In­ter­view: Ae­neas Chuma, ILO re­gional direc­tor for Africa

— Ae­neas Chuma

Africa Renewal - - Contents -

Un­til re­cently, ris­ing de­mands for African com­modi­ties boosted most of the re­gion’s economies. Yet un­em­ploy­ment, es­pe­cially among the youth, re­mains high. Africa Re­newal’s Franck Ku­wonu spoke with Ae­neas Chuma, the head of the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion (ILO) in Africa, about the state of em­ploy­ment and other labour chal­lenges fac­ing the re­gion.

Africa Re­newal: What would you say are the ILO’s ma­jor achieve­ments in Africa to date?

Ae­neas Chuma: There are sev­eral, start­ing from es­tab­lish­ing in­ter­na­tional labour stan­dards and strength­en­ing part­ners in im­ple­ment­ing them. We have also pro­moted de­cent work in re­sponse to the poverty, in­equal­ity and un­em­ploy­ment that Africa faces. We sup­port good work­ing re­la­tions be­tween em­ploy­ers, work­ers and gov­ern­ments. We have worked hand in hand with the African Union Com­mis­sion since 1965 to pro­mote de­cent work which is a ma­jor route out of poverty. De­cent work—work that is pro­duc­tive and de­liv­ers a fair in­come, se­cu­rity in the work­place and so­cial pro­tec­tion for fam­i­lies, bet­ter prospects for per­sonal devel­op­ment and so­cial in­te­gra­tion, free­dom for peo­ple to ex­press their con­cerns, or­ga­nize and par­tic­i­pate in the de­ci­sions that af­fect their lives and equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity and treat­ment for all women and men—should be at the core of ev­ery devel­op­ment strat­egy.

How big is the ILO’s pres­ence in Africa? Do you run pro­grammes or just give ad­vice?

We do both. We run our ac­tiv­i­ties through eight coun­try of­fices and four tech­ni­cal teams. Our work in­volves not only set­ting poli­cies and stan­dards, but also run­ning spe­cific projects on the ground on em­ploy­ment, so­cial pro­tec­tions and migration is­sues. Af­ter the Arab Spring, we set up pro­grammes in the Maghreb re­gion to pro­mote youth em­ploy­ment. We have so­cial pro­tec­tions pro­grammes in sev­eral coun­tries in­clud­ing Al­ge­ria and Mozam­bique, where we work with part­ners. One of our big­gest achieve­ments has been on re­duc­ing child labour in farms in Morocco, in co­coa plan­ta­tions in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana and in tobacco plan­ta­tions in Malawi.

Based on your in­ter­ac­tion with em­ploy­ers, work­ers and gov­ern­ments, what is the state of labour re­la­tions on the con­ti­nent?

The qual­ity of the re­la­tion­ship varies from coun­try to coun­try. In a coun­try like Al­ge­ria, for ex­am­ple, we have a strong labour move­ment, a strong em­ploy­ers’ move­ment and a fairly strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment. They ne­go­ti­ate and agree on so­cial com­pacts to which they all sub­scribe. We also have a fair amount of ten­sion among the so­cial part­ners in other coun­tries. What the ILO does is pro­mote so­cial dia­logue. We also have gov­er­nance struc­tures that en­gage gov­ern­ments on na­tional pol­icy is­sues to en­sure that the fun­da­men­tal rights of work­ers are re­spected in the work­place.

Still, crit­ics al­lege that some com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing those from China, de­spite their huge in­vest­ments in Africa, do not re­spect lo­cal labour laws.

Well, ini­tially, there were con­cerns that a lot of the com­pa­nies do not ob­serve lo­cal laws or in­ter­na­tional labour stan­dards. We have worked with gov­ern­ments, be­cause this is where en­force­ment be­gins, with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, with labour in­spec­tors and all con­cerned par­ties. We have also been work­ing not just with Chi­nese com­pa­nies but all com­pa­nies to make sure they un­der­stand their obligations and the need to re­spect the rights of work­ers to union­ize and to free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion, as well as the im­por­tance of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. Chi­nese com­pa­nies are not averse to that. Ours is a work-in-progress and we con­tinue to work with gov­ern­ments to im­prove their ca­pac­ity to un­der­take labour in­spec­tions.

In one of your lat­est re­ports, ILO said un­em­ploy­ment re­mains high in Africa and will con­tinue to re­main so in the next few years. How se­ri­ous is it?

There are sev­eral chal­lenges around un­em­ploy­ment in Africa. One is the sheer

num­ber of the un­em­ployed. The oth­ers are un­der­em­ploy­ment and the in­for­mal sec­tor. One of the chal­lenges we face is that African economies have grown sus­tain­ably over the last decade but this has not gen­er­ated enough em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in the for­mal sec­tors to ab­sorb the large num­ber of school grad­u­ates en­ter­ing the labour force ev­ery year. Africa also has a very young pop­u­la­tion. It is risky to have such young, well-ed­u­cated, able­bod­ied young Africans just be­ing idle. If you look at the con­flicts that we wit­nessed in Liberia, among oth­ers, and cur­rent ones in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic and So­ma­lia, th­ese are be­ing fought by dis­af­fected young peo­ple.

