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Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda will not deliver unless it creates decent work and fully includes trade unions and workers

21 November 2016
Habitat III

Over 70 people attended Habitat III’s Trade Union and Workers Roundtable held on 18 October 2016 by a joint international trade union and allies delegation headed by Public Services International (PSI) and Building and Woodworkers International (BWI).

Habitat IIIPSI and BWI were entrusted by the Council of Global Unions (CGU) with the mandate to lead HIII activities on behalf of the Trade Unions and Workers Group. The Roundtable was part of the official Habitat III Conference that took place in Quito, Ecuador, last 17-20 October. Since 2015, PSI has led critical advocacy and global policy work on HIII as part of its local and regional government sector work.

In line with PSI’s position on Habitat III, the Roundtable emphasized that cities will not be truly inclusive until all workers - including migrant workers - have decent work, safe and healthy working and living conditions, and are entitled to fundamental labour and human rights.  Workers represent the largest share of urban dwellers and are the engines of socio-economic integration and inclusive growth: they build the cities and keep them running but are often marginalized and in precarious working and living conditions. What they need are labour rights, decent working conditions, social protection and capacity-building.  Social inclusion, decent work and inclusive growth are among the transformative commitments of HIII’s final policy document, the New Urban Agenda (NUA): however, little is said about operationalization.

Habitat IIISpeakers at the Trade Unions and Workers Roundtable illustrated the critical connection between decent work, tax justice for financing essential urban public services, and urban socio-economic inclusion. They provided concrete, evidence-based policy tools and recommendations to make cities inclusive and fair through the operationalization of the NUA’s commitment to Decent Work.

The Roundtable delivered seven critical messages crucial for the implementation of the NUA:


Today there are 202 million people without jobs.  And those who are employed are often in precarious work, bogus self-employment, sub-contracted jobs, zero-hour contracts, unsafe work, jobs without social protection and jobs that do not pay a living wage that lock city workers into poverty both in the formal and in the informal economies. These jobs have no security and social benefits. Only Decent Work, as it is defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)  n.8, can make cities sustainably inclusive by empowering city dwellers to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, while contributing to local economic development, social protection and social security systems, and financing essential urban public services. The decent work deficit also is the critical factor behind the failure of many urban policies and real estate developments, as the working poor cannot afford to live in cities where they cannot make a living and are pushed into low-income segregated suburbs and slums. The NUA includes Decent Work as a key transformative commitment: to make it happen, the implementation needs to ensure that central and local authorities design, invest and implement active labour market policies at a local level together with social partners, labour unions and local business.

From the roundtable: Per Olof Sjoo’s, BWI President and President of the Swedish Forest and Workers Union

Trade Unions and the New Urban Agenda?

Habitat IIIWorkers are critical to the economic, sustainable, and cultural development of cities.  Workers build and power cities.  Workers service and maintain cities.  Workers are the engines of cities and it is our future that is at stake here in Habitat III.  For us the critical question is the implementation of a New Urban Agenda that will ensure the human and labour rights of workers.  And at the heart of it is the Decent Work Agenda. Cities will not be sustainable if the livelihoods of the all those who live and work are not embedded in policies and actions. This means the promotion and implementation of decent work policies.  The recognition of the value of decent work, which is now included in the New Urban Agenda, is an important step. However, now, it is critical for all to implement the specific commitments and concrete actions which will pro-actively promote decent work”.


Universal access to essential public services – including public spaces - has a major impact on equality among urban populations and is inextricably linked to the respect of human rights. These essential public services are the foundation blocks of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and must be publicly owned and managed. When market dynamics and profit maximization govern the provision of essential public services, the social and environmental sustainability objectives that public institutions have a duty and a mandate to pursue are distorted and are no longer achievable. Public resources and commons become endangered, transparency and democratic civic scrutiny are weakened and the overall economic and social costs to the community rise. Habitat II and now, 20 years later, Habitat III have overwhelmingly praised and presented the private sector and investors as the only viable provider of solutions to the shortage and financing of essential services such as water and sanitation, health care, energy and transportation in an increasingly urban world, and have done so by promoting public-private-partnerships (PPPs) and private investment. If UN Habitat is serious about delivering inclusive cities, it must acknowledge that over the past 20 years, privatization in these essential services has failed communities and must stop promoting the sellout of essential urban services to private, for-profit companies and operators: this is just not the way to go to uphold the NUA commitment to urban inclusion.  Effective alternatives to public-private partnerships are fully available and present many more advantages and efficiencies: these include remunicipalization, public-public partnerships and inter-municipal cooperation.

