Dr Teal’s article implies that the decent work approach is a western-imposed model but the reality is that African governments, unions and employers’ organizations have been closely involved in its development for more than 10 years and are amongst its most enthusiastic supporters. Why? Because African workers don’t need any work they need decent work.
Africa is not short of jobs. Its employment to working age ratio is 70% compared with 60% for Europe and the USA. It’s just that the bulk are unproductive jobs that mean that around half of adult men and
women cannot earn enough to keep themselves and their families above the $2 a day poverty line.
How do we raise the earning power of the poorest? The basic answer is more hours or more productive use of existing hours or some combination of the two.
It should be noted that employed people are not the principle determiners of the share of productivity they achieve. Employers determine wages within a framework that may include statutory obligations such as a minimum wage or contractual obligations such as a collective agreement. However few of the poorest in the poorest countries are able to benefit from either form of influence on their earnings at present.
A big share of the poorest are own account workers and their families. Globally in these two occupational categories we find most small farmers and micro businesses in the urban informal economy. In Sub-Saharan Africa round three quarters of workers are in these categories. Their cash incomes depend on the prices they charge for their production – again a factor largely beyond their control.
Effort and reward for the poorest are weakly linked. But aggregate trends in productivity may give us some idea of the potential for the poorest to raise their earning power. For Africa it is just over 2% per worker per year.
Increasing hours of work may be possible as time underemployment is a feature of life for many of the poorest – casual labourers, street vendors, and small farmers in the “hungry” season. However, the working poor are undernourished and prone to illness. Underemployment is thus both a cause and a consequence of poverty.
Escaping the trap requires some form of basic social protection for the major contingencies. The social protection floor as articulated most recently by the Bachelet report could provide a route out of extreme poverty and into more productive work for the poorest. It need not be a big charge on GDP – the ILO has estimated that between 2-4% of GDP in an LDC can make a big dent on extreme poverty – but will require a tax system that generates revenues from the most productive sectors to transfer to the weakest primarily as a social and economic investment but partly as an act of social solidarity.
Overall the strategy should be to raise the productivity of the poorest workers within an overall sustainable development approach. It will need to make sure that they get to keep most of their increased earning power by strengthening labour market institutions.
Yes, this may take decades. And that is where the concept of decent work comes in. It is all about realistically ambitious progress and uniting governments, employers, unions and foreign aid to steadily build up the institutions needed to ensure that African workers can work their way out of poverty and earn a decent living.
Decent work is inspirational but relevant to Africa of today and tomorrow. We cannot legislate overnight and expect changes the next day. But just because it is not easy does not mean Africa should accept what is unacceptable elsewhere. Decent work is a practical way to change the unacceptable realities. There is a reason why the world condemns child labour, forced labour, repression of workers’ rights, gender inequalities, discrimination at work, long hours of work, etc. These are the values that the decent work agenda is all about, and which the international community promotes because they are basic human rights of everyone on the planet.
Trying to justify that bad jobs are good for Africa is like glorifying the excesses of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. I am sure Dickens would have been a standard bearer for decent work!
Decent work provides a route out of poverty and social exclusion. The decent work objectives are not a luxury, but are complementary to the development process. In times of crisis, social protection systems play an essential role as automatic counter-cyclical economic stabilizers by alleviating the fall in aggregate demand. Small and medium enterprises as well as skills development are some of the offshoots of the decent work agenda, which guarantee sustainable livelihoods for millions.
Having worked for the Uganda government, the national trade union federation, the international confederation of free trade unions and now the ILO, I have seen decent work in action – changing lives. The answer is not in more bad jobs for poor Africans, but in more decent jobs. As stated by the African Heads of State and Government of the African Union, meeting at the 3rd Extraordinary Session of our Assembly in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in September 2004, when they committed themselves to “place employment creation as an explicit and central objective of our economic and social policies at national, regional and continental levels, for sustainable poverty alleviation and with a view to improving the living conditions of our people”, the decent work agenda will make the difference for Africa.
To make the case, there is need for voice so that people can make a difference in their lives. This is what strong workers’ and employers’ organizations guarantee through social dialogue.