Africa grapples with a jobless growth

— Aeneas Chuma
From Africa Renewal: 
Aeneas Chuma, the International Labour Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Abate Damte
Aeneas Chuma, the International Labour Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Abate Damte
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, able-bodied 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.