Dignified Work – What is it? And why is it crucial for women’s economic empowerment?

by 15th Nov 2016
Workers in the garment industry in Cambodia Workers in the garment industry in Cambodia

CARE’s strategy on Women’ s Economic Empowerment includes a commitment to Dignified Work. Many of those who work on workers’ rights might question what we mean – how does this compare to the well-established notion of Decent Work, as exemplified by the ILO’s Decent Work agenda? How is Dignified Work different from Decent Work?

Put simply, dignified work is significantly wider in scope. It is not designed to be a competing concept to Decent Work, but a complementary one which is CARE’s contribution to SDG 8 (“Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”) and is the ‘work’ element of our approach to women’s economic empowerment.

The Decent Work agenda focuses strongly on the workplace, and social protection for workers:

"Decent work is defined by the ILO … as productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Decent work involves opportunities for work that: is productive and delivers a fair income; provides security in the workplace and social protection for workers and their families; offers prospects for personal development and encourages social integration; gives people the freedom to express their concerns, to organize and to participate in decisions that affect their lives; and guarantees equal opportunities and equal treatment for all." (From the ILO’s Toolkit for mainstreaming employment and decent work)

CARE’s concept of Dignified Work is of course deeply concerned with this Decent Work agenda, but our core concept of women’s economic empowerment is of women having access to and control over decent work and its reward. This requires us to go beyond the workplace, and indeed social protection, in two significant ways.

The importance of access

While it is clearly important that employers do not discriminate in who they employ, women face many other issues before they can have the same access to the world of work as men do. For instance, in developing CARE’s social enterprise JITA, which hires poor women as sales agents in rural Bangladesh, women were teased by their neighbours for violating the practice of purja, which forbids women from working in public. Such daily attitudes and norms can be a major barrier to entering the world of work for women who live in remote communities and have few opportunities to engage with people other than their immediate family.

And of course every woman understands the impacts of the unequal distribution of the unpaid burden of care, whether it is looking after children or elderly relatives. As the first report of the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment states, “women undertake three times more unpaid work than men and spend about half as much time in paid work”. CARE therefore believes that we need to engage men and boys to make this care burden more equitably distributed.

The even greater importance of control

In many ways, blockages to access to jobs, wages, assets are more obvious injustices, when compared to the issues that get in the way of women being able to control those wages and assets. Here again attitudes and norms play a major role, but very much within the household, where women might be expected to hand over earnings to a husband, partner, father.

But even where the woman appears to have more immediate control over her earnings, she is often faced with the expectation, and the sense of duty, that her income will almost entirely be used for the shelter, food, education and health of other family members in a manner that male earnings are not expected to be. (This is the corollary of the ‘instrumental’ argument for women’s economic empowerment, that women having greater access to and control over resources leads to better development outcomes for their children – see for example page 5 of the World Development Report 2012, Gender equality and development.)

And even where both partners share the burden of household costs, very often the husband makes the key financial decisions without reference to the women in the household.

Dignified Work – The way forward

CARE now has two major initiatives addressing the Dignified Work agenda. (Updated October 2019:) The first is our work in Latin America supporting domestic workers. The second is working across the garment industry, primarily in Asia, to have a positive impact on millions of women workers in both formal and informal employment.

Ensuring women have much better access to Decent Work, that they control their earnings from that work, and that they have an effective voice in all these issues, are major steps to achieving SDG 8 and economic empowerment for millions of the world’s women workers.

Gerry Boyle

Gerry led CARE International UK’s policy analysis and advocacy around value chains and dignified work. He originally joined CARE as the Senior Policy Adviser on Private Sector Engagement. With the advent of our new Global Programme Strategy which put a particular emphasis on women’s economic empowerment, his focus changed a little.

Gerry co-chaired the Bond Private Sector Working Group. Immediately before he joined CARE he worked for Oxfam as Head of Business Relations for about three years, but the vast majority of his career was spent as a management consultant including being a consulting Partner at Deloitte, where for a time he led Deloitte UK’s Consumer Business consulting practice, serving many major multinationals. Gerry's original degree was in Law from Oxford University, and in 2008 when he left Deloitte he did an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy at LSE.

One good thing I've read

Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom. It provides a framework for many people’s modern understanding of what is development, based on a profoundly human-centred approach rather than anything instrumental. And to check whether one personally is doing enough to fight poverty, I recommend Peter Singer’s The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty – it’s very clear and easy to read but very challenging! Finally, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: Rich nations, poor policies, and the threat to the developing world is a very readable guide to economic development which argues strongly against many of the prevailing orthodoxies.

Twitter: @gerryboyle10