From the roundtable: Dr. Emanuele Lobina Principal Lecturer, Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), University of Greenwich, UK

The many advantages of public financing and management for the delivery of inclusive urban essential services

Habitat IIIPPPs in essential services are a de facto privatization of such services. PSIRU has carried out extensive research on the fitness of PPPs to deliver and we have consistently found that the public option is a much better, cost-effective, more viable, more equitable and inclusive, and democratically accountable option. When municipalities embrace PPPs they lose access and control of their cash flow, of process control and of the quality of the services delivered: this results in much higher, unpredictable costs and user and community complaints that municipalities can no longer adress as PPPs place service delivery control and know-how out of the hands of local authorities. Private sector financing cannot beat public sector financing, whose interest rates are much lower than any private investor can raise on the market. Besides, PPP operators have an interest in shifting all risk onto the public while privatizing gains and distributing them in dividends among shareholders. When essential services are public, profits are reinvested in the service to improve it or cut user costs. When PPPs come in, essential service jobs are externalised, headcount is reduced, pay and conditions are lowered and workload increases to squeeze resources out of the service into private profits: this is also a systematic destruction of decent jobs that is at odds with the NUA committments. Secrecy is also a systemic aspect of PPPs, as private companies call on secrecy on the grounds of commercial confidentiality and competition, and this goes hand in hand with corruption.  We are seeing a wave of remunicipalizations all over the world: while there were just 3 cases in 2000, in 2014 these jumped to 180 in water services only. This is the consequence of failed PPPs in essential services. The implementation of the NUA must have a much more critical eye on the adverse human right impacts and the increased inequality implications of pushing private capital involvement in essential services”.


The NUA requires sustainable public financing that encompasses the payment of a fair share of taxes by the private sector - including multinational corporations and large-scale investors - to the communities where they operate and generate profits. Local and regional authorities must be involved in national tax policy settings to ensure policy coherence and fight systematic tax avoidance that strips them of the essential resources they need for fostering inclusive sustainable economic urban development through ploicies and urban delivery. Municipal finance systems must be checked against progressive criteria in a view not to penalize already income-stretched dwellers and widen access to essential urban public services.

From the roundtable: Daria Cibrario, Policy Officer - Local and Regional Government Sector, PSI

Tax justice, the missing link to fair, inclusive cities

Habitat III“Tax justice is the big elephant in the room of the New Urban Agenda, the missing link to the implementation of its commitment to fair, inclusive cities. This critical issue has been largely omitted and understated in the HIII debates and it is now out of the NUA text. While everyone agrees that local and regional authorities and cities are at the forefront of the implementation of the SDGs, of COP21, of the Sendai Framework and of the ILO Decent Work Agenda and have daunting challenges ahead of them linked to rapid urbanization when it comes to funding such challenges HIII proposed solutions have been poor and mostly regressive. These include increases in user charges, city benchmarking and borrowing on the stock market, service digitalization, and measures to increase public sector ‘efficiency’, which often comes down to eliminating jobs, lowering public sector workers conditions and privatizing essential urban services even when much better options are available.  HIII has largely embraced a vision of cities that should ‘compete with each other like companies’ – including via city-based tax-based competition - is at odds with a vision of socially and economically inclusive cities. Cities are for people to live, not for profit. Cities and local authorities are the engine of local and national development, yet they are stripped of the resources they need to service their communities and operate essential municipal services. Why is that? No mention has been made in official HIII talks of the estimated 30USD trillion hidden in tax heavens - 12 of which come from developing countries - on which global business and investors have failed to pay a fair share of tax back to the communities in which that profit was made. No mention was made of the fact that the public sector – aka the taxpayer – rescued banks from failure in the 2008 financial crisis with 1900 USD billion and that, while HIII talks about scrapping the bottom of the municipal finance barrel, trade talks such as TISA and TTP are seeking to include Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses that will further weaken local government’s ability to raise resources through progressive taxation and deplete public resources. Missing tax has real consequences on people’s lives: PSI estimated that the 3.7billion tax that US companies avoid paying in Brazil could employ each year 100,000 teachers. The 7.1 billion tax bill missing from US corporations in Germany could fund 100,000 new social workers. A NUA implementation financed via PPPs, private banks, intra-city tax competition, increased service user fees and regressive municipal fiscal systems will fail the NUA commitment to inclusive cities. This is why PSI calls for fairness and transparency in global corporate and private wealth taxation (country-by-country reporting) in line with the ICRICT Declaration. PSI also calls on holding central governments accountable for tax and trade policies such as TiSA, TPP, and CETA that affect local government ability to raise progressive local finance and demands a place at the table for local authorities in settlement negotiations with multinational corporations and foreign investors. Additional progressive instruments to ensure the solid public financing of the NUA include strengthening, tax inspectors and public auditors to recover avoided tax, revamping public borrowing and public banks systems, a progressive check on new municipal taxes and fiscal systems and an integrated approach to fighting corruption in the implementation of the NUA, including guaranteeing whistleblower protection”.


