A Trade Union Take on the SDGs - edition 2021

Compiled under the challenging conditions resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, this edition of the Trade Union Take on the SDGs analyses and compiles the monitoring of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at national level undertaken by 22 labour organisations in 13 countries and four continents.

This publication by ITUC provides an independent workers’ perspective on how governments are delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which contrasts or complements the official narrative provided by governments in their Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) to the United Nations . It also assesses the levels of transparency, consultation and social dialogue in which these processes are being conducted. Finally, it also gives an analyses on the impact of the Covid-19 on the progress (or lack thereof) achieved.

The 13 countries analysed are: Argentina, Germany, Chad, Colombia, Indonesia, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Pakistan, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and Zimbabwe. All these countries presented their Voluntary National Reviews at the UN High-level Political Forum in July 2021.

Source: International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).


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This edition of A Trade Union Take on the SDGs is the second compiled under the challenging conditions resulting from the COVID-19 crisis and governments’ efforts to contain it.

The pandemic has exposed the flaws of the current global economic model. It has uncovered the disastrous social, sanitary, and economic state of the world after decades of market fundamentalism. In the face of deepening social and economic deprivation, trade unions call for a New Social Contract, with SDG 8 at its core, that responds to workers’ demands for decent and climate-friendly jobs, universal access to social protection, protection of workers’ rights, equality, and inclusion for a successful recovery and resilience. This publication contributes to this call by giving an independent workers’ perspective on how governments are delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

The Trade Union Take on the SDGs consists of a compilation of findings and analysis of the SDG country reports produced by trade union organisations in 13 countries in 2021. These reports focus on whether governments are transparent and make use of consultations and social dialogue to involve trade unions in the drafting and implementation of SDG national plans. Furthermore, it aims to map countries’ efforts to reach key SDG targets in the context of existing structural, social, and economic challenges. This work is an essential contribution of the labour movement to the Decade of Action (2020-2030) to deliver the SDGs.

As the pandemic goes on, its impact in terms of loss of lives, collapse of healthcare systems, rise of inequalities, and economic downturn continues to grow. Lockdown measures have had deep socio-economic consequences, impacting the incomes and livelihoods of millions of people worldwide as workplaces went through layoffs, temporary shutdowns or simply disappeared. In parallel, the lack of universal social protection systems in a majority of countries has laid bare the extreme vulnerability most workers in the world face as they are left to face these consequences on their own. The pandemic has exposed an urgent need to guarantee income to cover basic needs and to provide universal access to social protection and healthcare to all. It has shown that occupational health and safety is fundamental to contain the spread of COVID-19 and that public services of quality are essential for resilience. However, this crisis also shows that the poorest countries in the world cannot provide for these necessary measures on their own. No recovery or resilience will be achieved if these countries are left behind. Thus, it is extremely important to set up a Global Fund for Social Protection that will enable the poorest countries to provide universal social protection to their populations. Finally, the pandemic also shows the urgent need to establish strong social dialogue structures within countries to efficiently steer national development efforts and contribute to global efforts to strengthen and improve multilateralism.

“The pandemic has destroyed over 250 million jobs worldwide and left 1.6 billion informal workers destitute. We need to create 575 million jobs to reach full employment, and we also need to formalise at least one billion informal jobs. Investing in a New Social Contract, with SDG 8 at its core, will help achieve that!” Sharan Burrow, Secretary General of the ITUC.

Finally, the pandemic also shows the urgent need to establish strong social dialogue structures within countries to efficiently steer national development efforts and contribute to global efforts to strengthen and improve multilateralism.



Trade unions assessed the transparency of the SDG implementation process within their countries based on two indicators: (1) their ability to access information on the process and its outcomes, its decision-making procedures, consultation meetings, policy documents, persons or institutions in charge and (2) their awareness of the reasoning behind the decision-making: clear explanations of how and why decisions are made.

The input provided by trade unions exposes clear limitations on transparency, with trade unions in 11 out of the 13 countries reporting some limitation on access to information on the SDG implementation process, with no access to any information at all in two cases – Thailand and Spain. The limitation on access to information took various forms, often meaning that it was provided in an ad hoc, fragmented manner, during meetings convened at short notice. In other cases, trade unions reported that that the fragmentation of the responsibilities for SDG implementation within government structures has meant that it was hard to come by coherent information, or the information provided was not up to date.


Multi-stakeholder consultations are vital to ensuring a truly participative implementation process, as foreseen in Agenda 2030. If the interests and perspectives of those impacted are not integrated into the policy-making process, the resulting policies and their implementation will simply not work for wider society, nor will they ensure that no one is left behind. Trade unions and civil society organisations have a key role to play in shaping policies that meet these demands.

Trade unions assessed consultation modalities available in their countries, with a special focus on the functioning of multi-stakeholder consultation platforms. Adequate consultation processes were in place in only four of the countries surveyed. In some countries, consultations lack structure and are organised on an ad hoc basis rather than systematically. In others, trade unions flagged disingenuous consultation processes: while branded as consultations, meetings were de facto one-way information sessions, where stakeholders’ input and recommendations were not taken on board. Most worryingly, four out of the 13 countries (Colombia, Namibia, Thailand and Pakistan) analysed have either no consultation process in place or effectively exclude trade unions from participating in it.

