Low wages, inadequate health and safety provision at work, work-family balance and other poor working conditions that workers face every day are interrelated problems. Labor regulation and policy agendas, however, usually address these problems separately, without considering the close interplay between the two spheres of life.

In the words of Rethabile, a former factory worker from Lesotho: “The [working] condition wasn’t good at all. Everything was bad, even the management – they didn’t know the laws. Even as workers we didn’t know our rights.… The money that we earn is very little and there is so much sickness in here that we need to go to the doctor’s every month for check-ups. Then, to go to the doctors we have to use transport…. We are paying rent, taking children to school, and giving [money] back [to] our mothers at home for food.” – Rethabile, Lesotho 2018

As Rethabile’s experience illustrates, sustaining productive and protected working lives is among the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. In 2013, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a new agenda to tackle ‘Unacceptable Forms of Work’ (UFW), which is known as Policy Outcome 8. According to the ILO, UFW refers to forms of work that “deny fundamental principles and rights at work, put at risk the lives, health, freedom, human dignity and security of workers or keep households in conditions of extreme poverty.” Such conditions are a challenge not only faced by Global South countries, but increasingly affecting Global North economies as well.

Rethabile is now a member of the Strategic Network on Unacceptable Forms of Work: Global Dialogue/Local Innovation, a project led by Deirdre McCann of the University of Durham, UK, which began in 2017. The project has developed research agendas to compare countries from different regions and income levels in terms of how they ensure effective labor laws. The Strategic Network has supported a dialogue that transcends national boundaries and circulates regulatory ideas and innovations across the world. The project has brought together a network of researchers and policy-makers from 50 organizations in more than 20 countries to identify ideas, experiments and successful strategies on the legal regulation of unacceptable forms of work.

In July 2018, the project published a report titled, ‘Unacceptable Forms of Work. Global Dialogue/Local Innovation,’ that highlights ten Global Regulatory Challenges to effective labor rights. These challenges cross-cut the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and include:

  • the rapid global growth in casual work,
  • the urgent need for novel enforcement mechanisms,
  • the evolution of new forms of collective representation of workers, and
  • the interaction of informal work and labor regulation regimes.

The report also put forth a set of Research Agendas on Innovative UFW Regulation. The Research Agendas map the existing “state of the art” on the ten identified Global Regulatory Challenges, and outline research strategies to find the most effective regulatory and policy approaches to address each one. The Agendas focus on regulatory frameworks at all levels (global, national, sectoral and firm-level), and on a range of regulatory mechanisms, including legislation, collective bargaining, and corporate social responsibility regimes. The Research Agendas pay attention to sectors and occupations that are at the heart of the global economy, including the garment sector, construction, domestic work and agriculture.

The report calls for effective labor regulation to secure economic growth and decent work (SDG 8). We are convinced that effective approaches to labor regulation are those that take into account the wellbeing of workers and their families, incorporate the experiences of employers and are attentive to the multidimensional nature of decent work. All of these aspects are vital components of development policies.

Workers like Rethabile from the garment industry in Lesotho and South Africa are the focus of our research. In Lesotho, the apparel industry started in the mid-1990s, and now employs approximately 40,000 workers. The sector is the most important formal provider of jobs and income in the country. It is of particular importance for women, as 80-85% of Lesotho’s garment workers are female. As such, achieving decent work regulation in Lesotho cannot be reduced to creating strong and effective laws, but it is a challenge that cross-cuts the SDGs, and that must respond to socio-economic and cultural contexts. As Mamohale Matsoso, Lesotho’s Labour Commissioner, has put it, “Development without a human face is no development at all.”

At the international level, these interlinkages mean that the SDGs have to be thought of holistically – achieving decent work becomes a fundamental part of ending poverty in all its forms (SDG 1) (the ILO’s SDG 1 webpage notes related thematic areas), reducing inequality within and among countries (SDG 10) (ILO’s SDG 10 webpage notes related thematic areas), making sustainable cities (SDG 11) (the ILO’s SDG 11 webpage notes related thematic areas) and achieving gender equality (SDG 5) (the ILO’s SDG 5 webpage notes related thematic areas). At the heart of ensuring decent work must lie a commitment to hearing voices such as Rethabile’s. For their stories to be known and acted upon, workers, academics, unions, civil society and policy makers need to recognize that using labor regulation to improve working conditions can become a lever to achieve several SDGs, and thus have a tangible impact in the lives of the most vulnerable.