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The future of work in Africa
Published in Ahram Online on 11 - 02 - 2020

Nigerian national Cynthia Samuel-Olonjuwon has held the post of assistant director-general and regional director for Africa at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since November 2017. Based in Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire, she has been a member of the senior management team at the ILO Regional Office for Africa for more than nine years, during which she has played an important role in the development and implementation of regional strategies to deliver quality programmes and fostering opportunities for cooperation and alliance building throughout the region.
On her first official visit to Egypt for the annual meeting of the managers of ILO offices in the African countries Samuel-Olonjuwon talked about the mandate of the oldest UN agency and the future of work on the African continent.
We often hear that youth hold the key to future progress, so how can Africa best capitalise on its youth?
An educated and skilled youth labour force is key to ensuring effective youth participation in the world of work. Consequently, Africa must work to offer solutions to the daunting labour-market challenges facing the youth. Youth are the future of the continent, and yet approximately 54.5 million young people are not in education, employment or training (NEET). Furthermore, unemployment in Africa is high. For instance, in North Africa, the youth unemployment rate is more than 30 per cent and even higher at over 40 per cent for young women. In addition, informality involves 95 per cent of young workers on the continent, and a staggering 72 million African children are working, accounting for almost half of child labour globally.
Thus, for the continent to encourage and benefit from its youth, important strides should be made to reduce the burdens of informality, unemployment, and their NEET status. In 2019, the ILO celebrated its centenary and the 60th anniversary of its presence in Africa. Last August, the ILO Global Youth Employment Forum took place in Abuja, Nigeria, resulting in an action plan for youth employment over the next decade. The ILO also leads the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth, a UN platform to promote youth employment.
How can African economies create more jobs?
The realities we see in most African economies —unemployment, informality, working poverty, especially for youth and women — to a large extent stem from one major challenge: labour demand is insufficient to absorb the large and growing labour force. Put simply: there are not enough jobs for the people looking for work. Poverty, low wages, and poor working conditions are the outcome of this basic problem. This means that we must find ways to stimulate labour demand — in other words, the number and quality of jobs on offer.
Because of the dependence on low-value-added commodity production in most African countries, the only way to achieve this is through a process of industrialisation and structural adjustment. The Abidjan Declaration, which was adopted by the ILO's African constituents —governments, workers and employers — at the conclusion of the 14th African Regional Meeting in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, in December, recognises this and clearly states that we must come up with pro-employment policies that can stimulate demand and transformation.
This means, in particular, a new approach to macroeconomic and sectoral policies that target those industries and value chains that can create as many jobs as possible. Focusing on and promoting employment-intensive investment is also very important. This has been very successful in Asia, but now we are seeing a few African countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia trying to embark on a similar path. However, more work is still needed, and many countries still have a long way to go with regard to implementing sound pro-employment economic policies.
Having a skilled labour force is vital, but this can only be a successful strategy for employment if at the same time jobs are created that can absorb people coming out of training. Therefore, the starting point must be on the demand side, and that is why the ILO is advocating for so-called demand-led growth strategies for the majority of African countries.
You once said that informal youth employment stood at 95 per cent of the youth labour force in Africa. To what extent is this a problem?
It is a real problem to have 95 per cent of African youth in informal employment. This is mainly because decent work deficits are more pervasive in informal employment as opposed to formal employment. Informal employment exhibits the major tenets of decent work deficits, including poor security in the workplace, poor or absent social protection, poor prospects for personal development, a lack of freedom of expression, and the poor exercise of fundamental rights at work. These jobs are therefore precarious in nature and work to disadvantage the youth. This leads to a lack of stability in their personal and professional lives. If overlooked, informal employment among youth has the potential to have significant and serious social repercussions. Youth unemployment can lead to social exclusion and unrest.
How can this informality be contained?
Resolving this issue is particularly important considering that almost one fifth of the global labour force and nearly one third of the global youth labour force will be from Africa in 2030. We must continue to strategically promote the transition from informality to formality embodied in ILO Recommendation 204. This includes reducing informal employment by lowering the cost of transitions to formality and increasing the benefits of being formal by promoting a greater awareness of the advantages and protection that come with formalisation, such as business-development services for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), access to the market, productive resources, credit programmes, and training and promotional programmes to upgrade informal economy units. This will ensure that enterprises are transitioning to formality and that the jobs available for the youth are decent ones.
