Helen Clark: Speech on 2015 UNDP Human Development Report on Work

Jan 27, 2016

My sincere thanks go to Global Affairs Canada and the United Nations Association of Canada for arranging for this presentation of the 2015 Human Development Report on Work.

Work of one kind or another has a central place in the lives of most of us. We tend to define ourselves by what we do. It therefore matters to us as human beings that the work we do is decent work. That helps explain why the nature of work impacts on human development.

Where societies provide decent work and livelihoods it will be positive for eradicating poverty, fighting inequalities, and building peaceful and inclusive societies – all central to achieving the new sustainable development Agenda 2030 and the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Full and productive employment and decent work for all is a central plank of the SDGs, including Goal 8’s explicit emphasis on work: “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all”.

Especially critical is the need to generate jobs and opportunities for the world’s largest ever generation of young people. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 470 million more jobs than now are needed globally for new entrants to the labour market between 2016 and 2030. Creating those jobs and livelihoods will have a big bearing on whether people can live with dignity, and, in the end, on whether our societies are peaceful and inclusive.


o    830 million people are classified as working poor, meaning they live on under $2.00 a day.
o    Over 197 million people are unemployed. The numbers increased by one million last year, according to the latest ILO report,  and the forecast for this year and next is also for increases.
o    There are 168 million child labourers worldwide.
o    21 million people are currently in forced labour, of whom fourteen million are exploited for their labour, and 4.5 million are sexually exploited.

This is a time of major change in the world of work. Economic and social shifts everywhere are having profound effects on when, how, and where people work. These create new opportunities, but also new risks. Fast technological progress, deepening globalization, aging societies, and environmental challenges are rapidly transforming what work means today and how it is performed. This new world of work presents great opportunities for some, but also profound challenges for others.

Also relevant to the future of work are:

•    tackling climate change, as countries have committed to do in the landmark agreement achieved at COP21 in Paris in December. This will require big structural changes in every economy. Jobs in carbon footprint heavy sectors will diminish or be transformed as their sectors transform. With green growth, new jobs will be created, the nature of others will be transformed, and others will end altogether. In China and India alone, for example, the clean energy industry has already created more than twenty million jobs;

•    migration. It is presenting challenges to many countries; yet it also stands to benefit source and recipient countries if it is well managed. Throughout history, refugees and migrants have made big contributions to the countries which have opened their doors to them. Canada’s own experience shows that people from all parts of the world fleeing war, oppression, and poverty have repaid their debt of gratitude to their host country countless times over. More legal channels for migration need to be established, and international agreements on the movements of people need to be upheld for migration to be positive for human development.

Allow me now to turn to a few of the key messages of the report:

1.    Work is About More than Jobs per se

This report puts people rather than economies or economic growth at its centre, by focusing on all kinds of paid and unpaid work, from running a home to running a business.

Work can help people escape from poverty. It can also help forge stronger communities, develop skills, and give people a sense of purpose. Work is much more than a pay check: it is a foundation for both the richness of human lives and the richness of economies.

Looking at the world through a human development lens can alter the kinds of economic and social policy decisions which are made. When progress is assessed in terms of economic growth, the value of work is measured only by its contribution to economic output. But if policy-makers aim to maximize human development, not Gross Domestic Product, a broader range of policies must be considered.

2.    There is no automatic link between work and rising human development.

Even though at the global level people overall are healthier and better educated than ever before, and a much smaller proportion lives in extreme poverty, major inequities and challenges continue to prevent some groups of people from entering the work force.

That means that the link between work and human development is not automatic. It is the quality of work – not just the amount – which determines whether work will enhance human development. Today more than 1.5 billion people in developing countries are working in jobs which offer few rights and inadequate protection either at work or in the event that they lose their livelihoods. 

This report pays particular attention to the most vulnerable in society, including those who are most unfairly treated in the labour market. They include child labourers, trafficked and other forced workers, workers in hazardous conditions, and women workers in general.

The report makes the case that women are especially disadvantaged in the world of work:

•    Three out of every four hours of unpaid work are done by women.  Compare that to men, who do two of every three hours of paid work.  Pressures on women will increase as countries age, because it is women who still do most of the care work.

•    Not only are women doing much more unpaid work than men, but when they get paid, they get paid less. Women earn an average of 24 per cent less than their male colleagues worldwide.

•    Women hold only around a fifth of senior leadership positions worldwide.  Indeed, almost one-third of businesses have no women at all in senior management positions. Most cabinets of ministers globally are light on women – hence the excitement around the world at seeing gender parity in the Canadian Cabinet last year – because, as the Prime Minister said, “It’s 2015”.

