At a time when two billion people are living on less than $2 a day—even though 780 million of them have a job—and when a worker dies every 15 seconds from an accident at work or occupational illness, poor working conditions remain the leading global problem related to employment, according to the ILO.
And to better understand the challenges in providing access to decent work for everyone, Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the ILO held a conference on Friday, May 24 in Paris entitled “Decent Work and Social Ties: A Global Democratic Challenge.” The timing was no coincidence: this year, the ILO is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and France, as the G7 host for the year, has chosen to prioritize combating inequalities around the world.
“Employment is not a new issue, but current changes in technology, demographics, and the climate call for bolder, more powerful, and above all human-centric solutions,” said Rémy Rioux, CEO of AFD, in his opening address.“What’s new is the faster pace of these changes, which is calling into question existing employment-related protections,” added Moussa Oumarou, ILO Deputy Director-General.
The Future of Work in Questions
Worldwide, more than one out of five young people (under the age of 25) are currently without an occupation, meaning that they are unemployed, with no training and not in school; meanwhile, 145 million young workers live in poverty, according to the ILO. In Africa, between 10 and 12 million young people join the job market each year, but only 3 million jobs are created.
“Africa has a problem with underemployment among its youth. They scrape a living from small trades and have no social protections. That is what we need to address first,” asserts Mamadou Touré. According to the Minister for the Promotion of Youth and Youth Employment, who made a special trip from Côte d’Ivoire for the event, low unemployment rates in African countries do not necessarily indicate prosperity: “The poorer a country is, the more its people are forced to turn to small trades for survival, which increases the risk of working in poor conditions.”
The World Bank program for youth employment and skill development helped drive action to improve their employability in Côte d’Ivoire. “We rely mainly on local government,” continues Mamadou Touré, listing some of the advances achieved in recent years, such as a new labor code that grants more rights to workers and minimum wage valorization.
“Unequal access to rights and resources undermine the foundations of our societies. We all need to work to ensure that the basis for social protection is implemented in every country,”, insists Anousheh Karvar, Delegate of the Government of France to the ILO Governing Body and a guest at the same round table. She believes that it will take more than the ratification of international conventions to improve decent work.
This was music to the ears of former CGT trade union leader Bernard Thibault, now also a member of the ILO Governing Body. “How can we break out of the political hypocrisy that involves asking the ILO to implement things it doesn’t have the tools for?” he sighs, pausing to deplore the lack of sanctions toward countries that are not acting to improve working conditions. “This debate is going to become inevitable if we don’t want to compromise on our shared objectives,” concludes Thibault.
He was also the only one urging companies to shoulder their share of the responsibility for improving working conditions. “Many French companies have signed agreements with international trade unions to advance social rights,” responds Anne Vauchez, head of international social affairs for French employer federation MEDEF and the voice of employers in the debate. “Transitions also contain opportunities. Companies create green jobs and innovate... generating broader access to jobs for workers.”
Holding Stakeholders Accountable
This claim can’t hide the hide the fact that poor working conditions are rampant at the end of the primary subcontracting chains, including textiles, automobiles, and smartphones. Ever since the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, pressure has been mounting on large multinationals and their suppliers. But for now, NGOs have not seen any major changes.
Invited to share the perspective of automotive group Renault on ways to promote more responsible supply chains, Vice President of Human Resources Miguel Valcarcel referred to the day that Amnesty international publicly denounced child labor by the French manufacturer’s subcontractors. “We met with the NGO and set up 18 audits along our supply chain. We found out that not everything was under control and that some suppliers were having a hard time determining the age of their employees.”
Renault committed to publishing the conclusions of the audits. “We are also implementing an internal system to protect whistle blowers with our tier-1 suppliers. We have also mapped out the primary risks related to our procurement in sensitive areas so that we can conduct audits,” says Valcarcel. “Creativity is not enough; it takes courage,” he appeals.
Meanwhile, Kris de Meester, representing the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), wanted everyone to stop demonizing multinationals: “Often, there are companies upstream in the supply chain that have much more power.” Vic Van Vuuren, Director of the Enterprise Department at the ILO, commented: “Many small and medium enterprises have a hard time obtaining reliable information about their suppliers. And in many cases, the violation of workers’ rights is due to the government’s inability to enforce the law. We need to encourage social dialog between the various partners rather than just blaming one.”
Pierre Habbard, however, believes that the balance of power favors “superstar” companies, in both the global south and the north. Habbard, senior policy adviser to the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, denounces “a higher concentration of companies and power, combined with a loss of vitality among SMEs.” He also observes that “digitization increases the fragmentation of companies and he workplace.” Once again, it is workers who suffer.
Promoting Access to Economic Opportunities for Women
And still, when it comes to work, there are some things that don’t change... such as gender inequality. As early as 1919, the International Labour Organization recommended equal pay for women. One hundred years later, women still make 20% less than men, on average, for jobs with equal responsibilities and skill levels. The first ILO maternity protection convention was drawn up in 1919. One hundred years later, hundreds of thousands of women still do not benefit from it.
“Even within corporate management, women do not occupy the most strategic positions,” laments Shauna Olney, Chief of the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch. For her, the solution is encouraging men to take on more of their domestic responsibilities. “Three quarters of people who work without pay are women. That needs to change," asserts Olney.