Social Dialogue

Social dialogue is a fundamental means of implementing the 2030 Agenda, and the use of tripartite or bipartite social dialogues to establish common positions between employers and workers has been shown to have a positive effect on achieving SDGs targets1. Social dialogue builds consensus among social partners, facilitates policy implementation and results in more inclusive policies. Shaping the world of work to meet the demands of the 2030 Agenda is fundamental to achieving each of the 17 SDGs, making it a crosscutting priority. However, trade union analysis highlights the insufficient integration of social dialogue into the planning and implementation process of the SDGs. In four of the 13 countries analysed, social partners were not involved at all in defining and implementing their government’s national SDG plan. Cases in which representatives of workers and employers are consulted together are still not common enough: this was the case in only five of the 13 countries surveyed. Even in these instances, trade unions report that discussions often tend to be fragmented, lack long-term planning and have a limited scope, focusing only on the implementation of SDG 8 rather than the interlinkages between decent work and the 2030 Agenda as a whole. In other countries, social partners are reporting not being seen as partners in SDG implementation by the government, with no discussion on the 2030 Agenda taking place in tripartite fora.

No trade union reported the existence of a tripartite entity to implement and monitor the SDGs, which would involve both social partners and decision makers.

Where are we at with...

Shared Economic Well-Being

Shared economic well-being means going beyond the purely quantitative aspects of GDP growth to analyse if and how economic progress is distributed and looking at the levels of inequality and poverty in each country. The findings of the country reports show that inequalities in wealth distribution are growing: Argentina, Colombia and Mexico are flagrant examples of this. Although these countries are considered upper-middle and high income, they have some of the highest levels of inequality, with the top 10 per cent of income earners holding between 32 to 40 per cent of wealth, and the lowest 20 per cent holding between four and five per cent; the size of their informal economies also stands near to or above 50 per cent. Similar levels of inequality are also present in certain African countries like Chad which, with an extremely high incidence of poverty and informality, had a growth rate of over three per cent in 2020. Concerningly, countries as diverse as Germany, Indonesia, Sweden and Zimbabwe – from different regions and with different income levels per capita – all reported increasing levels of inequalities.

Quality of Employment

The country report findings on quality of employment show particular challenges to the employment of youth and women. Countries as diverse as Chad, Colombia, Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand and Zimbabwe all reported levels of unemployment which were much higher among those between the ages of 15-24, and especially among women. Three countries stand out for their low share of quality jobs with decent wages: in Colombia, 56 per cent of workers earn less than the legal minimum wage; in Indonesia, the labour share of GDP had dropped from 39 in 2015 and 2016 to 38 per cent in 2017; and in Pakistan, 38 per cent of workers (and 75 per cent of female workers) earn less than two thirds of median hourly wages. High-income countries are also lagging behind: in Spain, the number of working poor increased by 16 per cent between 2010 and 2019. It is clear that it is not enough to promote job creation without ensuring the quality of employment through specific policies, including ones targeting youth and women.

Labour Vulnerability

Labour vulnerability includes exposure of workers to risks, under-protection and exclusion. Trade unions report particularly high proportions of youth not in education, employment or training (NEET) in Zimbabwe (45 per cent), Chad (37 per cent), Namibia (32 per cent) and Pakistan (31 per cent). In all cases, young women were significantly more likely to be NEET. In addition, the percentage of the population covered by at least one social protection instrument is only 9 per cent in Pakistan and an even more dire 2 per cent in Zimbabwe. Precariousness is a widespread and growing problem, concerning 93 per cent of jobs in Chad, 31 per cent in Namibia, 29 per cent in Argentina, 27 per cent in Mexico and 19 per cent Zimbabwe. In some countries, like Thailand, government agencies and state enterprises are themselves creating precarious working conditions. In Spain and Germany, unionisation rates have been declining in past years. This underlines the need to scale-up efforts on social protection and collective bargaining coverage around the world.

Labour Rights

Violations of labour rights remain rife, having occurred in six of the 13 countries analysed. These range from restrictions or a lack of guarantee of labour laws, as in Indonesia and Thailand, to restrictions on the operations of trade unions and to the persecution, criminalisation and imprisonment and/or violence against trade unionists, as in Chad, Colombia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Unsurprisingly, the 2020 ITUC Global Rights Index lists these countries as ones where there are either systematic violations of rights or no guarantee of rights at all. By suppressing workers’ rights, countries are seriously compromising the achievement of SDG 8 and the whole of the 2030 Agenda.


The world’s sustainability and social cohesion are at risk as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. As expressed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in support of a New Social Contract: “As we strive to recover from the pandemic and build a better world, we need to forge a new social contract based on inclusivity and sustainability.”

The challenge of limiting the damages while building forward better towards the implementation of the SDGs is greater than ever. There is an urgent need of changing the economic production and labour relations model and adopting social-minded policies to ensure a strong recovery for all.

Trade unions call on governments to ensure decent working conditions through adequate wages, respect of the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and protections for vulnerable workers. Decent living standards for all must be guaranteed through increased public spending and investment, strong social protection, universal healthcare coverage and access to housing and education. Tax systems needs to be reformed so as to ensure a fair taxation that lifts the burden off those most vulnerable and places it on the wealthiest while supporting the ecological transition process. The post-crisis recovery must focus on sustainable economic growth that prioritises decent job creation, environmental protection and a Just Transition for workers.

Furthermore, trade unions stress the need for transparency, with parliamentary and civil society oversight of the 2030 Agenda implementation as a key element to its success. Social partners must be involved in the implementation of the SDGs and monitoring of the progress of meeting their targets. Authorities at all levels, including local authorities and municipalities, must be included in this process. Finally, the allocation of adequate financial resources is key to realising the 2030 Agenda; ODA must be used to support sustainable development efforts.