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What is in and what is not for workers in the final text of the New Urban Agenda: a trade union assessment of the outcome document of Habitat III

26 May 2017
In October 2016, over 30,000 representatives of national, regional and local governments, trade unions, business, academia, and civil society gathered in Quito, Ecuador, for the Habitat III Conference (HIII), where state representatives adopted the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the UN guidelines meant to serve as a reference for urbanization policies for the next 20 years.

The NUA comes at the end of a long trail of global commitments and agreements: the Decent Work Agenda of the International Labour Organization (ILO); the UN Sustainable Development Goals; the Addis Ababa Action Agenda for Financing for Development;  the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction; and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (COP21). While the NUA is the least well known of these agreements, it is the one that most closely relates to the concrete operationalization of global commitments, which all require local implementation on the ground.

Since the onset of the HIII process, trade unions have expressed clearly that to make cities fair, and for urbanization to result in lasting socio-economic inclusion while reducing poverty and inequality, workers must be placed at the heart of the Agenda, and commitments and urban policies must find root in the Decent Work framework of the International Labour Organization (ILO), also consistent with SDG Goal 8.  If city workers’ livelihoods are precarious, unsustainable and deprived of basic human rights, the cities they operate in and bring to life every day will be unsustainable and unfair.

A global PSI delegation comprising LRG/Municipal union representatives from Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Nepal, PSI HO staff and PSIRU experts took an active role in the final conference in Quito, Ecuador that took place 17-20 October 2016. PSI led the official Trade Unions and Workers’ Group Roundtable for which it had received a mandate by the Council of Global Unions together with BWI. The PSI delegation proactively advocated and promoted the 10 points of the PSI Position on HIII ‘For fair, inclusive cities’ and held speaking roles in five high level events organized by UN Habitat, the ILO, Action Aid, GWOPA and Communitas. These covered the subjects of urban jobs and livelihoods, PPPs for urban infrastructures, urban governance in the post-HIII agenda, and gender-responsive public services and spaces in cities.

The PSI delegation also organized the ‘Cities for people, not for profit’ event in the HIII counter-forum held by civil society groups and Ecuadorean affiliates (Resistencia a HIII) that took place at the Universidad Central de Ecuador, the largest public university in the country, in collaboration with local PSI affiliates and with the International Alliance of Inhabitants.  The  alternative forum featured more than 100 events, among which the 5th Session of the International Tribunal on Evictions, a people’s public court that every year examines cases of forced evictions of slums, indigenous or poor dwellers’ settlements, often with the aim to use the land for commercial gain in private real estate development plans. The Forum issued a Final Declaration of the Resistance to HIII and was particularly critical of the approach embraced by the official UN HIII Forum, notably its adoption of a neoliberal development approach reliant on real estate, housing businesses and private investment leading to gentrification and urban segregation, as opposed to the vision of an urban future grounded in the right to housing, the right to the city, in universal access to public services and spaces, and in the respect of human rights.

What workers and trade unions got in the New Urban Agenda

What has ended in the final text of the NUA is far from trade unions’ demands and recommendations. PSI delivered an official statement on behalf of the Trade Unions and Workers’ Group in the plenary of the HIII Conference, which highlighted the serious shortcomings and omissions of the final document.


In spite of the evident omissions, limitations, general statements of principles and compromising nature of the NUA, some transformative commitments stand out that can be claimed and used by the workers and the labour movement.

A clear commitment to “full and productive employment and decent work for all, by ensuring the creation of decent jobs and equal access for all to economic and productive resources and opportunities” (art. 14b and art. 57) mandates the operationalization and monitoring of the NUA’s transformative commitment to generate decent employment in cities and local communities – including in relation with environmental sustainability measures (art. 75) -  and the promotion of “an enabling, fair and responsible business environment” (art. 58) that acknowledges the special challenges faced by SMEs and micro-enterprises.  

The commitment to facilitate “a progressive transition of workers and economic units to the formal economy” for the “working poor in the informal economy, particularly women, including unpaid, domestic and migrant workers” (art. 59 NUA) is a positive step to ensure access to a social protection floor to all workers and a prerequisite for inclusive economic development.

The NUA makes a commitment (although inconsistent) to the promotion of public services under art. 55 “promoting access to adequate, inclusive and quality public services”; art. 88 “provision of public services, water and sanitation, health, environment, energy, housing and mobility policies”; art. 96 “urban-rural partnerships and inter-municipal cooperation mechanisms (…) for performing municipal and metropolitan administrative tasks, delivering public services and promoting both local and regional development”; and art. 114 a “a significant increase in accessible, safe, efficient, affordable and sustainable infrastructure for public transport, as well as non-motorized options such as walking and cycling, prioritizing them over private motorized transportation”.

When it comes to strengthening municipal fiscal systems and resources, the NUA pledges to “support effective, innovative and sustainable financing frameworks and instruments enabling strengthened municipal finance and local fiscal systems in order to create, sustain and share the value generated by sustainable urban development in an inclusive manner” (art. 15 iv);  and acknowledges “the importance of ensuring that all financial means of implementation are firmly embedded in coherent policy frameworks and fiscal decentralization processes” (art 130). Signatories also commit to supporting the “creation of robust legal and regulatory frameworks for sustainable national and municipal borrowing” (art. 139) and to “promote sound and transparent systems for financial transfers from national Governments to subnational and local governments based on the latter’s needs, priorities, functions, mandates” (art. 135).

