International Labor Office: How Could Cities Better Connect All Their Residents to Economic Opportunity?

By Edmundo Werna and Andres Mella

Dr. Edmundo Werna has worked for over 30 years on different aspects of urban development, with particular attention to labour. He has a PhD in urban development from the University of London (UK), an MPhil in development studies from the University of Sussex (UK), and a Bachelor's degree in urbanism and architecture from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil). Werna designed and implemented the urban development agenda of UNDP's UN Volunteers Programme. He also undertook consultancies for several organizations, including local governments, WHO, European Commission, the World Bank, UN-Habitat, UNCDF/UNDP and the ILO. He joined the International Labour Office in 2004. Andrés Mella is a lawyer and economist with research experience in urban development and labour economics. He is currently pursuing an internship at the International Labour Office at the Sectoral Activities Department where he works with Dr. Edmundo Werna in issues related to urban economy and rural-urban linkages. He has conducted research in several areas including the urban development of China, the urbanization of Chinese poverty, the challenges of capital liberalization and specifically the effects of foreign direct investment on workers' wages.

May 12, 2014 | Smart Cities | 0 comments


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This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Cities and towns are the engines of economic growth, and economic growth is intrinsically connected to labour. To fully realize their potential and achieve sustainable and equitable growth, cities and towns need to address many labour-related deficits across different sectors of the urban economy. Cities and towns will not be sustainable if the livelihoods of their inhabitants are not addressed. This phenomenon is especially true in the countries of the South where poverty is widespread, and is increasingly outpacing poverty in rural areas. Poverty as such is related to deficits in the four dimensions of decent work, a concept used by the International Labour Organization and others to identify the different aspects of labour: employment, workers’ rights, social protection and social dialogue.

1. Employment

The rapid growth of urban populations is outpacing employment opportunities. Different levels of government can play a role in addressing this challenge, but the role of the local government is particularly important. There is a great deal that local governments can do – directly and via forging public private partnerships – to promote employment creation: invest in the built environment and upgrading of infrastructural facilities like roads, drainage, water and energy facilities, sewerage systems, public buildings, and public transport and waste management & recycling establishments, among others. Such investment can stimulate local economies, result in immediate employment gains, and have long term impact on income, and living and working conditions. Local governments can also encourage job growth—and enforce better employment conditions—in other sectors in which they are not directly involved, by supporting private entrepreneurship, especially micro and small enterprises which are responsible for a significant proportion of urban employment. Investment in training in the different sectors of the urban economy and dealing with informality is also fundamental for employment creation.

2. Workers’ Rights

Many urban workers still face challenges related to their rights. Their inability to secure their rights has practical implications for their living and working conditions—and productivity. Examples of issues related to workers’ rights in urban areas include informality, casualisation, child labour, bonded labour and the situation of migrant workers.

To address workers’ rights, there are many possible lines of actions related to different groups of workers, based on various ILO conventions, recommendations, and  instruments. There are instruments for each aspect of decent work, including workers’ rights, for which broader synergies can be explored. There is a burgeoning international movement on “the right to the city” which gives specific attention to community and consumers’ rights. Workers’ rights also fit within this movement, and should be promoted. To this end, there are embryonic examples of coalitions of urban workers (in Brazil for example) and there are specific initiatives related to the rights of urban citizens to a better environment supporting a green economy. Promotion of a better urban environment and promotion of the rights of urban workers can reinforce each other.

3. Social Protection

Social protection also needs to be addressed in order to ensure sustainable urban development. Inappropriate working and living conditions expose many urban workers to risk on a daily basis. To give one example, workers in major urban sectors such as construction, transport and waste management, among others, face serious occupational health and safety risks both due to the inadequacy of the existing occupational safety and health management systems and the impact of technological change. Also, a large number of urban workers are poor and live in neighbourhoods with inadequate sanitation and housing conditions. In addition, numerous urban workers do not have access to an adequate system of health care, pay for holidays, and protection against loss of pay when they are unable to work due to unemployment, illness, accidents or old age.

ILO instruments provide a sound basis for action, many of which specifically correspond to social protection. In addition to this, poor people have at times mobilized their own resources and organized their own risk protection through mutual health protection and community surveillance (support should be given to such initiatives). There are also examples of partnership practices involving local governments, the local private sector and communities.

4. Social Dialogue

The fourth dimension of decent work, social dialogue, is an important means for workers, employers and the government to jointly discuss solutions to the problems noted before. It is necessary to address the barriers which have hindered social dialogue in urban areas. There are some cases of good practice of urban multi-sectoral dialogue around the globe, including Marikina (Philippines), the municipal decent work programmes in Belo Horizonte, and a number of towns in the metropolitan region of Sao Paulo (Brazil).

While commendable research and action on different urban labour-related issues already exist, such research and action have nonetheless often focused on a limited number of specific aspects and need to be strengthened and scaled-up. In other words, more needs to be done to integrate the different aspects, given the number and magnitude of labour-related challenges that still exist in urban areas. There is a need for more research and practice.

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