Measuring Decent Work in Development: A Balancing Act
With the growing recognition of the importance of decent work in ongoing debates about global development, the need to conceptualise and measure this multi-dimensional concept has never been higher. Different stakeholders are contributing to these efforts. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been at the forefront of new efforts to systematically map and analyse the decent work situation at the national level, and organisations such as WageIndicator Foundation have successfully developed instruments to popularise the concept amongst the general public. At the same time, the methodological challenges remain substantial, the outcomes are sometimes contested, and not all the information needs are currently being met.
Over the last decades a range of dramatic events have confronted the international community repeatedly with the reality that inclusive and sustainable development goes beyond progress against a set of neat macro-economic indicators. The Arab Spring, and more recently the Rana Plaza disaster in the textile industry in Bangladesh, demonstrated again the deficits in terms of decent work in our global value chains, highlighting the urgency to act on them. The global MyWorld survey (1) coordinated by the UN shows that the concerns around employment are shared amongst large parts of the globe, with ‘better job opportunities’ ranked as number three of a long list of issues. Another reason why decent work has risen up the international agenda relates to the increased attention for the role of the private sector in development. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and ILO continue to sensitise international policymakers that the hype around the private sector should go hand in hand with more attention for the Decent Work Agenda (DWA) as it cannot be assumed that more jobs will automatically lead to jobs of better quality. In this way, since its development by ILO in 1999 and subsequent adoption by the UN system, the DWA has become one of the corner stones in the debate about development at the international, regional and national level. While substantial efforts have been done to unpack the concept, the measurement of this multi-dimensional concept is challenging (2). It turns out that methods from different paradigms differ in terms of what they model, how they model, and why they model (3) decent work.
In this article we focus on two different monitoring initiatives. The first one is an ambitious ILO project with a global scope. The Monitoring and Assessing Progress on Decent Work (MAP) project ran between 2009 and 2013 and included the development and piloting of a comprehensive framework to monitor decent work in nine low- and middle income countries. The second project, the DecentWorkCheck (4) is an initiative of WageIndicator Foundation, and entails a detailed mapping of the labour market regulations related to decent work in 70 countries, complemented with a practical questionnaire that compares the working conditions of the respondent with national and international labour market regulations. The WageIndicator Foundation website has more than 20 million hits annually.
In essence, the Decent Work Agenda as defined by the ILO has four components and is about creating jobs, guaranteeing rights at work, extending social protection, and promoting social dialogue. The integration of these social and economic objectives is expected to contribute to ‘achieving a fair globalization, reducing poverty and achieving equitable, inclusive and sustainable development’ (5). Both the MAP project by ILO and the DecentWorkCheck translate the four components into a set of ten measurable constructs (Table 1) (6).
ILO Decent Work MAP framework
Legal framework (qualitative)
|Adequate earnings and productive work|
|Productive work and adequate earnings|
|Decent working time|
|Decent working hours|
|Combining work, family and personal life|
|Combining work and life (family responsibilities; Maternity protection)|
|Work that should be abolished|
|Children at work|
|Stability and security of work|
|Equal opportunity and treatment in employment|
|Fair treatment at work|
|Safe work environment|
|Safe working environment (health & safety; sickness & employment injury benefits)|
|Social dialogue, employers’ and workers’ representation|
|Social dialogue / trade unions|
|Extra: economic and social context for decent work|
|Extra: Detailed mapping of labour regulations per country|
Table 1: Indicators of ILO MAP framework and DecentWorkCheck (WageIndicator Foundation)
There are important differences between both monitoring frameworks in terms of the level the indicators focus on, the source of the indicators, and the users they target. With its strong reliance on national labour force surveys (about 60 to 70% of indicators), the ILO MAP monitoring framework is mainly addressing the information needs of national governments and other social partners in terms of getting a macro perspective of the main socio-economic trends in the labour force. The resulting national Decent Work Country Profiles provide a detailed analysis of the indicators in the ten areas of decent work, complemented with a qualitative analysis of the legal framework indicators, describing the status of existing laws and regulations and their implementation. The DecentWorkCheck on the other hand targets employees and asks them about 50 closed questions (yes/no) about the compliance of their employer with national and international labour laws and regulations. The set of questions is designed in such a way that the respondents can learn about the performance of his/her employer by comparing the total score (adding the ‘yes’ marked answers) with reference scores (the higher the better). Aside from being an awareness raising instrument regarding labour rights, the tool can be used by researchers, policy makers, or employers to get a picture of the degree to which key labour rights are respected in a given company, a sector or beyond.