On the capacity building of local and regional government, provisions are made in terms of “delivering urban planning and design and the provision of training for urban planners at the national, subnational and local levels” (art. 102); and of “enhancing financial management capacities at all levels of government” (art. 131). Specific local government capacity building commitments are made in the case of public water and sanitation under art. 120 (“equip public water and sanitation utilities with the capacity to implement sustainable water management systems (…) with the goal of progressively eliminating inequalities and promoting both universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all and adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all” and disaster risk anticipation and mitigation (art. 101).

Gender issues are well highlighted and acknowledged as a prerequisite for making cities inclusive. Relevant wording includes: “decent work for women, equal pay for equal work, and the empowerment of women and girls in urban settings” (art.13); the need for “gender-responsive urban policies infrastructures and services” (art. 77, 92); the call to ensure that “public spaces are safe, accessible and free from sexual harassment and gender-based violence” (art.100).

Finally, while no comprehensive anti-corruption framework is envisaged and there is no clear mention of the necessity to include social and labour clauses in public procurement contracts – a truly missed opportunity for the NUA - both anti-corruption measures and fair procurement are mentioned in the text in conjunction with capacity building under Arts. 138 and 151.

The NUA also makes an important reference to “the Right to the City” in its “shared vision” (art. 11). Elaborated by British geographer David Harvey, the Right to the City is an important conceptual framework for inclusive urbanization that claims that equitable, universal and participatory access to the benefits and opportunities offered by cities are a collective right of each inhabitant, regardless of their status, origin or income. This coincides with the PSI’s position on Habitat III. Cities such as Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Barcelona are strong advocates of the Right to the City, promoted by the Global Platform to the Right of the City and by the UCLG adopted it in 2011..

Although the above-mentioned commitments remain very general, they give strong ground to trade unions to demand central, subnational and local governments to fulfil them, holding them accountable for implementation and to claim full involvement in their operationalization, governance and follow-up review mechanisms.

Caveats on the New Urban Agenda

While direct references to public-private partnerships as the main option to fund the NUA implementation have been significantly watered down in the final text, an overreliance on private investment, the private sector and business to solve the global infrastructure and essential services investment deficit still permeates the whole document (art. 132, 133, 140).

Art. 134 includes potentially dangerous references to “local taxes, fees and service charges” and a means for local government to raise revenues for NUA implementation, whereas PSI has warned against the risks of such approach and has explored alternative progressive municipal fiscal systems options. Art. 135 evokes “performance-based incentives” for intergovernmental resource transfers from central to subnational and local government that carry a risk of breaking inter-territorial solidarity. Rather than openly promoting these policies, references to vague “appropriately regulatory frameworks” appear in the NUA so that the governance issues related to the involvement of private interests in public services and infrastructures (art. 91); of municipal borrowing on the private market (art. 139); and on private mobility services for urban public transport (art. 116) seem adequately addressed.

The NUA’s silence on systemic issues at the root of the urban inequality and exclusion (the gentrification and commercialization of public commons; the privatization of essential public services and public space; the power of multinational corporations and private capital over urban development and policies; lack of rights, precarious work and poor wages) is proxy to the many private interests at stake in the implementation of the NUA, especially when it  comes to infrastructure building, housing and the provision of public services. It is therefore no surprise that the World Economic Forum has launched a pro-public-private partnerships report – more worryingly prefaced by Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN Habitat – that claim that “PPPs are a pre-requirement for addressing urban demands” in services and infrastructures. PSI has long known and shown the poor performance of 20 years of public-private partnerships in delivering essential public services to cities and local communities that is now increasingly being acknowledged within sections of the UN, the World Bank and the IMF.

Even more worryingly for trade unions, there is no mention of collective bargaining and social dialogue in this text. “Trade unions” (art. 48) and “workers” (art. 20) appear only once in general terms in the whole NUA text among a list of catch-all “civil society stakeholders.” Rather than recognising their critical role as social partners along with governments and business, the suggestion is simply to involve them in the implementation of the NUA.

While multi-stakeholder dialogue platforms that include trade unions are important, these spaces cannot replace bi- and tripartite collective bargaining mechanisms. By ensuring constructive dialogue and negotiations leading to binding agreements between worker representatives, business and government on working conditions and broader macro-economic policy issues that directly affect local communities and local economic development, collective bargaining is one of the most powerful mechanisms to fight poverty and inequality, bridge the gender pay gap and contribute to the inclusion of vulnerable groups, such as precarious and informal economy workers. The NUA has totally missed that.

UN Habitat need to fully include trade unions in the governance system for the implementation and follow up of the NUA along with business and governments, who are their social partners and natural counterparts. The NUA will not deliver fair cities and equitable outcomes unless workers and their trade unions are equally involved and represented as business interests.

Public sector unions in local and regional government need to be particularly vigilant to scrutiny, by monitoring and denouncing cases in which the NUA will be used to the advantage of private interest rather than the public interest of public service users and local communities. Trade unions must also  demand compliance with their fundamental right to bargain collectively for their working conditions with their local and regional government employers.

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