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Promoting Decent Work and Decent Lives

Stuart C. Carr
Massey University

What do domestic worker rights, getting youth into jobs, and counteracting climate change have in common? They all entail decent work, which helps make decent lives and qualities of life. In this issue’s column, we learn how the goal of decent work has become a central plank in the policies of the International Labor Organization (or “ILO”). The ILO is a United Nations chapter that has taken a strong stance on the provision of decent work, and a decent life, in the domestic employment setting, for youth during economic crisis, and for creating a more sustainable environment. The ILO also has a policy of fostering decent work as a key means of poverty reduction, which is the core focus in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Decent work is defined as productive work that is freely chosen and provides a fair income, security in the workplace, a voice at work, equality of opportunity for women and men, and social and environmental protection for them and their families. In this interview we have a unique opportunity to learn more about the Decent Work Policy Agenda at the ILO from one of its leading advocates, who happens to be an I-O psychologist. We are very privileged to learn more about Telma Viale’s valuable work and the important role that I-O psychology could fill at the ILO and in a wider development agenda.

Telma Viale is the special representative to the United Nations (UN) and director for the ILO in New York. I met Telma during The APA Psychology Day at the UN Headquarters in New York, held in April this year. We shared a panel that addressed “Poverty Eradication in the Lives of Women and Children.” She spoke powerfully about the plight of domestic workers and the need for increased regulation and improved conditions for this vulnerable group; namely, she raised the question of decent work and labor rights in the domestic employment setting in all countries, regardless of their income levels (Viale, 2012a). She also familiarized the audience with ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers, which aims to bring dignity and value to the work that is essential to the thread of all societies and long kept in the proverbial shadow. A few days after our meeting, Telma led the ILO delegation at the Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, entitled “Speak Up, Speak Out for Freedom & Rights,” held on April 23–25 in Chicago, where she participated in a panel discussion on “Investing in Peace” recalling the motto of ILO’s Nobel prize: “If you desire peace, cultivate justice” and making the links between human rights and decent work (Viale, 2012b; http://www.nobelsummitchicago.org/resources/video/).

Telma, Please tell us a bit more about your work

The wide endorsement of the Decent Work Agenda by the UN System; the increasing inclusion of ILO related matters in the agenda of the international and multilateral UN conferences, G-20, and other international and regional organizations; as well as the recurrent calls for international policy coherence have required greater efforts in terms of interagency coordination (Saner & Yiu, 2012) and for continued evidence-based advocacy (see also, Lefkowitz, 2012). Against that context, the work done by the ILO New York Office aims to ensure impact and presence in the New York-based activity of the multilateral system and is done under the direct guidance of the Director-General, Juan Somavia. Our objectives are in line with established organizational priorities such as strengthening partnerships and improving the coordination, delivery, and effectiveness of ILO programs.
A good example of what the ILO advocates at a ground level is decent work in domestic workplaces. A recent ILO estimate based on surveys and censuses from 117 countries place the number of domestic workers around the world at 53 million. Yet, because this kind of work is often hidden and unregistered, that number could be as high as 100 million. Of this 100 million, 83% are women, and many are migrant workers. In half of the world’s countries, domestic work is not actually recognized as work and is therefore outside the scope of the country’s own labor law and social security regimes: The home is not a conventional workplace and so national laws and policies tend to preserve the right to families’ privacy. Even when the work is nationally regulated, it is often undeclared, informal work, and so actual working conditions and well-being are highly dependent on the goodwill of the employer and the bargaining power of domestic workers themselves. Their efforts and skills required to do the work are often undervalued. There is an employer expectation that domestic workers be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Perhaps worse of all is the issue of domestic violence. The risk of being insulted, beaten, or sexually assaulted is high.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 175 million workers (through its 311 affiliated organizations around the world), made great efforts to ensure participation of domestic workers in their delegations during the International Labour Conference in 2010 and 2011. After decades of struggles by domestic workers’ organizations, in June 2011 the International Labour Organization (whose conferences are attended by management, government and unions) adopted ILO Convention 189, a new convention that lays down global, minimum labor protection to these workers. The new international standard gives them social security and minimum wage protection, fair terms of employment, and protection against all forms of abuse, harassment, and violence. Convention 189 brings them international recognition and dignity, where previously they were unrecognized and undervalued, acknowledging the value of their work for economies, societies, and families.