Noting the existing deficits in the informal economy, we must also recognise the innovations that young people have come up with. A comprehensive diagnostic of the informal economy is a good starting point to get a better understanding of on what and how young people are engaged and the support that they need to facilitate the effective transition to formality. In addition, the negative perception of the informal economy must be changed to a positive one since this is a sector that sustains households and the potential exists to make it more productive.
In 2019, 60 per cent of all workers in Africa were classified as moderately or extremely poor. In 2020, extreme working poverty and moderate poverty are projected to reach 30.2 per cent and 23 per cent in Africa, respectively. The implications of these high figures are that workers are faced with poor incomes, thereby deepening poverty and increasing inequality. Additionally, high work poverty also induces low productivity growth, which in the case of Africa is already one of the lowest in the world.
Research has shown that factors such as education and skills, including disentangling the skills mismatch, are key to increasing productivity. We must ensure that educational curricula support the demand for skills. This must be at all levels, including an emphasis on vocational training. Furthermore, technology adoption in order to improve efficiency should be core. This is why the ILO is undertaking specific programmes such as Boosting Decent Jobs and Enhancing Skills for Youth in Africa's Digital Economy in partnership with the International Telecommunication Union.
How does the ILO encourage women's work?
Tackling gender inequality in the world of work is a priority of the Abidjan Declaration. This requires removing obstacles for women to enter the labour market and creating equal opportunities for women and men to participate. It also requires measures to address the significant gender gap in the quality of jobs. This includes measures to reduce the unequal burden on women for care and household responsibilities, as well as to address occupational segregation and other forms of gender discrimination such as the gender pay gap. Last year, the ILO adopted a ground-breaking Convention, C190, which recognises the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence.
The ILO's Decent Work Agenda promotes equality and equity to encourage both men and women to contribute to the world of work. The ILO has a gender policy that explicitly supports the participation of women. Furthermore, a number of programmes exist that promote youth employment and focus on young women to take into account the challenges that they encounter. The ILO is also making deliberate efforts to increase women managers in its management structures and continues to advocate for inclusive processes in the world of work more broadly. It provides support to its tripartite constituents to promote gender equality.
Achieving gender equality and women's empowerment is critical to the ILO's aim of decent work for all women and men and is at the heart of the ILO's mandate, beginning with its Constitution adopted some 100 years ago. Over the years this vision of women's equality and empowerment in the world of work has been reinforced by the ILO tripartite constituents through international labour standards, declarations, and resolutions. The ILO's work on gender equality and women's empowerment is also integral to the “Leave No One Behind” vision of the 2030 Agenda and will be key to achieving all the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including number eight on decent work.
The ILO Action Plan for Gender Equality 2018-21 is the organisation's main tool for women's economic empowerment. This results-based Action Plan is fully aligned with the SDGs and the UN System-Wide Action Plan on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-SWAP) and reflects the ILO's commitment to joining our efforts with those of the UN family and others to support the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
The plan sets out five building blocks to encourage more women to enjoy more decent work conditions. These include extensive research, data and consultations on women's labour; a high road to a new care economy and strengthening women's control over their time; valuing women's work fairly; raising the voices and representation of women, especially in higher managerial positions; and ending violence and harassment in the world of work.
Our tripartite constituents acknowledge that business as usual will not be enough to achieve gender equality, support the five building blocks proposed, and have called for commitments and concrete actions. All ILO interventions are country and context specific and take into consideration the fact that the needs of one country might be different from those of another while putting these blocks into action.
How is climate change affecting jobs in Africa?
The effects of climate change will alter the structure of employment in Africa. New jobs and new job families will emerge, and others will disappear or become unsustainable, and enterprises must find ways to organise work and production differently. The ILO's Green Initiative aims to scale up the ILO's office-wide knowledge, policy advice and tools for managing a just transition to a low-carbon, sustainable future.
There is an increased focus on enabling youth to take better advantage of the growing employment potential of environmentally sustainable sectors. This includes strengthening youth-centred interventions that cater to their inherent strengths and comparative advantages, among them the development of markets and value chains for green products and services, support for young green entrepreneurs and the greening of existing youth-owned enterprises, as well as support for developing skills systems that better prepare youth for the use of new technologies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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