the fact that others feel the need to protect themselves confirms that there may be broader problems afoot.

In this way, the problems of decent work are the problems of an entire city. Similarly, cities and towns will not be sustainable if the livelihoods of their inhabitants are not adequately addressed.

[See: What Bangkok’s crackdown tells us about the multiple roles of street vendors everywhere]

Again, examples unfortunately abound. Look to the tragic case of the urban street vendor in Tunisia who took his life in March 2011 as a protest against lack of proper working conditions — and thus triggered the Arab Spring uprisings. Or look to the recurring relocation of slum dwellers into distant housing estates: These communities often rely on local networks to find jobs, and moving them without giving adequate thought to livelihoods has many times resulted in new migration to new slums.

This interconnection between decent work and sustainable development is inherently acknowledged in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global framework that went into effect last year. One of those 17 goals — SDG 8 — focuses on economic growth with full, productive employment and decent work for all. That includes protecting labour rights, formalizing work, promoting safe and secure working environments, and combating forced and child labour.

While policies and actions related to SDG 8 at the national or provincial level may trickle down to cities and towns, it is also necessary to implement this goal locally. Economic and livelihood issues of national relevance do not necessarily apply to all municipalities in a country. In turn, urban policies and programmes related to SDG 8 can address local questions. They also are more flexible and can take specific measures more quickly than national-level authorities.

Local authorities’ role

In particular, local authorities will need to play a central role in promoting livelihoods. As the level of government closest to the people they serve, mayors and others have in-depth understanding and awareness not only of the challenges but also opportunities facing their communities. They can ensure leadership, address critical issues, provide a role model as employer, and generate more and better jobs via public works and the private sector.

“There is no secret recipe: It is simply moving the responsibility for matters related to SDG 8 down from the national or enterprise level to the municipal.”

Indeed, key models already exist on the spectrum of actions that local governments can take to bolster decent work in line with broader goals around sustainable urban development. Let’s look at a few such examples.

Leadership: Local governments in several countries have spearheaded municipal dialogues with a specific focus on decent work, including Santa Fe and Rosario (Argentina); Belo Horizonte, Salvador and Diadema (Brazil); Pasto (Colombia); and Marikina (the Philippines). Such dialogues foster an environment of collaboration across a diverse range of stakeholders, ensuring a participatory approach to quality employment generation. Innovations coming out of the dialogues varied according to the priorities decided via each participatory process.

[See: How the private sector can help create pipelines of sustainable urban development projects]

Belo Horizonte, for instance, chose to use its dialogue initially to address social protection. For instance, it provided uniforms with personal protective equipment to waste pickers and street cleaners. Not only was such equipment important to safeguarding worker health, but it also gave them a visual identity and a sense of belonging — and made them proud of the work.

Later, Belo Horizonte used its dialogue to implement a comprehensive approach to food security. This directly benefited workers and small-scale farmers producing food in the peri-urban area, and provided better access to nutritious foods, especially for low-income workers and their families. This scheme has since been replicated elsewhere as a strong model.

Others have used such dialogues differently. Salvador, in Brazil, established a “social dialogue” platform to address deficits around decent work during preparations for the World Cup 2014 and for subsequent events. Diadema’s similar platform concentrated on the promotion of employment and improvement of working conditions in the construction industry. And Pasto, an intermediate town surrounded by countryside, used its dialogue to strengthen rural-urban connections.

Critical labour-related issues: Local governments can quickly identify and address specific problems related to inappropriate working conditions in their territories — child labour, exploited migrants, forced labour and trafficking. These can be addressed via a combination of social dialogue, engagement of stakeholders and better inspection.

For instance, the case of forced labour in the textile industry in São Paulo noted previously has now been addressed through involvement of the local government. This case included migrant workers — most of them unregistered and thus afraid to approach authorities, a fact used by unscrupulous employers to exploit them. The solution sought by the local government was to work with NGOs and local churches, which had direct contacts with and the trust of the workers. This provided an entry point for reaching out to the workers, regularizing their situation and bringing them into the mainstream urban economy.

[See: Coalition seeks to combine business know-how with priorities of the urban poor]

Investing in city employees: Local governments are employers. As such, they can and should act as a role model in providing safe and secure working environments, and in guaranteeing equal pay for equal work for their own employees. Barcelona is a case in point. The latest administration has improved consultations with its staff not only to make internal decisions more participatory but also to have a channel of social dialogue to address possible workers’ demands. After all, if their employees are not empowered, how can local governments stand up to the demands and expectations brought by rising urbanization?

