ITUC's reflections on the proposed SDGs

International Trade Union Cconfederation’s Reflections on the Open Working Groups proposed Sustainable Development Goals - 31 July 2014

The Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), led by its co-chairs, Ambassadors Macharia Kamau from Kenya and Csaba Kőrösi from Hungary, was able to reach agreement on a set of recommended SDGs to deliver to the 69th session of the UN General Assembly in September.  Delivering a consensus document out of this process is in itself a noteworthy achievement, given the some very evident points of divergence between UN member state blocks.  Yet, despite what, at times, seemed like unresolvable sticking points, an agreement was reached—an agreement that is on the whole, fairly ambitious and encouraging.

These recommendations will, in the most likely scenario, serve as something as a baseline for intergovernmental negotiations at UN General Assembly level in the months following the September session.  No doubt it would be something of a disappointment if the efforts of this group were to be lost amongst other inputs, which do not enjoy the legitimacy of having been agreed at intergovernmental level, with input from major groups and civil society.  So while it is too early to tell what authority the OWG recommendations will have in the process to follow, it still serves as a sound base from where to situate advocacy efforts. 

The recommendations themselves are broadly acceptable, though not without grounds for improvement.  In this respect, the task is now two-fold when the intergovernmental negotiation process begins in earnest—to defend the recommendations which are good (and do so without risking regression) and to push for improvements in areas that are not ambitious enough.

Looking at the set of SDG recommendations against the priorities, proposals and objectives of the international trade union movement, and in light of the need to retain certain ideas and improve others, we have the following reflections:   

Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere—it is no major surprise that the goal was included but is nevertheless welcome by the international trade union movement.  That said, it is disappointing that under Target 1.1 by 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day, the outdated $1.25 a day target remains the level governments are willing to aspire to in this framework.  Critics have noted that this is hardly an aspiration at all and will be achieved by 2030 with or without a post 2015 sustainable agenda. 

A notable inclusion under this goal is Target 1.3 implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable, though it falls short of the international trade union movement’s objective of having universal social protection as a stand-alone goal.  Despite this, the target and the reference to social protection floors, in particular, has the support of the international trade union movement. 

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all fulfils one of our asks as the international trade union movement. As for the targets, Target 1.1 by 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes is ambitious and truly transformative.  Across all of the targets we note with praise the emphasis on quality education and the inclusion of specific targets on early childhood, vocational and tertiary education as well as education for human rights, global citizenship and sustainable development. The target on safe and non-violent learning environments is particularly important.  That said, Target 4.2 by 2030 ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education should be strengthened to reflect the fact that education, not just development, begins at birth.

With respect to the Means of Implementation targets under this goal we expect a higher level of ambition in target 4.c by 2030 increase by x% the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially LDCs and SIDS; the minimum here must be to ensure that all students are taught by qualified, professionally-trained, motivated and well-supported teachers. We note with regret the absence of a financing target under—none of the proposed targets can be achieved without adequate investment in education.  

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls is a goal the international trade union movement firmly supports. Especially welcome is Target 5.4 recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate since Member States’ efforts to reach this target will impact positively on gender equality in a broad sense, including through increasing girls’ access to education and decent work, as women and girls are freed from the burden of unequal care and domestic work. However, the target could still be more ambitious if reworded as follows: By 2030, recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid domestic and care work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection, and the promotion of shared responsibility between men and women.

Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all, brings us very close to one of our main asks—a goal on full and productive employment and decent work for all.  Unfortunately, due to a preoccupation by some to keep the goals limited in number, this issue was ultimately grouped with a previously separate focus area on economic growth. We will continue to argue that the two issues should be addressed independently as separate goals—especially given the richness of the corresponding targets.  With respect to the targets currently envisaged by the OWG, we find a fair balance between both the employment side and the economic growth side of the goal, and despite that governments seem to consider both issues key priorities of the new framework, it will be necessary to remain vigilant and maintain pressure to realize a robust set of employment targets in the final agreement. 

