It Isn’t Just About How Many Jobs and for Whom, but Also What Kind of Jobs

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 12. May 2019

Speaking of employment, let’s admit it: we tend to care more about the number of jobs created. Ask a politician up for (re)election, or a project manager preparing an annual report on employment …

Then comes who’s getting the jobs — men, women, people from rural areas, ethnic minorities, young people. The type of jobs – job quality – seems to be an afterthought despite many years of discussions.

I think it’s high time to address this misplaced priority.

…. But what makes a job a “quality job”?

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has for long been promoting the decent work agenda. With the risk of oversimplification, it’s all about the aspirations of people in their working lives. The ILO came up with ten substantive elements that include adequate earning or fair income, better prospects for personal development, security in the workplace and others. The decent work agenda is included in the Sustainable Development Goals with a specific goal.

While most of the indicators of job quality are tangible (e.g. pay), others are open to interpretation (e.g. a job meets workers’ preferences – i.e. job as the worker experiences it). Sometimes, most indicators can also be both objective and subjective at the same time, depending on contexts and individuals. In other words, job quality is a continuum as much as it is a goal, and there isn’t a single metric to measure it.

A minimum wage or income cap can serve to gauge an adequate income (compensation and benefits). An example is the May 209 research in Ethiopia’s garment industry which pays the lowest wage in any garment-producing country in the world: $26 a month! This’s lower than a dollar a day. And the difference with other countries is also astronomical – for example, Kenya $207!

It’s easier to criticise developing countries or countries in transition for poor job quality. The situation isn’t that better for some workers in Europe or North America. Have you heard of the term “working poor”? It refers to people “who spend 27 weeks or more in a year in the labour force either working or looking for work but whose incomes fall below the poverty level.” In 2014, 10% of European workers were at risk of poverty, up from 8% in 2007.

And why we should care more about job quality

I’m fully aware that it’s better first to be in employment than otherwise. Despite the frightening figures of unemployment, a closer look at the figures shows that more people than ever are in work. It’s also true that there’re more jobs than people out of work or seeking employment. This trend is expected to shift with the changing nature of the world of work – new models of employment is on the rise (part-time, temporary, own work); informal and unpaid family work is spreading.

I can think of the following compelling reasons why we should take quality of jobs more seriously.

A job is about purpose, well-being and social connections: a 2018 research in North America showed that nine out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more-meaningful work. I don’t think the decent work agenda is a luxurious aspiration only limited to developed countries. For all of us – be it Ethiopians, Brazilians, Americans, Indians, Swiss or Fijians – employment has a strong influence over our well-being. People are working for longer hours – either in a work place or at home, and both paid and unpaid.

Job quality is an important driver of increased labour force participation, productivity and economic performance: in other words, it influences people to make the choice to work, to quit, and how much effort to put into a job. Unpaid work, parental leave, legal barriers, social protection and digital divide are factors that determine labour market participation by women and men. A recent study shows that close to 300 million workers globally live in extreme poverty, including 40% of all workers in developing countries. Decent work isn’t only a social good, but a business necessity.

It’s all about people: better understanding of job quality squarely puts people and their lives at the centre of the discussion. People increasingly question the meaning of economic growth if few members of society are getting richer and others are working harder and harder just to maintain their living standard. Frustration can lead to migration or societal fragmentation. That is why Goal 8 of the SDGs is about decent work and economic growth to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and job quality for all. In addition, increased consumer awareness and the role of labour unions and social movements are putting pressure on employers to address exploitative and harmful practices.

Walking the talk

I’m passionate about this topic, as you can see above. Yet I do also recognise a lot has been done and that ensuring and measuring job quality is a complex task. It requires concerted, multi-stakeholder efforts. Here’re few ways of improving the conditions.  

To begin with, job quality is essentially a labour policy/regulatory issue. Active and passive labour market policies should provide growth-friendly environment and skills evolving in line with market needs. A concrete example is plugging regulatory gaps and improving social protection programmes. This becomes urgent as the world of work is shifting towards non-standard forms of employment – temporary employment, part-time and on-call work, and temporary agency work. While this gives flexibility, it also exposes workers to risky and unstable working conditions.  

Second, employers, mainly private sector enterprises, should see job quality more than complying with regulatory requirements. There’s a business case. Investing in better working conditions pays off. Some examples include value creation (quality and productivity/efficiency); business resilience (workplace cohesion and drive for innovation, increased customer trust); and growth and risk management (skills shortage, turnover, productive capacity).   

Third, one of the measurements of job quality is the ability for workers to have the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The 2019 World Employment and Social Outlook of the ILO paints a grim picture: that “millions of people forced to accept inadequate working conditions”.

Development cooperation has a lot to complement the above efforts in terms of better understanding root causes, supporting actors to coordinate and perform their functions better, and contributing to the measurement of what works and what doesn’t and why.   

Additional sources


Cover photo: Alev Takil

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies