Learn More

What is decent work and what does it mean for business?

  • What does decent work mean?

    Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for productive work that delivers a fair income, security in the workplace, social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration. It assures freedom for people to express their concerns, to organize and participate in the decisions affecting their lives and equal opportunities and treatment for all women and men.

    The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the specialized agency of the United Nations striving to make decent work a reality for workers everywhere. The ILO brings together Governments, employers and workers of 187 Member States and sets international labour standards. Decent work and the four pillars of the ILO Decent Work Agenda — employment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue — are integral elements of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth calls for the promotion of sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work, and will be a key area of engagement for the ILO and its constituents.1

    1. For more information on Goal 8, please visit ILO Decent Work 

  • What are the Sustainable Development Goals, and how do they relate to business?

    The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed upon by all 193 United Nations Member States. They define global priorities and aspirations to achieve 17 Global Goals and 169 related targets by 2030. To realize this ambitious global action plan, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for enhanced partnerships between Governments, the private sector, civil society, the United Nations system and other relevant actors.

    The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also specifically highlights and recognizes the role of the private sector, ranging from micro- to cooperatives to multinational enterprises (MNEs), in meeting its goals and targets.

    Companies play an important role in achieving the SDGs, but their contribution is particularly relevant to Goal 8. Companies contribute to sustainable development and the SDGs, first and foremost, by respecting workers’ rights and contributing to decent work priorities through their day to day operations and investments. In some cases, the engagement of enterprises in a given country of operation can also lead to the creation of public-private partnerships that address specific decent work deficits or identify decent work opportunities that might complement or lead to further engagement through specific projects and programmes.

  • What does it mean for business to contribute to decent work?

    In 2017, the ILO updated its Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration) to respond to recent economic changes, such as the growth of global supply chains, and to account for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

    The MNE Declaration provides direct guidance to enterprises (multinational and national) on social policy and inclusive, responsible and sustainable workplace practices for the realization of decent work for all (Goal 8). It aims to encourage the positive contribution of business to economic development and to minimize and resolve the difficulties to which their various operations may give rise. The MNE Declaration is founded substantially on the principles contained in international labour standards, which are legal instruments drawn up by the International Labour Organization’s constituents (governments, employers and workers) and set out basic principles and rights at work.

    The MNE Declaration covers the entire Decent Work Agenda and addresses areas such as general policies, employment, training, work and life conditions and industrial relations.1

    1. Please visit the web portal of the ILO MNE Declaration 

  • Why is decent work important?

    Decent work in supply chains drives sustainable development.

    • Decent work reduces inequality and conflict and increases resilience in society.
    • Decent work means individuals and families can fulfill their needs and have money to spend in the local economy.
    • Decent work increases tax revenues for Governments so they can fund social investments including education which helps to ensure the availability of skilled workforce.

    The success of business is closely linked to the prosperity of the communities in which they produce and sell. Sustainable enterprises need sustainable societies: business tends to thrive where societies thrive and vice versa. This requires social and economic inclusiveness as well as equity in the distribution of and access to resources.

    Decent work supports the growth and development of companies, especially small and medium enterprises, so that they are able to hire more workers, improve their pay and working conditions and boost local economies.

  • How does decent work affect different groups of people?

    While decent work and human rights need to be ensured for all people everywhere, there are groups of vulnerable people who require special consideration.

    For example, women are facing persistent inequalities in the workplace with regards to pay rates, opportunities as well as health and safety considerations (e.g. chemicals influencing reproductive health). Persons with disabilities might have specific health needs or require physical adaptions to make the workplace accessible. Often, additional steps need to be taken to ensure inclusion and tackle discrimination against lesbian, gay, bi-, trans-, and intersex people. Indigenous people and local communities also often face discrimination or unequal access to employment and opportunities in the workplace.

  • What is gender equality and why does it matter?

    Gender equality refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of all genders in the workplace, marketplace, and community. It implies that the interests, needs and priorities of all genders are taken into consideration, recognising the diversity of different groups of people.

    Advancing gender equality and providing equal access to education, healthcare, decent work and representation in political and economic decision-making processes strengthens economies and builds stable, resilient societies that give all individuals the opportunity to fulfil their potential. It is both a human right and a necessary foundation for sustainable development, highlighted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

  • How has COVID-19 impacted gender equality?

    The pandemic exposed and exacerbated deep and systemic inequalities, socially, politically and economically, in which the most vulnerable are paying the highest price. The impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated in particular for women and girls, as they are more likely to earn less and save less and are more prevalent in part-time and informal work. Unpaid care work increased as schools closed, and health services became overwhelmed. Women have been affected by employment loss to a greater extent than have men, and access to financial capital has become even more challenging for women-owned businesses due to the requirements set by initiatives established to support SMEs. This highlights an even greater need for the private sector, governments and civil society to increase efforts towards achieving greater equality, opportunities and social protection for women and women-owned businesses.

  • What is a women-owned business?

    To qualify as a women-owned business, a business must be:

    1. Owned in whole, or at least more than half, by one or more women
    2. Led by women, for instance the highest officer position in the company should be held by a woman with the required managerial experience, and the long-term decision-making and the day-to-day management and administration of the business operations should be managed by women
    3. Independent, meaning it can perform without substantial influence or reliance on finances and resources of men or non-women owned businesses.


    Other definitions of women-owned businesses can be found at ISO IWA: 34:2021, the World Bank and WEConnect International .

  • What are the expectations on business as they relates to the respect of human and labour rights?

    The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, are the authoritative global standard on business and human rights which outlines the respective duties and responsibilities of States and enterprises on human rights. The corporate responsibility to respect human rights requires that enterprises, including multinational enterprises wherever they operate avoid causing or contributing to adverse impacts through their own activities and address such impacts when they occur, and seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts. Enterprises, including multinational enterprises, should carry out due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their actual and potential adverse impacts. This should align with internationally recognized human rights which are understood, at a minimum, as those expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights and the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

    The Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work are embedded in the ILO MNE Declaration and are the source of the four principles of the UN Global Compact that relate to labour:

    • Principle 3: Business should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.
    • Principle 4: Business should uphold the elimination of forced or compulsory labour.
    • Principle 5: Business should uphold the effective abolition of child labour.
    • Principle 6: Business should uphold the elimination of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation.
  • How can my company and my suppliers receive information and guidance from the ILO for achieving decent work in your global supply chain?

    Information and guidance on the application of the principles of the ILO MNE Declaration in company operations or the principles contained in the underlying international labour standards are available through the ILO Helpdesk for Business on International Labour Standards. The Helpdesk answers queries from company managers and workers on how to better align business operations with international labour standards and build good industrial relations.

    Specific questions on how to apply principles of international labour standards in company operations can be directly submitted by email to assistance@ilo.org. This individual assistance service is free and confidential. Replies are prepared by an ILO expert team and draw on the different ILO normative instruments, policy documents and tools.

    The ILO Helpdesk for Business also consists of a dedicated website organized by topic where companies, trade unions and others can find information on training opportunities, questions and answers as well as practical tools: www.ilo.org/business

    The ILO Helpdesk for Business could be a useful source of information and guidance for buyers and their suppliers.

  • How can we go further?

    Companies have an opportunity to go beyond the minimum and consider additional entry points to use their influence with suppliers to encourage (or possibly co-invest) in advancing opportunities for people and sustainable development. This might include proactive programmes to support financial literacy for workers, investing in daycare centres to help female (and male) workers juggle work and care responsibilities and adopting inclusive sourcing practices that seek to engage women-owned-businesses and others that traditionally do not have equal access to markets.

Additional resources