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Monday, February 8, 2016

Development Justice needs more than Development Goals - Nazma Akhter

A very late Happy 2016! With the new year comes resolutions, struggling to write the correct year on checks and, for 2016, the implementation of an ambitious set of goals from the United Nations called the Sustainable Development Goals. In the weeks after the goals were agreed upon last fall, Bangladeshi labor and human rights leader, Nazma Akter (learn more in our NGO Reports series featuring Nazma), penned a response to highlight some of the potential holes and failings she saw in the agreement. After significant delay, I'm happy to repost the article here.

Nazma Akhter
Sommilito Garment Sromik Federation

October 12, 2015

Two weeks ago governments at the UN adopted a new Sustainable Development Agenda. Incorporating 17 goals and 169 targets Agenda2030 promises to ‘eradicate extreme poverty’ and provide a plan of action for ‘people, planet and prosperity’. These goals promise to be an improvement on the Millennium Development Goals and were developed in a more inclusive process. But major concerns remain about their capacity to genuinely deliver the deep reforms our world needs at a time when inequalities are so deep that the richest individuals make more money in a single second than a garment worker makes in a whole year and when 30 million Bangladeshis are likely to be displaced by climate change in the next 15 years.

Having worked and organised in the ready-made garment industry since I was 11 years old, I wonder what the sustainable development agenda means for garment workers. The goals include some important aspirations for garment workers: ending child labour by 2020, achieving full employment and Decent Work, eliminating the gender pay gap, ensure safe and secure work as well as ending poverty, hunger, gender inequality, delivering universal health care, free education for all, tackling climate change and reducing inequalities between rich and poor as well as between countries.

The goals sound wonderful. But, unfortunately, they fail to tackle the root causes of inequality or deliver real system change. Governments agreed to a goal on Decent Work but tied it together with economic growth. Our right to Decent Work cannot depend on growth, particularly when economic growth has not delivered better conditions, wages or rights for workers. Since the Millennium Declaration was adopted 95% of the gains from economic growth went to the richest 40%. You can be sure that this doesn’t include garment workers or other low income workers, particularly in developing countries.

Whilst governments agreed to a target to deliver labour rights and secure working conditions, it makes no mention of a living wage, despite the clear need to address wage inequality for inclusive development and the advantage that a global agreement on living wages would provide for countries like Bangladesh where businesses threaten to go offshore if we increase wages.

Photo courtesy of the LA Times

Governments are still developing indicators that will measure progress toward sustainable development. They are proposing that the right to Decent Work be measured by counting deaths and injuries in the workplace and by the number of conventions signed. In Bangladesh we know too well that counting dead bodies does not result in living wages, in union rights, in social protection, in less discrimination or sexual harassment or in justice for the dead or injured workers and their families.

If there was just one indicator to measure Decent Work it should be the percentage of people, particularly women, who are members of trade unions able to genuinely assert workers’ rights and collectively bargain. The right to independently unionise is the right that unlocks all others. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently recognised that increasing trade unionism can decrease poverty and inequality.

But it’s not just the lack of commitment to honour labour rights that undermines the development goals. There is no commitment to change the economic systems that allow companies to avoid tax, to hide behind untraceable supply chains, to use offshore bank accounts or to pay for the damages they do to people’s lives and the environment. There’s also no money being committed to help least developed countries to develop the public services, institutions and social protection we need.

There is a growing movement of people around the world of people who are dissatisfied with the way the rich have been able to create rules that allow them to exploit our environments and our labour and make enormous profits. The goals don’t address the need to regulate multinational corporations and their supply chains. Instead multi-nationals are elevated as an implementer of development despite the role they often undermining development through tax avoidance, wealth concentration, environmental degradation, campaigning against regulations and attacks on trade unionists and other human rights defenders.

While governments were welcoming the goals in the UN, I was also in New York talking about ways to achieve sustainable development. I was instead speaking at the People’s General Assembly. I spoke about the experiences of garment workers; working 12 to 14 hours a day, enduring discrimination and sexual harassment, receiving short term contracts to avoid maternity leave rights, getting sick from fumes and chemicals, threatened when we organise and, of course, being killed in buildings we have reported as unsafe.

Now is the time to realise that governments are not governing for us. We can use these development goals as part of our campaign for a global shift in power - a global shift toward Development Justice. But we can’t rely on them. We must continue to organise and to build our movement. But we must also use our power in a global response to these global problems. Corporations and governments have coordinated globally to set the rules that enable them to get rich. We don’t have money, weapons, media or politicians to do our bidding. But we are the majority. We have our labour and our solidarity and we must use them.

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