16 Aug

Just how decent is ‘decent work’? Why the ILO decent work agenda is incomplete.

In order to reflect the multidimensional nature of decent work, the ILO decent work agenda should incorporate psychological and spiritual perspectives.

One of my favourite interviews from Cecile Emeke’s ground breaking series, Strolling, is an interview with Fanta, a French African woman discussing race, gender, slavery and history in France.

In her interview, she also shares her experience of working in the fast food sector and the impact of the emotional labour on her well-being,

‘The invisible labour we don’t talk about in retail and restaurant…I think this kind of job affects mental health because if you’re not like a really extroverted person, I think it can drain you a lot…I come home and I just want to sleep, I don’t want to talk to anyone, because I’ve been talking so much all day…as I said it’s not the physical labour that drains me, it’s the emotional…’

Decent work, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) decent work agenda, is composed of four key concepts: full and productive employment, rights at work, social protection and the promotion of social dialogue. It is assessed using the following indicators:

  • employment opportunities
  • adequate earnings and productive work
  • decent working time
  • combining work, family and personal life
  • whether it constitutes work that should be abolished (i.e. child labour)
  • stability and security of work
  • equal opportunity and treatment in employment
  • a safe work environment
  • social security
  • opportunity for social dialogue, employers’ and workers’ representation


These existing ILO indicators capture the formal context of decent work, that is, the institutional and legal factors that enable or disable decent work in a certain sector or economy. In other words, the indicators currently being used, measure the aspects of work that can be seen or objectively measured.

The way decent work is measured in the current list of ILO indicators above is not incorrect but is incomplete for one main reason. These indicators provide explain the context of decent work but not individual perceptions of decent work and the opportunity they have to access it. This is important because individual perceptions provide multiple perspectives on the value of ‘decent’ beyond the material market-based indicators currently being used. This is especially important as we are witnessing new types of work such as the growing industry of ‘click-farms’, where workers are paid to manually ‘Like’ Facebook pages.

The indicators in the ILO decent work agenda fall short because the framework does not take into account the complex and multidimensional function of work in our society which necessarily requires taking individual experiences, not the working environment, as the central unit of measurement.

In my introductory post on this series, I spoke about Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian vendor who set himself on fire in 2011 after having his produce illegally removed from him. Bouazizi’s last words before setting himself on fire were, ‘How do you expect me to make a living?’ He did not set himself on fire because he was not able to make money; he set himself on fire because he was not able to make a living. Beyond the literal translation of his speech, Bouazizi’s expression links work with development beyond the material dimensions captured in the ILO decent work agenda.

The psychological dimensions of decent work

Psychologists such as David L. Blustein, Chad Olle, Alice Connors-Kellgren, and A. J. Diamonti from the Psychology of Working movement view decent work agenda as incomplete for this very reason. The current agenda does not take into account the psychological dimensions of work.  They define decent work as one ‘which advances a view of work as a human right central to mental health and wellbeing through its ability to meet three basic needs: survival and power, social connection, and self-determination.’


Image based on the Psychology of Working Movement theory on decent work

They argue that one of the ways of promoting a human rights based approach in this agenda is by changing the sphere of measurement from the context of decent work (macro-level perspective) to the individual’s experience of decent work (micro-level perspective), stating:

‘While we have argued that the macro-level perspectives used in original conceptualizations…provide external criteria with which to evaluate work-based policies, we believe that a bridge needs to be created between these macro-level perspectives, which are increasingly vulnerable to outside influences from…neo-liberal policies, and the lived experience of working people.’

Furthermore, they argue that the macro-level perspectives should not just focus on the economic, legal and institutional aspects (i.e. the current ILO indicators) of the work environment but take into account how ‘socio-cultural barriers, such as discrimination, oppression, intersectional identities, high barriers, and low volition affect the career development process and experience of work.’ In other words, macro-level perspectives which cannot be objectively measured but impact on one’s lived experience of decent work should also be assessed.

Spiritual and philosophical dimensions of decent work

Another community of thinkers proposing a multidimensional concept of decent work are the proponents of the ‘Spiritual and Philosophical perspectives on decent work.’

They view the existing decent work agenda as incomplete because it does not take into account the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of work. Different theological and humanistic traditions acknowledge the importance of decent work in fulfilling the spiritual needs of the individual. According to them, decent work interlinks the individual’s needs for self-actualisation (empowerment), their role in society and the development of their spiritual/transcendental needs in terms of meaning and purpose.


Image sourced from the ‘Spiritual and psychological perspectives on decent work’

Removing decent work (DW) breaks the links such that the individual is not able to fulfil any of the three elements of human development.

Having evaluated the three perspectives on decent work; market-based (material), psychological and spiritual and philosophical perspectives, one can see the extent to which decent work concept is enriched by adopting a multidimensional perspective. Much like the Sustainable Development Agenda which incorporates three dimensions of development (social, environmental and economic), the decent work agenda can be also revised to incorporate the three dimensions of work to reflect the different dimensions and interlinking relationships between work and development.


I will end this post with this short film of Earl Thompson, a janitor who shares how he finds ‘dignity in his work’ after an injury ended his career aspirations in professional football.  Thompson’s authenticity allows us to explore this multidimensional framework of decent work and in doing so, we also bring the individual back to the centre of development.


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