The report argues that societies urgently need new policies, institutional reforms, and more equitable access to care services to address these major gender imbalances. It calls on governments to:

•    promote equal pay for equal work for women and men; 

•    provide adequate paid parental leave for both women and men; and 

•    tackle the harassment and social norms which exclude many women from paid work.  

Transforming the burden of unpaid care work and enabling more women to enter the labour force on equal terms has wide benefits. It stands to reason that whole societies are worse off if half of their members can’t participate fully. 

3.    Achieving sustainable development will mean changes for the workforce

Many jobs will need to change if countries are to make progress on building low emission and climate-resilient futures. These changes will help determine what the labour market of tomorrow looks like. 

Certain jobs – renewable energy production, for example - will grow in number. Other work, in Canada and elsewhere, will need to change, such as types of agricultural and energy production. Other jobs will disappear altogether over time. 

Countries will have to confront political, social, and economic challenges as these changes take place. Ideally policies should be conducive to making these transitions in ways which enable people to take up new work opportunities as old ones fade out.

4.    Globalisation has winners and losers

The digital revolution and deepening globalization have brought greater workforce flexibility and new working patterns, but they have also heightened insecurity and vulnerability. We live in a world where the inequality within a country can be as striking as that between continents, and where a crisis in one country has consequences well beyond national borders.

There are more opportunities for highly skilled workers and those with access to technology and the internet. Digital technologies connect producers to consumers in global marketplaces, improving access to goods, services, finance, technology, and ideas.  Those with skills in demand in the digital economy can command salaries set in global labour markets.

But these same changes bring risks for others, especially those without access to the internet. According to the International Telecommunications Union, in 2015 some 81 per cent of households in developed countries had internet access, but only 34 per cent in developing regions, and seven per cent in the least developed countries.

The report predicts that many routine jobs, such as clerical work, will continue to disappear. Globalisation also means other jobs will move abroad. Countries will need active labour market policies to support high levels of employment and adaptation to new economic settings.

Calls for Action

The report concludes with a call for global and national action to guarantee workers’ rights and promote work in support of sustainability. Three particularly important proposals highlighted by the report are:

•    establishing a new social contract between state, society, and private sector to improve social protection. As the world of work changes, workers – young and old – need the opportunity to retrain and acquire new skills.

•    deepening co-operation between workers, businesses, and governments around the world to craft a Global Deal to guarantee workers’ rights. The International Labour Organisation’s recent convention for paid domestic workers points in this direction; and 

•    promoting adequate incomes, security in the workplace, and social protection for workers and their families through the Decent Work Agenda of the ILO. 

UNDP leadership and the SDG agenda

In all this, leadership is needed more than ever from the multilateral system – including from UNDP, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Our over-arching objective is to support countries to eradicate poverty, and to do that in a way which simultaneously reduces inequality and exclusion, and avoids wrecking the ecosystems on which life depends. Decent work and livelihoods play a huge role in achieving that. The objectives of the new Sustainable Development Goals relate closely to our mandate.

After the MDGs were launched, UNDP supported countries to integrate them into their national agendas and take action on them. We worked to strengthen capacity, share knowledge, and support access to finance. Over the past six years, we led on MDG acceleration – based on government leadership and convening the widest possible range of stakeholders to tackle the real obstacles to MDG achievement – which are often not the most obvious. There is no doubt in my mind that the world is a better place because of the action galvanized by the MDGs.

Now UNDP and the broader UN development system have the challenge of working effectively with countries to advance the big, new, more complex, and transformational sustainable development agenda. Many developing countries have already sought our support on how to incorporate the SDGs in their national plans, just as the MDGs were incorporated over the past decade and a half.

Canada and UNDP’s close partnership around the world contributes to our ability to support implementation of the SDGs, and to lead the UN system in this as the agency mandated to co-ordinate across the UN Development Group.

We look forward to continuing to work closely with Canada to ensure that UNDP and the whole UN development system can be effective in progressing the SDGs, including SDG 8 on work which relates directly to this Human Development Report, but is also interconnected with many of the other goals and targets.

To conclude

The 2015 Human Development Report is an urgent call to tackle one of the world’s great development challenges - providing enough decent work and livelihoods for all. 

UNDP is committed to supporting countries to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to work in ways which contribute to their own and their societies’ development. We look forward to a continuing close relationship with Canada in doing so.

UNDP Around the world