SDG SERIES: The SDG on Decent Work: Human Right or Business as Usual?

SDG Goal 8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth
SDG Goal 8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth

Gillian MacNaughton and Diane F. Frey


Full employment and decent work are key components of a strategy to eliminate poverty, as most people must work to avoid poverty. Decent work is also a social determinant of health and instrumental in advancing many human rights interrelated with poverty. Nonetheless, the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) issued in 2001 failed to include a goal or target on decent work for all.1  In 2007, this omission was acknowledged with the addition of a new target: “Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people.”2 While the new target was welcome, it had several shortcomings.

First, unlike most MDG targets, which have a 2015 deadline, the decent work target had no deadline at all. Second, it was adopted in 2007 after the Millennium Development Project Report —the action plan for the world to achieve the MDGs—was completed in 2005, and therefore, missed this important planning stage. Third, the four indicators for this target failed to encompass the concept of “decent work” as defined by the International Labor Organization or the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or link to their monitoring mechanisms.3

Importantly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include full employment and decent work.4 Goal 8 is “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”5  Moreover, one of the targets for this goal is: “By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.”6  Additional targets address (1) eradicating forced labor, child labor and human trafficking, (2) reducing the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training, and (3) protecting labor rights and promoting healthy work environments. Crucially, full employment and decent work have risen from a (late) target in the MDG framework to a goal in the SDGs.  Further, the new target on full employment and decent work is time-bound, with a deadline of 2030, like other the SDG targets. Finally, one proposed indicator requires ratification and implementation of fundamental ILO labor standards, one of four pillars of the ILO Decent Work Agenda, thereby connecting the development agenda to international monitoring mechanisms.7 In these respects, the SDG framework for full employment and decent work is promising.

Nonetheless, from a human rights perspective, there is a disturbing aspect to Goal 8. Specifically, full employment and decent work is linked to—perhaps even conditioned upon—economic growth. This is regrettable. Indeed, it is during economic downturns or in regions that are not experiencing growth that the human right to decent work is most important. For example, during the great depression, President Roosevelt created a work-relief program that employed more than 8.5 million people in the US, and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India currently offers 100 days of employment to rural households.8  Indeed, many countries have work programs, precisely so that decent work is not conditioned upon economic growth.9 All UN members have obligations to progressively realize the human right to decent work, as well as the right to health, and can take measures to do so even in poor economic circumstances.

Ideally, the SDGs would include a goal on full employment and decent work delinked from economic growth, as well as targets and indicators that align with all four pillars of the ILO Decent Work Agenda, which correlate to the four work rights in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, thus tying the post-2015 development agenda to the existing legal obligations of UN Member States and the international labor and human rights monitoring mechanisms.10

Gillian MacNaughton,  JD, DPhil, is Assistant Professor, School for Global Inclusion and Social Development, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA. email:

Diane F. Frey, PhD, is a Lecturer in Labor Studies at San Francisco State University and a Senior Researcher at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, CUNY, USA. email:


1 Millennium Development Project, Goals, Targets and Indicators, available at:

2 See United Nations Statistics Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Millennium Development Goals Indicators,

3 See International Labor Organization, Decent Work Agenda,–en/index.htm and ; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 18: The Right to Work, UN Doc E/C.12/GC/186 (6 February 2006)

4 Draft Outcome Document of the United Nations Summit for the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, UN Doc A/69/L.85 (12 August 2015), Annex, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Available at, p. 19.

5 Ibid

6 Ibid, p. 20

7 Leadership Council of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Indicators and a Monitoring Framework for the Sustainable Development Goals: Launching a Data Revolution, Sustainable Development Network, A Global Initiative for the United Nations, 12 June 2015, p. 163-164.

8 PBS, The Works Projects Administration,; UNDP, Employment Guarantee Policies, Policy Brief, Gender Equality and Poverty Reduction, issue 2, (April 2010).

9 See UNDP (see note 8).

10 ILO Decent Work Agenda (see note 3); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), arts. 6-9,

Recent publications by Gillian MacNaughton

Human Rights Impact Assessment: A Method for Healthy Policymaking, Health and Human Rights Journal, 17/1 (2015) pp. 63-75

Untangling equality and non-discrimination to promote the right to health care for all “Human Rights Education for All: A Proposal for the Post-2015 International Development Agenda,” 24(3) Washington International Law Journal 537- 569, Special Issue on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (2015).

Recent publication by Diane F. Frey

Diane F. Frey and Christopher Fletcher, ‘Protocol to ILO Convention No. 29: A Step Forward for International Labor Standards’ Human Rights Brief (2015). Available at