22 September 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




Decent work for all must be seen as central to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, Mary Robinson, Chair of Realizing Rights:  the Ethical Globalization Initiative (EGI), said at Headquarters this morning.

“The poor work but they have so many barriers,” said Ms. Robinson, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights who was in New York to help open a conference on “Working Out of Poverty:  A Decent Work Approach to Development and the Millennium Development Goals”, taking place today.  “Poor workers don’t have a system, they don’t have access to justice, they don’t have the supports that are needed.”

She was accompanied at the press conference by Juan Somavia, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO); Ela Bhatt of the Self-Employed Women's Association of India (SEWA); Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chief Executive Officer of Ericsson; and Jose Antonio Ocampo, a former Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, now with Columbia University.

The “Working Out of Poverty” initiative had been undertaken to focus on decent work, Ms. Robinson continued.  It had begun in Oslo earlier this month, with the Government of Norway bringing together representatives of United Nations bodies, non-governmental organizations, business and trade unions, as well as political leaders and academics.  The purpose was to create more coherence between trade policy and employment, and the overall message was “No more no-jobs growth”.

The Oslo event had been followed by a high-level multi-stakeholder dialogue in Monrovia, Liberia, on the opportunities and challenges of applying a decent-work approach to development and growth in Africa, she said, adding that today’s conference would focus on the overall centrality of employment to the Millennium Goals.

Mr. Somavia, emphasizing that the employment issue could not simply be left to the market since it was central to society’s structure and individual dignity, said decent employment for all should be a matter of policy.  A multi-stakeholder approach was needed, including the empowerment of workers.  “We want the MDGs to work and the MDGs are not working.”  They could work if there was a significantly increased focus on the work component of poverty-reduction policies.  It was unacceptable that core poverty figures had not changed since the 1980s, given that so much wealth had been created since then.  The ethical globalization initiative had not worked; the economy must be directed by policy to create public goods.

Ms. Bhatt, who said she had organized more than a million women workers in India, underscored that it was important not to separate hunger, mortality and suffering from the need for decent work.  Almost all poor people worked, but most were engaged in the informal sector in developing countries, which meant they lacked access to services and had no rights over employment conditions.

An important immediate step to improve their lot was including the informal sector in economic statistics, she said.  Subsistence farmers, microenterprises and home workers all contributed to gross domestic product, and must be tracked.  Governments must then help empower workers to gain the security and social services that would allow their work to pull them out of poverty.

Mr. Svanberg, emphasizing the need for business to play a proactive role in human rights and decent work, said the Ericsson corporation, a co-founder of the United Nations Global Compact, had been in a position to do that owing to the burgeoning use of mobile communications in developing countries, the important role of communications in development and the tens of thousands of Ericsson employees in poor countries.  Respect for employees and diversity was essential in that regard.

Mr. Ocampo added that decent work must be a central objective not only of economic policy, but fiscal and trade policy as well in order to achieve the Millennium Goals.  Informal workers must be incorporated into social protections, and it could not be assumed that increased trade produced decent jobs.  Those objectives must be mainstreamed into the work of the international financial institutions.  Indeed, employment had only been included explicitly in the Millennium Development Goals after a long struggle.

Asked about that gap in attaining the Millennium Goals, Mr. Ocampo pointed out that they were not the whole agenda of the United Nations.  Decent work was as much a part of that agenda.  In any case, the 2005 World Summit had finally incorporated decent work into the Goal of reducing extreme poverty.

Mr. Somavia added that the original emphasis of the Millennium Goals had been on increasing international aid to reduce poverty, which ignored the sector in which people actually advanced in life.  Aid could possibly help people “get their noses above water”, but employment was essential to keeping them afloat and allowing them to develop their full potential.

Asked how the decent work initiative related to her work in human rights, Ms. Robinson said the connection was profound since it related to the basic empowerment of people to gain the necessary goods from their labour.  It was shocking that 4 billion people were working in an unhealthful, unstable system.  In addition, women formed the vast majority of informal-sector workers and the lack of rights in their employment situation was of great concern.

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For information media • not an official record