We spend most of our lives at work. While it structures our day-to-day life, it also provides us with a livelihood and much more. From food through clothing to technologies such as cell phones and cars, the world currently produces and consumes more than ever before. While economic growth plays an important role in the fight against global poverty, development alone does not automatically lead to greater prosperity or good jobs for all. There are 700 million people around the world who live in poverty despite having a job. A persistent lack of decent work opportunities, underinvestment and underconsumption are eroding democratic societies’ basic social contract. With the global unemployment rate at just 5.7 percent, about half of the world’s population still lives on roughly two US dollars a day. In many places, a job does not guarantee any escape from poverty.
More people than ever before – about 40 million worldwide – are forced into labor in the agricultural, textile and mining industries, among others. This means that they are treated as property, either temporarily or permanently. So on average, about 60 “slaves” work indirectly for each German individual. Global production chains make it virtually impossible to guarantee that no forced labor was used to produce a smartphone, a T-shirt or a cup of coffee.
Many families feel compelled to send their children to work instead of school because they are too poor to feed their families on their own. UNICEF estimates that 150 million children around the world between the ages of five and fourteen are already at work. The highest numbers live in Africa, followed by Asia. They are frequently involved in activities that harm their physical and mental development, as well as also being very detrimental to the environment. What’s known as the informal economy – unregulated and untaxed employment – is another major obstacle to decent work because it not only has a negative impact on income and general working conditions but also undermines social, labor and health protections.
Wage dumping and precarious employment conditions, such as temporary and contract work, are also prevalent in many sectors of the German economy. Migrant and seasonal workers frequently active in the agricultural and construction industries are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. But this is also rife in the online economy, for example, in the form of mail order and parcel deliveries. Low prices mean low wages for tough work. There are an estimated 170,000 modern-day “slaves” living in Germany. Although unemployment levels are comparatively low, not everyone enjoys equal access to the labor market. People with disabilities, for instance, are more likely to be out of a job than the rest of the workforce; and women often do unpaid work, such as housework and caring for others.
Germany is one of the richest industrialised nations in the world. Unfortunately, this prosperity and economic growth has been a tremendous drain on natural resources. From an environmental standpoint, Germans live and consume out of all proportion with what is sustainable. It would take several Earths to meet resource consumption at this level. Shifting to a more sustainable economy is thus a tremendous challenge – and one that will also change the labor market landscape. Yet that’s still not enough. Consumer behavior must become more sustainable, too.
Although on average the real gross domestic product per capita is increasing year on year globally, growth rates in many developing countries are not only slowing but also slipping further from the seven percent target set for 2030. When labor productivity falls and unemployment rises, lower wages cause living standards to drop.
To achieve sustainable economic growth, societies must ensure conditions conducive to creating quality jobs that stimulate the economy without damaging the environment. The entire global population of working age needs employment opportunities and decent working conditions. Strengthening trade, banking and agricultural commitments will help to spur productivity and reduce unemployment in the world’s most poverty-stricken regions.