Nov 03 2021

SDG 8 addresses ‘decent work’ and this can be defined as work that is respectful of the fundamental rights of individuals and communities, writes Laurie Parsons.

The UN’s International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Decent Work Agenda identifies a series of intersectional challenges ranging from social protection and gender equality to inclusive and sustainable economic growth. The ILO established the category of decent work in 1999. In 2016, the ILO estimated that around 40 million people were experiencing conditions of modern slavery.

Climate change has had profound implications for the geography of work and the prospects for ‘decent work’ let alone what the ILO terms ‘green jobs’. Changes to the climate – both long and short term – can be studied through the lens of working life. What was once sufficient for personal and family needs may no longer be so in a radically changed environment, meaning reduced quality of livelihoods, longer working hours, and a greater vulnerability to exploitation by employers. For those experiencing climate change, the effects are felt deeply, as disruptions to local and regional economies and societies are connected to wider global trading and commercial systems. Whether one is a market trader or factoryworker, rural farmer or civil servant, a changing climate means changing terms of and for work.

Problems with the UN approach on working life

Nevertheless, working life remains curiously absent from a UN-sponsored sustainability discourse focused somewhat uncritically on economic growth as a solution to the pressures and inequalities of labour under ongoing and accelerating climate change. SDG 8’s aim, for example, to ‘promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’ conflates the human right to full employment and decent work advocated by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and human rights NGOs, with a market-centred 2030 Agenda that presents an obstacle to achieving it. Critics of the goal contend that, ‘grafting the human rights to full employment and decent work onto a business-oriented economic growth agenda in SDG 8 calls into question whether the 2030 Agenda enshrines full employment and decent work as human rights obligations of states or merely as benefits of economic growth.’

What such an approach misses is a recognition that precarity, inequality and poverty – all common features of even rapidly growing economies – shape vulnerability to the changing climate. As with any social sphere, the workplace is a site of struggle, agency, and compromise. It is both dynamic and degrading: the site of winners and losers, as well as collaborative agency and solidarity. The existing landscapes of inequality impact upon the diverse world of work and workers.

SDGs and the world’s most vulnerable workers

Being sensitive to those diversities means resisting simple dichotomies such as between urban and rural work. In a world characterised by mobility and ongoing urban development in the global North and South, the location and nature of work is likely to be highly dynamic. Critical scholarship at Royal Holloway and elsewhere has started to show how Sustainable Development Goals may run counter to the rights, interests and experiences of the world’s most vulnerable workers, which elide profound inequalities and intersectional experiences within the world in deference to the rights of ‘apolitical, placeless, future citizens’.

The contexts within which climate impacts emerge are structured by economic processes, shaping the manifestation of climate change in certain areas, to direct and intensify its impacts. Whether this takes the form of local resource depletion, such as water or forest wood, or local environmental degradation in the form of water or airborne pollutants, the impact on health and livelihoods compromises the adaptive capacity of those affected, intensifying the impacts of the changing climate where they are felt. These local environmental impacts worsen the impacts of climate change in the vicinity of production processes, shaping a geography of climatic precarity in which large-scale climatic and local economic factors combine to generate an intensified geography of climate change impacts.

Decent work becomes a great deal harder to secure if one is facing high levels of exposure to climatic hazards and if one possesses lower levels of capital to adapt. High levels of risk intensification engendered by local environmental degradation can in turn affect wider supply chains, extending beyond the local area. That these supply chains are often linked to global Northern consumers presents both responsibility and opportunity: the necessity to act, but also the ability to do so. Whether global Northern consumers appreciate it or not, international organisations continue to point to the scale of the challenge. Over 150 million children are engaged in child labour and working poverty is a fact of life for hundreds of millions around the world. Climate change, for all the talk of the opportunities of a green job bonanza in some parts of the world, is making avoiding an unjust transition even more challenging.

The Disaster Trade project

Indeed, scholarship at Royal Holloway on this nexus of economy and environment, such as the recently launched Disaster Trade project, is beginning to make clear that economic growth is the cause as well as the solution to many climate-related problems. This realisation calls for a shift in the emphasis of the Sustainable Development Goals, away from the idea of growth as a panacea, capable of driving forwards labour and human rights outcomes, and towards a recognition of the capacity of economic growth both to enhance vulnerability to climate change and worsen its impacts for many workers, as in the example of bricks, shown below.

SDG 8 1

A brick worker in a Bangladeshi brick kiln. The UK is now the world’s biggest importer of bricks, many of which arrive from South Asia for a low economic, but huge carbon and human cost (reproduced with permissions of the author).

SDG 8 represents both a problem and an opportunity. In its current guise, it permits entry to development trajectories that may be unhelpful or even antithetical to sustainable development. Yet by re-prioritising the goal to place economic growth in the service of decent work and reduced vulnerabilities to climate change, it has far more positive potential.

Decent work sits at the very core of reduced vulnerabilities to climate change. Consequently, a reframed and reinvigorated SDG 8 should be priority for advocates of sustainable development.

Laurie Parsons is Lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and Principal Investigator of the project ‘The Disaster Trade: The Hidden Footprint of UK Imports and Investment Overseas’. Laurie’s work explores how climate change is articulated through the social, political and economic systems within which we live. Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society’s Climate Change Research Group for the last three years, he has worked extensively to promote research on climate change in the discipline of geography. His first book, Going Nowhere Fast: Inequality in the Age of Translocality, was published by Oxford University Press (2020) and shortlisted for the EuroSEAS 2021 Social Science book prize. An edited collection, entitled Climate Change in the Global Workplace, was published with Routledge in 2021.