Decent work

Decent work (October 24, 2006)

By Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

The economy has been growing at an average rate of about 5% for the past few years. But why has the poverty situation not improved during the same period? One possible answer is that the economic growth has not brought more jobs for those who badly need them. "Jobless growth" is happening in many countries, even in the US. A more subtle answer to the question is that economic growth, even when it has produced jobs, has not produced decent jobs.

In a country where many consider themselves lucky to have any job at all and many employers consider themselves saints for just hiring, it's almost a fantastic proposition to even talk about "decent work". But this is exactly the concept the International Labour Organization has proposed and which the Philippine government has officially adopted. The country is among eight to join the ILO pilot program for the measurement of decent work.

Decent work was the topic of an interesting conference entitled "Measuring progress in Decent Work", sponsored by the Philippine Statistical Association and held at the Asian Development Bank last October 9. Teresa Peralta of the DOLE Bureau of Labor Employment Statistics (BLES) presented the promising work of her team in developing the Philippine Labor Index -- a first attempt at developing a local, country-level measure of decent work. Ms. Peralta’s team estimated PLI for 2004 to be 73.58 out of a maximum of 100. Though still at the developmental stage, I laud the DOLE’s initiative to better monitor the quality of Filipino jobs.

To appreciate the measurement decent work, we need to understand the concept itself. What is decent work? The ILO web site explains that “decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves (1) opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, (2) security in the workplace and social protection for families, (3) better prospects for personal development and social integration, (4) freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and (5) equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men”.

An employer who is sincerely concerned about workers will find a lot of basic guidance from the above enumeration. However, a self-critical evaluation will not be so simple and will take a lot of real thinking on the employer’s part. On the matter of fair pay, for example, an employer could ask whether it’s right to pay an average rank-and-file employee 1/100th the pay of the CEO. 1/50th? The highly respected US-based furniture manufacturer Herman-Miller limits this ratio to 1/20.

What about giving workers the freedom to express their concerns and to participate in decision-making? How many top executives who protest Malacañang’s “heavy-handed” treatment of dissenters can welcome honest but critical feedback from the rank-and-file. Not many, I suspect.

Many employers in the Philippines, faced by the relentless onslaught of globalization or simply aiming to maximize investor profits, have taken the low road and given jobs which provide no stability or future to workers. This may be sensible as a short-term survival strategy but is unsound -- even anti-social -- as a core business strategy.

With some vision and a sense of solidarity with their countrymen, employers should consider graduating to high value, high creativity markets where committed and well-trained long-term workers can make a big difference. But are they up to the challenge? Or are they more interested in the low risk of cookie-cutter businesses which require no imagination, but only plenty of capital and docile workers? How employers respond to these questions ultimately reflect not only the decency of the work they provide but their own.