Although 7,000 miles apart, the tireless protestors in France and the demonstrators who greeted President Bush in Argentina last weekend share an underlying demand – for economic opportunity, or “decent work.”
In Argentina, peaceful protests outside the Summit of the Americas turned violent. Demonstrators rallied against the Bush trade agenda, clamoring for a new approach to trade that would bring more jobs and greater benefits to the region’s poor. Piqueteros – poor and unemployed protestors who gained notoriety around Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis – allegedly incited the violence.
Meanwhile, rioters from predominantly Arab and African immigrant communities across France have been battling with police for nearly two weeks. The protestors ascribe their anger to cultural alienation, pervasive discrimination, and a lack of jobs. Their communities endure an average 20 percent unemployment rate, more than twice the national average.
These examples of unrest illustrate the urgent need to forge a new global path toward increased economic opportunities around the world. One solution to this challenge lies in the adoption of what is called the decent work agenda.
Under the leadership of the International Labor Organization, the decent work agenda seeks not just the creation of jobs, but of quality jobs that encompass full employment, a social safety net, fundamental workers’ rights, and mutually beneficial partnerships between business, labor and governmental actors. This agenda affirms the core labor standards, which call for eliminating discrimination in employment.
The decent work agenda requires national and international actors to commit to the objective of creating quality jobs globally, and to pursue cooperative solutions to this challenge. Leaders may ask why job creation abroad is important to them at home.
The answer lies in the fact that providing decent work for all grows the global economic pie, and more equitably distributes economic gains within and between countries. The creation of decent jobs strengthens the middle class and generates demand for the goods of others. It also contributes to a climate of stability and growth, which attracts foreign investment over the long term. Decent work is a linchpin of balanced global trade.
Regrettably, a variety of global factors have undercut the struggle for decent work. Soaring productivity coupled with the rapid expansion of the labor force has resulted in sharply higher unemployment rates. In the developing world, a flood of foreign investment has at times wiped out local businesses, further exacerbating the exclusion of many workers from the gains of global economic integration.
Although national governments retain ultimate responsibility for providing decent work, the forces of globalization – such as downward pressures on wages and reduced macroeconomic policy flexibility – have diminished the ability of national governments to achieve this goal on their own.
Feeling more and more insecure, publics have become disaffected with the political and economic system. As income inequality both within and between societies rises sharply, they increasingly view the struggle for good jobs as resulting in winners and losers. As in France and Argentina, this rising anger can contribute to political instability and violence.
To provide decent work globally, governments and international institutions must overcome weak governance, faulty rules and confused priorities. They must:
Elevate employment as a core policy objective. Although decent work is at the heart of our world’s development needs, it has taken a back seat in policy formulation. For example, employment is hardly mentioned in the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. Similarly, the International Monetary Fund does not require countries to meet employment targets; in fact, many of its requirements negatively affect job creation at the local level.
Clearly endorse the decent work agenda. To avoid pitting workers against workers and rich countries against poor ones, political leaders must convince their publics of the upside of providing decent work globally. In the developed world, leaders must convey that pursuing decent work abroad means more and better jobs at home. In France, some political leaders have advocated the popular but irresponsible position of tightening borders and protecting markets to shelter the French economy and culture from the forces of globalization.
In the developing world, leaders must refrain from taking measures with adverse effects on workers to attract investment. Research shows that businesses choose to invest not just in countries where wages are low, but where workers are educated, tax laws favorable, and workers’ rights strong.
Engage a variety of tools in promoting decent work. Although job creation was the central theme on the agenda of the Summit of the Americas, President Bush’s singular focus on his proposed region-wide free trade agreement – and the protestors’ condemnation of the trade agenda – consumed the debate. National and international actors should consider trade an important means to job creation, but not the only tool available.
Support the exercise of democratic rights. Decent work raises workers’ quality of life and enables them to exercise their democratic rights. To meet the challenge of decent work, leaders must establish rules of the game that are democratic themselves – that is, that benefit people beyond those in developed countries and privileged sectors. Forming partnerships between business, labor and governmental actors – another important element of democracy – is also central to providing decent work, as all three actors are on the frontline of job creation.
Although decent work is central to meeting our world’s economic needs, national and international actors treat it as a derivative of other core policy objectives. Until we elevate decent work on the policy agenda – and address the obstacles to achieving this important goal – violent unrest in places like Argentina and France will remain a front page story.
Nicole Mlade is Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. She directs the Center’s Global Progress program, a partnership among progressive international leaders seeking cooperative solutions to global challenges.
 See World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, “A Fair Globalization: Creating Opportunities for All.” A Commission of the International Labour Organisation. 2004.
 See David Kucera, "Core labor standards and foreign direct investment." International Labor Review, Spring-Summer 2002, Vol. 141, p. 31 (39).