The NUA implementation needs to encompass the respect of social, labour and environmental standards from builders and suppliers via social and labour standard clauses in public procurement contracts. Local governments play a major role in ensuring decent work for all workers as they are both employers of public workers and major clients of the building and construction industry, as well as the stewards of the local population. Local governments can leverage their purchasing power to safeguard basic labour and social standards through their procurement policies, which would compel companies to exercise responsible labour, social and environmental standards affecting all workers on site. 

From the roundtable: Gunde Odgaard, Gunde Odgaard, Executive Director, Batkartellet, Denmark

Labour clauses in Public procurement: the big absent of the New Urban Agenda

Habitat IIIIf the NUA wants to ensure that building and infrastructure work are fair to city workers, protect the community, are built in compliance with life-saving Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) standards for the workers and the community, generate decent employment opportunity and build long-term employability through vocational training, it must encourage the inclusion of labour rights and working conditions clauses in municipal public contracts and it must work closely with labour unions. These clauses make it mandatory for contractors to provide formal employment and safe, decent working conditions to city workers employed in building sites and related services, and halt lengthy, dangerous and worker-squeezing labour subcontracting chains. Sixty-two (62) Danish cities have already done so including Copenhagen and the results are tangible: the municipality gets better value for money, while workers have formal contracts and social protection, get adequately skilled to provide quality building and infrastructures and work in safe conditions. This greatly benefits workers’ families and the local economy by fostering urban socio-economic inclusion. It also benefits business as when labour clauses are implemented, contractors who play by the rules get more work and a good reputation, those who compete unfairly by lowering costs by squeezing the workers get a compelling incentive to change their practices or are driven out of the market. When municipalities embrace this system, they benefit from the permanent, effective on-site monitoring and compliance system that is provided by trade unions, whose representative on building sites can assess, inform and rectify contractor’s breaches in the municipality’s interest”.


The access and provision of gender-responsive urban public services is a pre-requisite for the fulfilment of women’s human rights and to bridge the gender inequality gap in three different ways: first, full access to essential public services like reproductive and sexual health information and services is critical to the protection of women’s and girls’ bodily integrity. This encompasses the right to access publicly available and accessible services providing contraception, family planning, information and professional counselling about sexually transmissible diseases; protection from imposed mutilations and medical procedures without adequate information and consent; the right to freely and autonomous decision-making sexuality; as well as freedom from sexist and sexual harassment and attacks. Second, public services such as transportation, sanitation, child, elderly and disabled care facilities, kindergardens as well as social protection, public education and training are essential to women’s economic security as they are necessary for women to access decent work opportunities. Finally, without access to public services like child care and crèches, social protection, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, child or disability subsidies and elderly care, which reduce the domestic work and family care burden that overwhelmingly falls on women, there cannot be a truly equitable redistribution of care and a rebalancing of household responsibilities between genders. Gender-sensitive urban public services are necessary to trigger a cultural shift in favour of women and to help break the poverty cycle.

