Inequality is more than the ever-expanding gulf between rich and poor. It is a barrier to human advancement and dignity, the byproduct of a globalization model that treats people like commodities.
Pernicious economic and social inequality is most obvious where the rights of working people are most denied. And no effort to mitigate inequality within and among countries will succeed without a committed movement to protect and bolster those rights.
For workers, particularly the very vulnerable -- e.g., women, migrants, minorities and the impoverished -- inequality manifests around the world in low-wage and unpredictable jobs, exploitive or dangerous workplaces, discrimination, forced labor and even violence. Inequality ensures that the children of the working poor follow in their parents' footsteps. And inequality forces women and men to leave their families and seek work in places where their legal remedies are few and threats to their health, safety and, sometimes, freedom can be many.
Years ago, during a visit to Kuwait University, I met a woman stocking dormitory rooms with towels. Originally from India, she asked me what I had seen in Kuwait City. She told me she had not been allowed to leave the women's dormitory courtyard -- encircled by high concrete walls -- in two years. And even though her husband drove a taxi in the city, she had not seen him in as many years, as men were not permitted on the dormitory grounds. I learned she had paid a lot of money to a recruiter to get the job in Kuwait and was literally trapped by her debt.
Today women and men from across Asia still travel to the Middle East for jobs because none exist where they live. This despite the fact that migrant workers are chronic scapegoats for all manner of problems countries may face -- targets of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and violence. Recent revelations of slave-labor camps and mass graves of migrant workers in Southeast Asia demonstrate the risks people will take to try to earn a living -- and underscore how impossible it will be to fix inequality while migrants' lives seem to carry so little value.
People migrate for work to improve earning opportunities and build a better life. They do so, both legally and without work visas, at great economic and human cost. They pay exorbitant fees to recruiters, which they cover by selling property or taking out high-interest loans, in a bizarre practice where the poor must pay for the jobs that often land them in debt bondage. They move to places where labor laws seldom protect them and social safety nets do not cover them, so when they are abused or injured on the job, they have no legal recourse. Meanwhile the hard-working women cleaning houses, cooking meals and raising other peoples' kids far from their homes are often forced to leave their own children behind because of laws discriminating against low-wage women. In essence, being "low wage" and "migrant" sentences them to a life separated from their loved ones. We can do better.
This is why the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to reduce inequality is so important -- and, yet, not ambitious enough. Social, economic and political inclusion are rooted in access to and empowerment through human rights. Income growth happens when working people can demand decent pay for decent work, not when they are paying labor brokers. Discriminatory laws fall when citizens can hold their government accountable, not when they are spending all their time trying to find enough work, anywhere, to survive.
It is an opportunity and a challenge that the global community has focused on decreasing the chasm between the haves and the have nots, the powerful and the powerless. I hope we begin by ensuring equality of rights.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 10.