Why is it that the youth are the worst af­fected?

It’s quite clear that the economies can­not gen­er­ate enough jobs to ab­sorb all th­ese young peo­ple. What you need are strate­gies to cre­ate for­mal em­ploy­ment and to en­cour­age en­trepreneur­ship. This means pro­vid­ing the right skills and the right cur­ricu­lum to equip school grad­u­ates. We should cre­ate con­di­tions for young peo­ple to start com­pa­nies or self- em­ploy­ment by tak­ing ad­van­tage of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and the dig­i­tal econ­omy. While the un­em­ploy­ment rates in Africa are un­ac­cept­ably high, the chal­lenge is not only to have eco­nomic growth but also to cre­ate de­cent jobs. Much of the eco­nomic growth in Africa has been job­less growth.

Isn’t that para­dox­i­cal? Africa is ris­ing and its economies are grow­ing steadily, yet un­em­ploy­ment re­mains mas­sive?

The pri­mary cause for per­va­sive un­em­ploy­ment re­mains that the eco­nomic growth of the last decade has not re­sulted in sig­nif­i­cant and trans­for­ma­tive job cre­ation. But the growth of the labour force it­self is also quite sig­nif­i­cant: the num­ber of young peo­ple en­ter­ing the labour mar­ket ev­ery year is larger than what the for­mal sec­tor can ab­sorb. There are two rea­sons for ex­cess labour: first is im­prove­ment in pro­duc­tiv­ity; the sec­ond is im­prove­ment in tech­nol­ogy. Where, for in­stance, a com­pany needed 50 peo­ple, it may now need just five peo­ple or a sin­gle robot to gen­er­ate the same amount of out­put. So there is a ma­jor change now in how work is gen­er­ated and what it’s go­ing to be in the fu­ture. Other rea­sons for high un­em­ploy­ment in­clude low lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion, a young and rapidly grow­ing pop­u­la­tion and labour force and few op­por­tu­ni­ties for paid em­ploy­ment. We should ex­pect to see in­creases in out­put but not nec­es­sar­ily with more work­ers. So we need to re-think our poli­cies on cre­at­ing jobs.

Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa has the high­est rates of the work­ing poor and vul­ner­a­ble em­ploy­ment. Some peo­ple think manda­tory min­i­mum wages could help ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion. What is your re­sponse?

Min­i­mum wages can be an ef­fec­tive tool to im­prove in­comes in the for­mal econ­omy and re­duce wage in­equal­ity. In some coun­tries like South Africa, In­dia and many in Latin Amer­ica, min­i­mum wage laws specif­i­cally ad­dress cases of un­skilled and low-paid work­ers, or those in the in­for­mal econ­omy. How­ever, real wages ap­pear to have grown by less than 1% in Africa, ac­cord­ing to our lat­est Global Wage Re­port. About 75% of African coun­tries with avail­able in­for­ma­tion do not have com­pre­hen­sive sys­tems of min­i­mum wages. In coun­tries where they have, the level of min­i­mum wages may need re­vi­sion. So, yes, ILO be­lieves that well-de­signed em­ploy­ment pro­grammes and com­pli­ance with min­i­mum wages can pro­mote job cre­ation, stim­u­late do­mes­tic de­mand and pro­vide a bet­ter in­come dis­tri­bu­tion while also re­duc­ing poverty.

Child labour is still a con­cern. Some be­lieve there is a cul­tural as­pect to it. Is that how ILO sees it?

Africa has the largest num­ber of child labour­ers. About 59 mil­lion chil­dren be­tween the ages of five and 17 years are in­volved with haz­ardous work. More than one in five chil­dren is em­ployed against his or her wishes in stone quar­ries, farms, and mines. Yes, there is a bit of cul­ture to it but poverty re­mains the ma­jor rea­son be­hind this is­sue. Of­ten the chil­dren are drafted into em­ploy­ment to aug­ment fam­ily in­comes. There is also the cul­tural di­men­sion, which is of­ten mis­un­der­stood. The idea is not to stop chil­dren from car­ry­ing out chores at home like help­ing to fetch wa­ter. When chil­dren are pre­vented from go­ing to school in or­der to work and bring in­come to the fam­ily, and when they are ex­pected to un­der­take danger­ous forms of work, that is what con­sti­tutes child labour.

What is the ILO do­ing to ad­dress the prob­lem of child labour?

We’ve done a lot of work with US Depart­ment of Labour and also with UNICEF. The strat­egy is es­sen­tially to cre­ate em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for par­ents and to make sure that chil­dren go to school and stay in school. The ILO is sup­port­ing African coun­tries to de­velop na­tional ac­tion plans to com­bat child labour. How­ever, progress is slow. Nearly half of the 54 African coun­tries have yet to begin designing their ac­tion plans.

Abate Damte

Ae­neas Chuma, the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion re­gional direc­tor for Africa.

World Bank/John Hogg

Con­struc­tion of a wa­ter project on Caledon River in Le­sotho.

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