Decent work: Business should never be done at the expense of people's dignity and freedom

A steep rise in child and forced labour as well as continued exploitation of workers across the globe make EU action on decent work ever more urgent, according to an EESC hearing

The hearing on Decent work worldwide, which took place on 4 May, brought together EESC members, representatives from the European institutions and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as well as academics and civil society organisations.

The hearing was held to gather input for the EESC's forthcoming opinion on the topic, focusing on the Commission's Communication on Decent Work, adopted in February, and its proposal for a Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence.

With these initiatives, the Commission is striving to position the EU as a champion of decent work both at home and worldwide and to enable millions of people to work and live in dignity. One of the main goals of these efforts is to eliminate child and forced labour, which have been on the rise. Furthermore, creating decent working conditions stands at the heart of the green and digital transition and is a prerequisite for Europe's sustainable development.

We have a dream of a future where work is decent. But decent work is not yet a reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world, which makes achieving the Sustainable Development Goals a difficult task, said the rapporteur of the EESC opinion, Maria del Carmen Barrera Chamorro.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further aggravated the situation in the world of work, with lots of countries reporting a spike in precarious working conditions. It has disproportionately affected women and vulnerable groups, such as children and workers in the informal economy. The number of children engaged in labour started to climb even before the pandemic, having increased by more than 8 million in the period between 2016 and 2020, after it had previously fallen.

It now stands at 160 million child workers, or one in ten children worldwide. There are 25 million people in a situation of forced labour. In the absence of sufficient social protection coverage, an additional 46 million children may fall victim to child labour in the near future.

The aim of the EU's endeavour is to encourage sustainable and responsible corporate behaviour in domestic markets, in non-EU countries and throughout global value chains.

Under the Directive, companies will be required to prevent and end negative impacts on human rights and the environment in their own operations and in their subsidiaries and value chains. This means, for example, that they would have to actively combat child labour and exploitation of workers. They would also have to take into account the environmental consequences of their corporate decisions, both in the EU and anywhere else they operate.

We welcome the Commission's initiative, but we need to have a more ambitious agenda and an integrated policy based on universal human rights, Ms Barrera Chamorro stressed.

The Commission's proposal was presented by Benedikt Buenker from DG Employment, who said the Commission was making available more than 30 instruments in four different areas to achieve the goal of securing decent work for as many workers as possible. Those include EU policies and initiatives, bilateral, regional and international relations and global partnerships.

The key tools will be EU policies for corporate responsibility and transparency. A legal instrument to ban products made by forced labour is also planned. All policies will promote gender equality and non-discrimination.

Leading the way

Mr Buenker stressed the importance of the EU's role as a responsible global leader in the promotion of decent work.

Doing business around the world is good and necessary. But it can never be done at the expense of people's dignity and freedom, he said.

Millions of workers around the globe still work in dire conditions. The pandemic has also taken a toll on occupational health and safety and on fundamental labour rights. This makes promoting decent work ever more urgent, both in the EU and in global supply chains.

Today, EU consumers are increasingly demanding goods which are produced in a sustainable and fair way. Mr Buenker stressed that it is in the interest of EU workers and companies around the world to promote decent work globally and thereby avoid a race to the bottom based on a model of attracting investment by lowering labour protection standards.

Dr Ferrán Camas Roda, Professor of Labour and Social Security Law at the University of Girona in Spain, spoke about the need to combat salary discrimination against migrant workers. In high income countries, there is a salary gap of about 12% between national and migrant workers.

Lieve Verboven, the ILO's Brussels Director, said the ILO would publish new global estimates on child and forced labour in July and the figures were expected to reflect the negative impact of COVID-19, pointing to the dire situation of these workers.

According to her, freedom of association, but also strengthening workers' and employers' organisations, was essential for tackling the root causes of those types of labour.

Occupational health as a fundamental right

Ms Verboven added that the ILO will also soon discuss whether to make occupational safety and health a fundamental right.

It is not possible to eliminate or reduce poverty without a healthy workplace and workers in good health. Improving working conditions also contributes to protecting the environment, said Dr Loïc Lerouge, Director of Research at the Centre for Comparative Labour and Social Security Law, University of Bordeaux.

We need to mobilise a long-term vision, break down barriers and have discussions and dialogues about well-being, while at the same time boosting productivity, he maintained.

Promoting decent work and due dilligence for sustainability

According to Dr Cristóbal Molina Navarrete, Professor of Labour and Social Security Law at the University of Jaén in Spain, who supported the rapporteur for the EESC opinion as an expert, the EU seems determined to lead the way towards fully sustainable development worldwide in the medium and long term.

One example of this is the fact that EU funds granted under the Next Generation EU recovery plan are tied to social investments by Member States.

In Dr Molina Navarrete's view, corporate social responsibility, although necessary, was not sufficient to achieve a fully sustainable economy, and consumers demanded safe and equal regulatory frameworks.

The integration of social considerations in the regulation of economic freedoms by companies is not only a matter of social justice, but also a guarantee of fair competition between economic actors, Dr Molina Navarrete said.

Dr Margarita Miñarro Yanini, senior lecturer at Spain's Universitat Jaume I, considered the behaviour of companies key to achieving the Union's sustainability objectives.

The green transition will be a turning point in labour relations. To achieve it, we need to set decent working conditions, she maintained, adding that workers need to have  a source of income during the transition period, allowing them to lead a dignified life and to return to the labour market after receiving training in green means of production.

Claes-Mikael Ståhl, ETUC Deputy General Secretary, spoke about the EU's leverage in pushing for labour rights in countries where they are seriously violated, such as in Bangladesh, Belarus, Honduras, Turkey and several others.

Rebekah Smith of Business Europe stressed the importance of governments setting the rules for governance of business.

We must not equate governments and businesses. Companies can always contribute to the decent work agenda, but it is important for businesses to know what to expect when doing business around the world, she said, pointing to the need for policy coherence at the local and national level, but also between the EU and the international level.

Concluding the event, Ms Barrera Chamorro said: Decent work is in the interest of people but also of companies, consumers and the planet. Given that we are operating in a more global forum, we need to ensure that people don't get around labour laws to gain a competitive advantage.