From the roundtable: Veronica Montúfar, Gender Equality Officer, PSI

Gender-responsive public services: a pre-requisite for the socio-economic inclusion of women and girls in cities

Habitat III"Women are both primary users of essential public services and the main providers of such services, in their capacity of workers of the public sector, where they are overwhelmingly represented. Women and girls are primary users of health care for themselves and family members including children, the elderly and the disabled - of whom they often are the primary carers - and because of their longer life expectancy. Essential services like child care, elderly care and home and community-based social services are pre-requisites to ensure women’s access to labour market and to realize their economic potential. Having access to water, electricity, waste services dramatically reduces women’s time used for chores freeing it up for productive work and higher education. Adequate sanitation is essential to protect women and girls from harm and to uphold their human rights to privacy and freedom from sexual harassment and assault. Social housing is critical for single-income and poor women-led households: women represent the majority lone parents and many of them end up in slums or in segregated areas of cities. Likewise, public shelters and social services are a necessity for spouses and children victims of domestic and gender-based violence. Women and girls also rely on public transport much more than men to go to work and access essential services such as health care. Access to leisure centres, public parks and equipped public spaces are also critical for women with or without children. The outsourcing, PPPs, privatisation and lack of investment in urban public services such as water, sanitation, transport and the privatization of public spaces results in user cost increases, while it reduces the availability and quality of those services, it takes a heavy toll on gender parity, resulting into unwanted pregnancies, energy poverty, and walking or biking long distances for women to go to work and for girls to go to school. Under such conditions, women and girls living in urban outskirts, slums or rural areas and commuting become especially vulnerable and locked into urban poverty”.


City and public workers and their trade unions are the forefront of the promotion of innovative, sustainable and socially inclusive urban policies and are critical at times of local government reforms and disasters, such earthquakes and floods. Cities and local governments are not abstract entities: they are made up of working people, and only skilled, well trained local and regional government staff with decent working and living conditions and with access to adequate resources can sustainably deliver quality public services to the communities they serve and can successfully confront the many challenges posed by rapid urbanization. While elected local government representatives change with political cycles, professional local public servants often stay on and their work is critical to secure continuity, coherence and long-term sustainability of urban policy implementation. It is therefore essential that the New Urban Agenda implementation framework protects and promotes the labour rights of local government workers to organize and bargain collectively (in line with ILO C. 151 on Employment Relations in the Public Service), to be free from the threat of unfair dismissal, and that it supports skill building, employability and long life learning measures and that promotes the category professionalization, so that local and regional government workers are empowered to develop and implement innovative, constructive and sustainable solutions to make cities socially inclusive and safe for all city dwellers.

From the roundtable: Helene Davis-Whyte, General Secretary, Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers (JALGO)

The critical role of trade unions in meeting local government challenges: experiences from the Caribbean

Habitat IIIThe role of public sector trade unions was critical in ensuring that the government reform conditionality attached to the adjustment programme imposed by the IMF on Jamaica in 2013 was designed and implemented in an accountable and efficient way that minimized negative impact on the central and local government and on the Jamaican people. Through its local government worker members, our union JALGO has issued concrete viable proposals to the government and together, through constructive negotiations and dialogue, we designed a public sector cost-reduction roadmap demanded by the IMF which is not focused on headcount cuts as it would have been otherwise. Local government could see the value and expertise unions brought to the table and we have since continued to engage on local government policies and legislation”.

From the roundtable: Parshuram Pudasaini, Union of Public Services of Nepal

The critical role of trade unions in meeting local government challenges: experiences from Nepal

Habitat III2015 was a critical year for Nepal: we faced a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Nearly 9 000 people lost their lives and more than 25 000 people were critically injured. 500 000 homes collapsed and thousands of people are still homeless and continue to live in temporary shelters.