“Children don’t just belong to the mother! Fathers can also care for them to free up time for the woman,” agrees Burcu Ünüvar, Chief Economist with TSKB, the Turkish development bank. “We keep saying that we need to give more power to women, that it’s good for men’s living conditions and for the economy in general. Public opinion is more and more favorable to this idea in Turkey. Women’s labor force participation currently stands at 38%. That’s good news, because 10 years ago it was 28%!”
#ILOAFDConf "Access to education, property and banking services: these are the issues that must be addressed to reach #genderequality. We work at the level of men and women so that together they can take up these subjects." Margarita Astragala, @IFAD pic.twitter.com/ZzrwSTpagb— AFD_en (@AFD_en) May 24, 2019
Another possible solution comes from Michael Cracknell, who founded a microfinance entity in Tunisia focused on women entrepreneurs. “When a woman earns money, she uses her income to help the family, while a man uses his to buy himself a scooter. Not to mention, we have a reimbursement rate of 100%, which is much higher than most banks,” the former director of the World Farmers’ Organisation adds wryly. In North Africa, however, only 32% of women have a bank account. Those statistics are even more dismal in rural regions.
Another staggering statistic: in Tunisia, only 5% of land belongs to women. Margarita Astralaga and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) help give them a voice. “For the next generation, we cannot tolerate allowing men to systematically inherit land when the father dies. The way to achieve our goals is through education: we meet with households to discuss these issues with them and make sure that every member of the household understands. Our goal is for men and women to agree on a more equitable division of tasks.”
Better Protection for Informal Workers
Meanwhile, large numbers of workers, both women and men, have few or no social protections. There is an obvious reason for this: 61% of the global workforce (2 billion people) currently holds informal jobs, which are not covered by the rules that govern labor laws (stay-at-home wives or husbands, street vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, etc.).“It is often a lack of public institutions that drives people to the informal market. And it applies to every country: in Greece, one in three workers are in the informal sector,” explains Philippe Marcadent, who specializes in the issue at the ILO.
Alexandre Kolev, with the OECD Development Centre, neatly puts paid to some preconceived notions: “There is no empirical link between the size of a country’s informal economy and a shortfall in tax revenue. The informal economy may even make a positive contribution to societies, contributing to GDP and stepping in to provide basic services when the government does not!” Despite this, the informal economy is often associated with low productivity and high levels of insecurity for workers.
To remedy this, South Africa has launched a massive effort to incorporate domestic workers into unemployment and maternity insurance schemes while also stepping up audits related to undeclared jobs. For Youssouf Rahma Amane, director of the Maison de la Petite Entreprise (Chad), another solution to bring workers into the fold of formality is to provide support for meeting the administrative requirements, which are often perceived as too complex. In other words—treat their administratophobia!“We explained to vendors in a number of markets the benefits of formalizing their business, to secure bank loans and grow their income. 72% of them agreed to do it,” recounts Amane.
Experts have refrained from recommending wholesale formalization of the economy, however. “A formal job does not guarantee an exit from poverty, especially if the salary is low,” says Kolev. “The most important thing is to keep jobs, formal or otherwise, in rural areas,” warns Anne Panel, director of a French association for international cooperation in agricultural development. “To move from an informal job to a decent job, we need above all to teach young farmers to grow crops, manage their farm, and understand the mechanisms of the market. We do this by offering them training and support over 5 to 6 years. ”
Climate and a Fair Transition
But decent work must also be measured in terms of climate change, which will likely upend working conditions around the world. “The combination of temperatures and high humidity may become fatal to the human body in tropical areas more than 200 days a year. For the people who live there, the priority will no longer be finding work, but first finding a refuge to stay alive,” warns Gaël Giraud, former Chief Economist with AFD.
The necessary ecological transition will destroy “brown” jobs while creating “green” jobs. According to the ILO, the net gain will be 18 million jobs by 2030. According to these forecasts, Asia will do well, but Africa will suffer. “For more scenarios considered, including the coal sector, retraining will be inevitable. And not just because of the ecological transition, but also because these industries are arriving at the end of viability,” explains Sébastien Treyer, Executive Director of IDDRI.
This means we have to start thinking about the future of industrial regions and their workers now. “We must include social measures in this,” says Moustapha Kamal Gueye, Policy Specialist for the ILO’s Green Jobs Programme. “In France, we are implementing two tools: the skills investment plan, which provides 10,000 trainings on green jobs, and the ecological transition contract to support regions that are already suffering from the effects of climate change and those that are already investing in green jobs,” explains Thomas Lesueur, Chief Commissioner for Sustainable Development within the Ministry for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition.
#ILOAFDConf "Transition is inevitable. It must be considered in a logic of economic reorganization that will potentially have co-benefits between reducing #inequalities and environmental issues." @SebastienTreyer Director General @IDDRI_ThinkTank pic.twitter.com/DHhhX36LPK— AFD_en (@AFD_en) May 24, 2019
“What if we tried considering work as a common good?”, asks Gaël Giraud. “After all, it is a collective affair in which men and women work together to produce products or services. A broad series of resources are much better managed as common goods, by all stakeholders, than as a private or public resource.”
Further reading: The Commons, a Key Concept for the Future of Development
AFD has already tested this approach in Ethiopia, where farmers are covered by insurance that provides them with food and money in the event of a disaster in exchange for 4 hours of daily public utility work. “These are two complementary needs that can be exchanged for one another,” Giraud explains.
To both address the looming threat of climate change and improve the quality of jobs worldwide, we will need to continue to pool our intelligence and think globally. Let’s get to work!