Going a bit more into detail on the targets we find it deeply disappointing that some governments were uncomfortable including a reference to ILO Norms and Standards under Target 8.8 protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment, in spite of the fact that these have been ratified by the majority of governments in the world.  ILO standards are the eminent standards when it comes to labour and workers’ rights, and it is frankly perplexing that any government would take issue with setting a target against these standards in a framework that is intended to be aspirational.

There were other notable omissions under this goal.  For example, a goal on employment and decent work should necessarily include a target on setting appropriate wage policies and minimum living wages.  Also curious is the omission of any reference to universal social protection under this goal.  We will continue to make the case that social protection is a macroeconomic stabiliser, and that minimum living wages support healthy economies.  Many governments had asked for a reference to social dialogue in the targets, without success, but with the full support of the international trade union movement. 

There is essentially no linkage between the employment side of this goal and the environmental pillar sustainable development and this remains one of our main challenges going forward.  The notion of green and decent jobs remains perhaps the most controversial issue as relate to employment under this goal.  We see both strong support for a reference to green jobs in the goals and also fierce objection to any such language. This must be addressed during the intergovernmental negotiations in a way that all member states can support, because without making this link we will lose an entire pillar of the agenda. 

Last, a noteworthy inclusion as part of the Means of Implementation under this goal is target 8.b, by 2020 develop and operationalize a global strategy for youth employment and implement the ILO Global Jobs Pact.  We had serious concerns that there recommendations would be agreed without any concrete measures to actually realize the employment related aspirations in this goal, and were therefore relieved with this inclusion.    

Goal 10 Reduce inequality within and among countries is a goal that international trade union movement welcomes.  Particular notable is Target 10.4 adopt policies especially fiscal, wage, and social protection policies and progressively achieve greater equality, which positively establishes the link between wages, social protection and tax and more equal societies. Still, a target promoting labour market institutions--highlighting minimum wages, collective bargaining coverage, employment protections and social dialogue—is necessary under this goal.  Other notable omissions under this goal relate to tax justice and progressive taxation.  Reducing inequality requires access to improved public services including social protection floors and the expansion of social protection systems and specifically healthcare, education, clean water and sanitation, energy, housing and transportation.  This requires adequate financing which can be generated by including targets aimed at ending tax havens, tax avoidance and corruption, and bringing in progressive tax systems are needed.

Goal 16 (Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels).

The international trade union movement is deeply disappointed that some governments were uncomfortable explicitly including the fundamental freedoms—freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly—under Target 16.10 ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements. It is unthinkable that a goal which aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies does not specifically recognize these inalienable human rights.   

To end with some general comments of a more critical nature international trade movement is concerned about the influence of private sector interests both at national and intergovernmental level. While there is a role and purpose for the private sector in this agenda and framework a narrative which undermines the developmental role of the state and promotes the privatisation of essential public services is unacceptable. The increasing returns to capital and the decreasing returns to labour mean that trade unions, public services and labour market institutions have an even greater role to play in social and economic stabilization and for reducing inequality.

For true social, economic and environmental transformation to be possible, the sustainable development agenda must address structural and systemic issues, and fully reflect the breadth and depth of human rights standards and instruments. The right to development continues to be undermined by structures of inequality; the new development agenda must ensure that the most marginalised enjoy the same rights as the least marginalised. A truly transformative agenda is not simply concerned with sustainable development but is energetically and aggressively pro-poor.


* For more information about the document and ITUC please contact: Gemma Arpaia,  Iscos Cisl, Italy,

Iscos - - is member of Trade Union Development Cooperation Network (TUDCN): an initiative of the International Trade Union Confederation that brings together affiliated trade union organisations, the solidarity support organisations (SSO), the representatives of the ITUC regional organisations and the Global Union Federations (GUFs). The network’s objective is to bring the trade union perspective into the international development policy debates and improve the coordination and effectiveness of trade union development cooperation activities.



Photo: US Army/Flickr