Employment through public interventions: Public works can be used to combine construction and maintenance of the built environment with employment generation using labour-intensive techniques. A classic example is the 1990s upgrading of the Hanna Nassif low-income settlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. More recent and more extensive examples include municipal programmes throughout India and Cambodia.

“Many key models already exist on the spectrum of actions that local governments can take to bolster decent work in line with broader goals around sustainable urban development.”

Creating private employment: Local governments also can encourage employment creation in other sectors in which they are not directly involved. For instance, they can support private enterprises, especially micro- and small-scale ones, which are responsible for a significant proportion of urban employment.

Many municipalities in the Global North have been prominent in business promotion, moving from an administrative approach to an entrepreneurial approach. For instance, Portland, in the United States, has many initiatives to promote private businesses. One example is the Prosperity Investment Program, which provides tax rebates and financial resources in line with local community action plans and the city’s strategic plan to make small-scale real property improvements and to deliver business and development-focused technical assistance.

[See: In Myanmar’s slums, women pool savings to get relief from crushing loans]

In the Global South, one striking example is Durban, with its Municipal Institute of Learning and its Business Support Unit. Both part of the local government, these entities not only support businesses in Durban but also frequently support other cities in the country and region through sharing its experiences and providing training to officers of local governments working on business promotion as well as to associations of enterprises. The successful practices have led the United Cities and Local Governments network to use Durban as a resource municipality for international capacity building events.

Durban also has exemplified how a local government can work in partnership with the informal sector to improve working conditions and social protection, and to encourage formalization where appropriate. The city is known for its very active public markets, which include a large number of informal vendors. Rather than ignoring or evicting them, the municipal government supported these workers through registration and general lessons on business development and product hygiene.

Standards for the private sector: Considering that many services are subcontracted, procurement is a powerful instrument that municipalities can use to enforce labour standards in the private sector. Windhoek, Namibia, is a city that has moved in this direction. Following new decentralization legislation in 2000, the local government incorporated clauses in its bidding contracts for public works stipulating a preference for companies having a good track record on social protection and occupational safety. It also stipulates that — and how — winning companies should comply with acceptable standards and provide a minimum quota of employment for local workers.

[See: How Toronto is using its purchasing power to drive inclusive growth]

Producers’ approach

One of the main premises of the SDGs is that no one should be “left behind”. One meaning behind this is that everyone should have access to the benefits of urbanization, as users of the city. But to this, we also need to add an additional meaning: that no one should be left behind as producers of the city.

Urban participatory processes often have prioritized the first approach. This has indeed brought benefits for low-income communities, leading to the physical upgrading of their settlements as well as the improvement of social services such as education and health. But this has resulted in limited benefits with regard to SDG 8, which is related to economic growth, productive employment and decent work. What is required instead is a proactive role in the economy: a “producers’ approach”.

Many times, such an approach is restricted to the national level, as discussions between associations of employers and workers, usually with the involvement of the Labour Ministry. Workers’ participation within a given enterprise is also common. However, worker participation together with employers and local authorities at the municipal level is far less common, and this is what needs to be strengthened.

[See: Data from Kampala shed new light on informal workers]

How do we do so? By getting workers, enterprises and their organizations overwhelmingly involved in urban participatory processes, and eventually coming to the forefront. Incidentally, this is also the best way to safeguard the local implementation of SDG 8.

For instance, the municipal dialogues discussed earlier offer a model that could be replicated. The cities that have already engaged in such dialogues — Marikina, Belo Horizonte, Pasto,  Diadema and others — show that much can be achieved when there is political will from local authorities to engage with workers and employers. There is not a secret recipe: It is simply moving the responsibility for matters related to SDG 8 down from the national or enterprise level to the municipal.

This shift in focus also would ease the burden on local authorities. City officials would continue to be involved in this process, but with citizens as producers taking on responsibility and ownership. This also ensures continuation throughout political changes in local government. Such changes will happen many times from now until the 2030 deadline for SDG 8 and the other goals, and promotion of livelihoods needs steady efforts.

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Edmundo Werna

Edmundo Werna is an urbanist, focal point of the International Labour Office for the process leading to Habitat III and subsequently the deliberations on the role of the United Nations’ agencies in the New Urban Agenda.