Quite often, when we hear the word sustainability, the environment is front of mind. However, a sustainable future requires a holistic approach and acknowledgement of the interconnectedness between the environment, people and economic outcomes.
The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) strive to highlight this connection by zooming in on explicit global issues via individual sustainability goals and then zooms out again by acknowledging that the 17 SDGs belong as a group to balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
In this article, we are zooming in on Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth.
Goal 8 is about ‘promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.’ There are twelve calls to action under this goal, with work still needed to achieve them. Let’s explore a few.
Action on forced labour, modern slavery, and child labour
One action that has gained international attention is regarding forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking, and securing the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers. It is no surprise that the national and international reports about worker enslavement that continue to circulate our news headlines only highlight the beginning of the work to truly eliminate these issues across global supply chains.
These atrocities can occur at any time and in any place, including right here in Australia. International law and national and local legislation and policies have a vital role to play in setting frameworks and enforcing the protection of workers.
The United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act were early adopters of legislative action. On 11 June 2021, the German parliament passed the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, and other countries are adopting, or considering, new laws as well.
In Australia, the Modern Slavery Act is seeing its 2nd year of reporting. The Act is due to be reviewed in January 2022. We may see a lower reporting threshold under $100m, penalising non-compliance, establishing an independent body to oversee and enforce its implementation, and improvements to ensure meaningful action. In August 2021, the Australian Senate voted to ban the importation of any goods made with forced labour into Australia, in a move that signals cross-party support for stronger measures to prevent Australian companies profiting from modern slavery. We eagerly await continued action.
The Global Slavery Index is a resource that provides information on government responses across regions. For example, last year, the Global Slavery Index published a report by the Walk Free Foundation and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The report highlights how:
• there is still work to do in promoting country and industry safeguards (specific to commonwealth countries only);
• ‘a lack of legislation across many states undermines attempts to deter and convict perpetrators of modern slavery’; and
• ‘restrictive immigration policies also facilitate coercion and prevent workers from leaving an exploitative employer’.
However, it’s not only about what governments are doing. Businesses need to understand their role in identifying supply chain risk, including where legal frameworks are non-existent. Additionally, businesses and suppliers must go beyond policy and legislation with on-the-ground investigations, align with International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards, and even join efforts with civil society in advocating for stronger due diligence measures.
The impact of COVID-19 on workers
Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated the ability to ‘protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment’ – which is another call to action in SDG 8.
Global supply chain disruption has meant some workers have had to face loss of income or even accept substandard working conditions due to a lack of awareness of workplace rights. The pandemic has highlighted casual and temporary workers often have no safety nets. Labour laws or regulations do not cover them, and many migrant workers are stranded overseas and are unable to return home. On the other end of the supply chain, certain products and materials that have surpassed demand in the pandemic have led to excessive overtime, where workers may not be paid.
While many businesses are ensuring their workers are looked after, some are not or are unable to due to the impact COVID-19 is having.
Every company needs to embed a culture that supports workers’ rights and allows fair processes to act and respond to all matters. Yet, there is often a disassociation between policy to implementation. For example, a business may have developed whistleblower and grievance mechanism policies, but does every worker know and understand them? Do workers have open access to collective bargaining agreements and union representatives?
It is imperative to protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, focusing on the most vulnerable to exploitation.
Green jobs driving economic growth
Without a healthy functioning environment, there can be no sustainable growth in economic activities and employment. This speaks to another action under SDG 8 to ‘improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production, with developed countries taking the lead.’
The United Nations (UN) 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns sees several cross-border working groups enhancing capacity-building mechanisms in many sectors. For example, the One Planet Network was formed to focus on areas such as sustainable public procurement, which has seen an increased uptake of circular economy activities in construction and infrastructure across many countries.
A circular economy is a concept of going from a linear consumption and production model of ‘make, use, dispose’ to a circular way of thinking where resources are kept in the loop for longer and indefinitely with clear benefits in carbon reduction and more.
In Australia, it is estimated that the implementation of a circular economy in food, transport, and the built environment will provide an economic benefit of $23 billion in GDP by 2025, and then by 2047-48, a benefit of $210 billion GDP and an additional of 17,000 full-time equivalent jobs for Australia. CSIRO’s report National Circular Economy Roadmap for Plastics, Glass, Paper and Tyres states that if Australia’s recovery rate is increased by only 5%, around $1 billion would be added to Australia’s GDP.
Furthermore, there is a crucial and increasing focus on indigenous communities leading the way by utilising traditional knowledge systems that have always protected the environment and natural resources on Country – which is ultimately what society and the economy relies on.
What action is GECA taking to support SDG 8?
GECA is committed to adhering to and advocating for the UN Global Compact and its Ten Principles relating to human rights, anti-corruption, labour, and environmental impacts, which in turn encompasses SDG 8 (among other SDGs).
The UN Global Compact and its Ten Principles strongly align with the work GECA does every day to promote sustainable consumption and production in Australia and as a member of the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN). GECA’s core service offering is its lifecycle ecolabelling program. Each of our ecolabel standards includes criteria to reduce environmental degradation, protect human health from damaging chemicals or emissions, and promote human and labour rights for businesses to implement as part of their contribution to a fair economy.
At GECA, we’re committed to continuous improvement in all we do. For example, in the last few years, GECA has rolled out social criteria in each of our standards that require companies certified under the scheme to provide evidence that they are meeting human and labour rights in their supply chains and within their business. Criteria include equal opportunity, fair pay, lawful conduct, modern slavery reporting, and commitments to international initiatives such as the UN Global Compact. Criteria have expanded across several standards, and we will continue to streamline and expand upon them further.
The rise of circular economy thinking is creating new ways of approaching manufacturing, such as embracing innovative ways to design out waste and making products that can play a regenerative role in the environment. At GECA, we have a unique blend of skill sets, expertise and connections to help organisations and individuals reach their circular economy goals. We see our role as both providing solutions and supporting others to implement their own. We do this through our not-for-profit ecolabelling program, providing independent third-party assurance on sustainability claims, government and industry advocacy, consulting and training.
Training, collaboration, and encouragement to become a UN Global Compact signatory have been key aspects of our consultancy work. And internally, the team has sought upskilling opportunities, including a staff member completing Social Accountability (SA) 8000 Auditor Training, bringing to GECA knowledge and insights into human and labour rights certification on a company and factory level.
In July 2021, GECA submitted the first draft of our Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) to Reconciliation Australia. We know that sustainability is non-existent without acknowledging the interconnectedness of the environment and people. A Reflect RAP focuses on the steps GECA needs to take to prepare its organisation for further reconciliation initiatives by learning, listening, and growing through the process, and increasing recognition of indigenous knowledge systems that have been around for a very long time to protect the environment.
In addition, as a member of the UN Environmental Programme’s Advisory Committee for its 10-year Framework on Sustainable Public Procurement, GECA understands the complexities involved in governments ensuring effective, sustainable purchasing decisions while providing quality assurance. We will continue working with governments on all levels to make this process easier and with all our stakeholders as we progress our actions on SDG 8.
There is still more to do. Are you aware of all actions under SDG 8? What are you doing to act?