The Sustainable Development Goals: will they make a difference to workers?

Following the publication of our latest report on the Sustainable Development Goals, Realise the Potential of Your Ethical Trade Programme, we organised an Ethical Insights breakfast briefing to focus on the topic. Luca Ponzetta reports on the discussion.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are broad. They range from ending poverty and hunger to ensuring gender equality and reducing inequality generally.

They also include targets around sustainability and the environment.

Leave no one behind

Significantly, unlike their precursor the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs refer explicitly to work and jobs.

Their aim is to mobilise action and shape the efforts of governments, businesses, trade unions and civil society organisations across the world.

An underlying commitment is to “leave no one behind”.

This is welcome.

It is usually the most marginalised and vulnerable workers that remain invisible and do get left behind. More often than not, they do not get to share in the benefits of development.

Decent work and economic growth

ETI’s main interest arguably lies in SDG 8.

SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

SDG 8.7, in particular, refers to eradicating forced labour and the worst forms of child labour – two issues which ETI has been and continues to be very active on, through advocacy, programme work and training.

However, the goals should not be looked at in isolation, as they are very much interlinked with one another.

For instance, SDG 5 deals with gender equality. With 80% of workers in garment supply chains women, for example, this is an issue over which ETI is deeply concerned.

Decent jobs are also key to addressing poverty and inequality, which are the focus of SDG 1 and SDG 10.

The debate

The starting question of the briefing was whether the SDGs can or will make any actual difference to workers.

It was pointed out that elements like Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, which are critical enablers for workers’ agency, are only implicitly referred to.

Furthermore, there is no mention of living wages. Nor is there a clear commitment to dealing with harsh and inhumane treatment.

All these elements are part of ETI’s Base Code of labour standards.

At the same time, the SDGs are a clear invitation for the private sector to engage directly, rather than just being a set of targets for governments to deal with or strive toward.

That, of course, is of interest to us; ETI’s work is based on multi-stakeholder collaboration and we are a key player in driving this agenda.

Our speakers

The speakers at our SDGs briefing reflected on current issues, illustrated dilemmas and discussed best practice. They included:

  • Jon Barnes an independent researcher who co-drafted our report.
  • Amina Khan who leads SDG research at the Overseas Development Institute
  • Ruth Mhlanga, Oxfam GB’s Private Sector Policy Advisor.

Jon Barnes gave an overview of the SDGs and looked at some of their gaps and weaknesses, as well as the links with other frameworks.

Amina Khan, discussed the significance of data (or lack thereof) in order to measure progress against the SDGs. She also raised the impact of timing and the potential cost of delaying action.

Ruth Mhlanga,  illustrated how companies can respond to the SDGs, challenging the traditional “business case” model. She explained how Oxfam is working with businesses in a practical way to advance the SDGs and offered insights on how businesses can work effectively with NGOs to help deliver the SDGs.

Subsequent discussions among the audience included calls for:

  • Business champions to speak up and be vocal about their efforts.
  • Investors to be drivers of change within for business.
  • And agreement on greater collection and interpretation of data and on the question of who is actually responsible.

What do you think?

Ethical Insights briefings occur monthly and we focus on a wide range of topics. In the spirit of collaboration, they offer an informal, open space to air challenges, share ideas and learn from one another. Subscribe to our mailing list and be kept up-to-date. And next time, join us for an excellent debate! 


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