We lost around 6 billion US dollars in national economy. We got a new constitution through a constituent assembly and process. In 2014 we only had 58 municipalities, and now - through decentralization - we have reached 217. We have to rebuild Nepal and the reconstruction process is going on. There is no doubt trade unions are a constructive force and decisive stakeholders in this process and need to be fully involved and we are a also a critical agent of participatory democracy. Thanks to unions involvement, reconstruction talks in Nepal are now also about inclusive cities and fair urbanization. We strongly support and express our endorsement of the Trade Unions and Workers group position on Habitat III Ten key points for an inclusive New Urban Agenda’ and we urge these points are concretely fulfilled in the implementation of the NUA”.


When gentrification and real estate speculation, poor social housing and integration policies and the privatization and commercialization of public spaces in urban settings meet socio-economic exclusion and forced evictions, they create an explosive mix that pushes vulnerable communities to the margins of cities and generates urban ghettos and slums. These socially-segregated, informal settlements reproduce socio-economic inequality and create a vicious circle of informal employment perpetuating inter-generational poverty, illiteracy and lack of skills and education and increasing social unrest and threats to public health and public security. Slums are worse hit urban areas when disaster and extreme climate events strike. Often it is the same workers who build and serve cities on a daily basis (e.g. waste collectors, builders, bus drivers, teachers, nurses, etc.) who cannot afford to live close to their workplace and commute long hours at their own high cost. Public housing deficits and unaddressed socio-economic issues related to informal settlements are a major threat to fair cities and to an inclusive New Urban Agenda.

From the roundtable: Mike Davis, International Alliance of Inhabitants, Anglophone African Region Coordinator

Fighting socio-economic urban segregation: public investment in social housing, local participatory democracy and decent work for urban dwellers

Habitat IIIThe International Alliance of Inhabitants (IAH) is a global housing rights network working to defend the rights of all people to safe and secure housing in cities, primarily by helping those who face forced evictions to speak out in their own voices, unfiltered by experts or NGOs, to link with others who are facing or have faced the same threats and exchange experiences to learn ways of resistance. Our primary concern is combatting forced evictions around the world, which are almost entirely inflicted upon poor worker communities with little conventional political power. It has become an overwhelmingly common practice for elites to extract wealth at the expenses of people's livelihoods and households. The destruction of favelas in Brazil, workers’ neighbourhoods in London and of Tokyo’s poorer neighbourhoods for the Olympics, the eviction of ancient communities to create hunting parks in Africa for Middle East princes or the relocation of millions in China to provide cheap power for urban industrialists: these are just few examples of the many evictions that are ongoing all over the world based on the idea that it is fine for economic and financial elites - together with the political powers they captured - to pursuit their private profit interests in infrastructure and real estate development, regardless of the impacts on urban communities, workers and families. We share with unions the fight for the social justice for the most disadvantaged urban dwellers and we reclaim their human right to decent housing and the right to the city through strengthening community voices, participatory democracy and supporting local struggles with global solidarity. So, for us, the struggle is really how can we redistribute political power away from elites to communities, to neighbourhoods, to citizens and urban dwellers, all of whom work, often in extremely precarious, informal and indecent conditions. It is the position of the IAI that social public housing is a core foundation of inclusive cities. Only once people have the dignity and the sense of belonging that comes with a decent housing can they address other burning issues in their lives and in their communities, and have a better chance to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and contribute to a vibrant, sustainable local economy. It is through exerting pressure together – community groups, labour unions, progressive mayors that we can hold governments accountable and demand fair tax systems based on equity and justice so that we can sustainably finance universal quality public services for all - including social housing -  and ensure access to services, security of tenure, decent work, affordable public transport and all those things that are necessary to ensure dignified lives for all urban dwellers”.


From the roundtable: Giovanni Di Cola, Special Adviser, Office of the Deputy Director General, International Labour Organization (ILO)

Closing remarks

Habitat IIIIn the aftermath of HIII it will be critical for UN Habitat to include trade unions and workers in the governance system and implementation architecture on the same footing as social partners, local governments and business in a view to uphold the transforming commitment to socially inclusive cities. For example, good practices at a local government level in this sense already exist in Sweden and Denmark. Securing and locking in the democratic participation of workers and trade unions through legislation is a critical step in the right direction towards inclusive cities”.

Habitat III

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