Both tools have their respective strengths and weaknesses. In the review report of the MAP project (7), ILO provides a range of examples of how these mappings gave new insights into the state of the labour force in the pilot countries, far beyond what is coming out of traditional studies. Similarly, the DecentWorkCheck complements the data from some traditional indexes, which tend to be based on expert opinions. It is a user-friendly instrument, which does not require research expertise if used as an awareness raising tool. It can also be used to do a ‘quick-and-dirty’ assessment of the decent work situation in a firm or in a sector.
While they have therefore helped to increase our understanding of how decent work can be monitored, at least three challenges are currently limiting the potential relevance of these instruments, related to what they monitor, how they monitor and why they monitor.
A first issue relates to how both instruments deal with the informal sector, a sector which covers up to 80% of the labour force in many African countries. The focus of the DecentWorkCheck is on employees who work “in a non-managerial post in a firm/establishment of at least 50 employees” (8). This has to do with the fact that the questionnaire builds on existing legislation and regulations (which are largely focused on the formal sector) and assumes a given profile of workers to avoid the need for many different questionnaires per country. While many of the questions are also relevant for other types of work, this assumption decreases the applicability of the instrument for large parts of the labour force. The MAP framework has a more extensive set of indicators which examines the informal sector, but also here the overall bias is still largely towards formal sector employees. Addressing decent work deficits in the informal sector requires an adjusted toolbox, which takes into account the specific nature of workers in this area.
A second issue deals with how these instruments monitor decent work. In the MAP framework of ILO, the core of the analysis is based on statistical indicators, complemented with a more qualitative analysis of the legal framework in each country. This allows for easy aggregation leading to important overview statistics and some form of comparative analysis between countries. However, the lack of qualitative analysis in the Country Profiles, with for example no in-depth case studies in specific sectors or around specific themes limits the insights into the why and how of the observed labour situation (9). Especially in areas such as health and security, discrimination at work and non-monetary benefits, statistics tend to fall short to map decent work in a ‘decent’ way. The closed yes/no answers in the DecentWorkCheck face similar problems.
The third issue looks into the why of the monitoring and is affected by the previous issue above. The MAP project covers important information needs of policymakers at the national and international level. The same information can also be used by other social partners at the sectoral level and beyond. However, those who want to use the findings from these instruments to inform the strategies for their projects and programmes will often lack information on the how and why of the persistence of certain decent work deficits. The analysis tends to be ‘under-socialised’ in terms of institutions and actors, lacks aspects related to political-economy, and often remains stuck at the regional and national level. Addressing the information needs of practitioners who support or implement decent work development programmes requires additional monitoring efforts with data which is rich in terms of context to deal with the complexity of social change (10).
Dr. Huib Huyse is head of the sustainable development research group at HIVA-KU Leuven, Belgium.
1. UN. 2013. MyWorld: The United Nations Global Survey for a Better World. http://www.myworld2015.org/
2. Ghai, D. 2003. Decent Work: Concepts and Indicators, International Labour Review. Vol. 142, No. 2, pp. 114-145.
3. Mingers, J. 2003. A Classification of the Philosophical Assumptions of Management Science Methods. Journal of the Operational Research Society. Vol. 54, pp. 559-570.
4. Ahmad, I. 2012. DecentWorkCheck: Analysing De-Jure Labour Market Institutions from Worker Rights Perspective. WageIndicator Foundation. www.wageIndicator.org
5. ILO. 2013. Monitoring and Assessing Progress on Decent Work: Lessons Learned from the MAP Project. Manual. ILO. October 2013.
6. In the ILO project, the exact set of indicators differs from country to country. There are a number of basic indicators which are used in all countries, other are customised or added through a structured dialogue with the social partners depending on local context, needs and priorities. In the WageIndicator project, the component around employment opportunities is not assessed. The indicators are adjusted to the local context and labour regulations.
7. ILO. 2013. Ibid.
8. Ahmad, I. 2012. Ibid.
9. Patton, M.Q. 2002. Particularly Appropriate Qualitative Applications. In M. Q. Patton (Ed). Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods. (pp. 143-205). Thousand Oaks: Sage. In this important book Patton provides extensive illustrations of the limits of statistics for the evaluation of a large-scale employment programme in the US (Story of Li).
10. Ramalingam, B. 2013. Aid on the Edge of Chaos: Rethinking International Cooperation in a Complex World. OUP Oxford.