Dignified Work for All

Dignified Work for All

This article is a summary of ATD Fourth World’s report on the Expert Dialogue “Dignified Work for all” and includes ATD’s contributions to the 61st Session of the Commission for Social Development. It is published in connection with May 1 – International Workers’ Day.

The state of work today

Today, more than 60 percent of the world’s working population earn their living in the informal economy, with 2 billion of these individuals completely deprived of decent working conditions.

For most people living in poverty worldwide, their work does not mean earning a living wage: it means exploitation, low pay, dangerous conditions, and forced layoffs. These poor conditions are intensified by degrading and humiliating treatment. People experience disrespect and a feeling of futility that prevents them from participating fully in their communities, which feeds extreme poverty and social exclusion.

Globally, we are in a situation of crisis regarding access to decent work.

What is decent work?

In principle, jobs are a way to emancipate oneself from poverty. However, they can also be a trap of oppression that keeps people in poverty despite all their efforts; these jobs keep them in a cycle of poverty and exploitation, with no positive impact on their life journey. The solution is decent work for all, which the International Labour Organization defines as “productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security, and human dignity.”

Decent work and the Commission for Social Development

The topic of decent work is one the United Nations (UN) has taken particular interest in this year at the 61st Session of the Commission for Social Development (CSocD61). From the 6th to the 15th of February 2023, at the UN Headquarters in New York, civil society advocates like ATD Fourth World were given the opportunity to contribute to discussions around the priority theme: “Creating full and productive employment and decent work for all as a way of overcoming inequalities to accelerate the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

The Commission for Social Development and ATD Fourth World

ATD Fourth World is part of a network of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) which aim to bring a collective civil society voice to the Commission and better influence negotiations between member states on the outcome resolution of each Commission. As part of this NGO Committee for Social Development, ATD Fourth World is part of months-long preparation of the Commission.

This preparation began with an Expert Group meeting on the priority theme, followed by the publication of advocacy talking points by the NGO Committee, visits to Member States’ Missions to explain our recommendations, and the organization of the Civil Society Forum.

In the various UN spaces in which we are present, ATD’s mission is singular: to emphasize the necessity of Sustainable Development Goal 1: to end poverty in all its forms everywhere by involving people with an experience of extreme poverty in that work at every level and following their lead.

ATD Fourth World’s background on decent work

To address systemic discrimination and create work opportunities, ATD Fourth World has been developing alternative work experiences for over 20 years: income-generating pilot projects that give priority to people in the worst conditions of poverty. These innovative programs, named “Working and Learning Together” (WLT) and developed in partnership with businesses, allow people affected by extreme poverty to generate new economic resources and re-establish social engagement, while respecting the earth’s resources.

Two projects in particular were chosen to highlight the experience of ATD Fourth World internationally on the topic of decent work to the Commission. These were ‘Working And Learning Together – Electronics Recycling’ (WALTER) and ‘Zero Long-Term Unemployment Zones’.

WALTER is an eco-social business in Brooklyn, New York, USA, which provides job opportunities for people facing persistent barriers to employment, with an emphasis on youth. It has a dual mission to responsibly recycle electronics and to provide employment opportunities to young adults in Brownsville who are facing obstacles to employment.

Zero Long-Term Unemployment Zones is a national program in France with a local office in Thiers. This program hires long-term unemployed people on permanent contracts – at minimum wage – to do work that is locally useful but not carried out because it is considered “unprofitable” for the traditional market.

ATD Fourth World’s contributions to the Commission

The findings from these projects were presented to the Commision by Guillaume Charvon, President of ATD Fourth World USA. They were also presented at the Expert Dialogue on Dignified Work for All, an official Side Event organized by ATD, as well as at an informal dialogue hosted at the ATD Fourth World house in New York, which gathered community members, activists, and civil society partners. Laure Descoubes, who acts as the Co-Director of two Zero Long-Term Unemployment Zones enterprises, and Annick Vera, who is an employee of one of them, also visited WALTER and worked alongside employees and discovered how the business operates. There was also meeting with two representatives of the French Mission to the United Nations.

The Civil Society Forum (organized by the NGO Committee for Social Development) also provided two additional spaces to present the projects: at a panel discussion on the topic “Working Toward Concrete Solutions for Marginalized Young People Facing Unemployment” (presented by Guillaume Charvon, panel moderated by ATD Representative to the UN Aria Ribieras), and a second panel discussion on the topic “Challenging the Dominant Economic Paradigm – Ensuring Social Protection and Just Transitions in the World of Work” (featuring interventions by Annick Vera and Laure Descoubes).

Summary of ATD Fourth World’s findings on decent work

Arising from what was shared in the spaces described above, and from a plethora of further experiences aggregated from lived experience activists in other ATD Fourth World programs and activities, the following ideas regarding decent work were shared with the Commission:

  • People experiencing poverty want to contribute to society, but non-judgemental and supportive environments are necessary to overcome obstacles associated with poverty. Education and training for both employees and employers are important for creating a thriving workplace.
  • Individuals living in poverty face discrimination based on socioeconomic status, in addition to other identity-based factors, when seeking employment. This, along with the shame associated with poverty, leads to a non take-up of rights. To combat this discrimination and promote inclusiveness, job opportunities must be brought to marginalized communities through policies of “open hiring”.
  • In matters of gender-based discrimination it is important to be aware that individuals of different genders do not experience unemployment in the same ways and face different precarities and indeed degrees of precarity within and without a job.
  • Racism and segregation coalesce to keep young men of color, especially Black men, in a cycle of poverty.
  • For many people who have lived in extreme poverty, especially long-term, being able to work requires recovery from the impacts of poverty on their mental and physical health. These individuals’ right to a dignified life should be guaranteed.
  • The most marginalized people have meaningful contributions to make in addressing the world’s challenges. Youth living in poverty have a critical role to play in their local contexts, supporting their communities through the Just Transition to a sustainable, green economy.
  • Learning skills, with training adapted to each person, is key for employees to arrive ready to work everyday and envision their futures.
  • Poverty leads to isolation and a lack of access to public spaces, and people may be forced to sacrifice privacy to receive aid. Access to dignified work can combat social exclusion and provide a sense of community and “citizenship”; a job can provide a pathway back to public life and access to spaces that were previously inaccessible.
  • Innovative financing solutions tailored to local contexts are key to addressing unemployment.
  • Our innovative projects, which are rooted in the local needs of communities, show that an alternative to the dominant economic paradigm is possible. If we aspire to global systemic change, this change needs to be bottom up, inspired by those innovations, and supported by government legislation.

ATD is in the processes of preparing for October 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The theme for 2023 is “Dignity in practice for all.” October 17, 2023 will focus on decent work and social protection.

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