Another pressing global issue is youth unemployment. In the current global crisis, 75 million are unemployed and 150 million of the working youth earn less than US$1 a day. We are involved in policy discussions about what the development agenda will look like post Millennium Development Goals, due for expiry in 2015. The ILO’s proposed plan to address the social, economic, and environmental crisis emphasizes an essential role for employment and decent work in sustainable development and poverty reduction. Jobs and social and environmental protection are at the core of an integrated approach to these three dimensions of development. At the recent Rio+20 Conference held in June 2012, one of ILO’s practical deliverables was a multisector analysis for greening the economy by identifying new job opportunities, in particular for youth. Youth have a vested interest in having a clean environment for the future. The ILO plan for increasing youth employment and engagement with that end is focused on those sectors of the economy that are directly resource dependent and climate dependent, or are large consumers of resources or significant polluters, and that have a considerable potential to reduce environmental impacts. Sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry, energy, resource-intensive industries, recycling, building, and transports are among the ones being studied as future employers of currently disenfranchised youth.

Can you highlight where I-O can help?

There is so much to do in the areas of cultural context within the world of work. For instance, in the case of domestic workers, the interaction between a workplace that is also a live-in home has not been much explored, nor have its implications for theories like work–family life balance. Issues around compensation beyond those in money or in kind, when links of affection with the employer take similar grounds as those with own family members, and at times more than with their own family, also need further attention, for example, with respect to occupational well-being. I would suggest that systematic reviews of existing case studies and research on the experiences of migrant workers in general can enable us to design psychological interventions that can help this vulnerable group to cope with stress, isolation, separation and depression; and shed light on how employers could help. Cultural diversity in the meaning of work, including historical beliefs about the value of domestic work itself, will play an important role in the standard setting of the professions and occupations involved in domestic employment. To date, not much research, practice, or theory-development has been done in those areas, and on the meaning of, and psychological contracts in, decent work in general.

How prominent is I-O in fields like decent work, at present?

Decent work can be applied to all economic sectors in the world of work and so can industrial and organizational psychology. Although the decent work agenda is advancing as a key instrument for social justice and a fair globalization, the simultaneous advances of the I-O field to date are not perceived as direct contributions to the comprehensive decent work agenda. But this does not mean that the work of I-O psychologists is not relevant or not present. On the contrary, its prominence within the objectives of decent work could be better highlighted. Research on the importance of the voice of workers in the buy-in of organizational change, on the benefits of a decent work–life balance, of social protection, of job security, of fairness and nondiscrimination—to name just a few key topics—are areas where I-O research has made great contributions. Hence, the links from I-O psychology, research, and practice to the objectives framed by the Decent Work Agenda could be better articulated. Through sound research, the I-O community can make stronger statements about the benefits of the psychosocial wellness brought about by decent work and its agenda, so that buy in from key stakeholders increases and can be used as means to build fairer, more inclusive, greener, and more prosperous societies.

Where and how could we make more of a difference/input more?

In the example that I just mentioned earlier related to the greening of the economy, the analysis has permitted us to identify key technical and economic drivers of greening production, such as employment gains or losses, transformation of jobs with new skill requirements, lowering carbon emission of existing enterprises, productivity and income levels, and formal versus informal work. In the area of transformation of jobs with new skills requirements, there is a huge space for the contribution of industrial psychology. New tasks are being identified in pioneering areas, and an accurate match of the right skills set for those emerging tasks are likely to need further research. Just as important will be the transformation and integration of other skills sets, those in professions that will be less needed. For this, the role of industrial psychology will be essential in leading research to ascertain what strengths can be found in previous technical fields that can be of service to the emerging ones. There is plenty of material to unfold the mysteries of the mind while addressing the new cultural mindsets brought in by globalization.

Telma, we are extremely grateful for these insights and reflections on the concept, practice, and ethics of decent work, decent lives. I am sure that TIP QV readers will be following and contributing more towards the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda in the future. Kia Kaha!


Lefkowitz, J. (2012). From humanitarian to humanistic work psychology: The morality of business. In S. C. Carr, M. MacLachlan, & A. Furnham (Eds.), Humanitarian work psychology. (pp. 103–128). London: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Saner, R., & Yiu, L. (2012). The new diplomacies and humanitarian work psychology. In S. C. Carr, M. MacLachlan, & A. Furnham (Eds.), Humanitarian work psychology (pp. 129–165). London: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Viale, T. (2012a, April). From the shadow to the fore: ILO Convention No. 189 on domestic workers. Psychology Day at the UN, New York.
Viale, T. (2012b, February 2). Statement delivered by Ms. Telma Viale, Special Representative to the United Nations and Director ILO New York. 50th Session of the Commission for Social Development Agenda Item 3A: Eradication of Poverty. New York.