Africa is not a country, despite the way in which the continent is sometimes regarded by some Europeans and Americans. But for all its diverse languages, religions and cultural practices, there are global commonalities, and decent work is one of them.
Workers of the world, women and men, sellers of labour and creators and maintainers of wealth and services, want and need to be treated equally and decently. And the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a quite wordy, but precise definition of what this means.
The rule, the exceptions
According to the ILO, decent work "involves opportunities for 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, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men".
Around the world, and especially in the "rag trade" – the garment industry – this is seldom the rule. With relatively few exceptions, decent work for the mainly female workforces in this sector remains a pipe dream.
Yet the sector faced a huge wake-up call in 1911 when 123 women and 23 men, garment workers all, were burned to death in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Along with demands for better wages and conditions of work, this led directly to the formation of International Women's Day.
Then, for more than a century, through a second 'Great Depression', recessions and war, as conditions faced by workers have ebbed and flowed, the heavily labour intensive garment industry continued to provide some of the worst examples of what is now referred to, politely, as "unacceptable work". And it took another rag trade tragedy, this time on a massive scale, to once again awaken the consciences of the public and those throughout the garment industry value chain.
That tragedy was Rana Plaza in Bangladesh where, in 2013, 1 134 workers, mainly women, died when they were burned and buried alive. How many more among the injured subsequently perished, or suffered permanent disability, is not known.
Rana Plaza also gave a boost to the vague targets and inspirational rhetoric of the wish list for 2030 produced by the United Nations as Sustainable Development Goals. These included achieving "full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men".
Workers everywhere will find nothing wrong in these goals, and would almost certainly hope they would be achieved, even before 2030.
Unfortunately, the UN, the World Bank and others promoting the goals continue to rely on the same discredited model that calls for ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption.
It is the very system that, it can be argued, is responsible for continuing exploitation, poverty and environmental despoliation.
But while this establishment reaction to global crisis provides little more than inspirational rhetoric, it has opened the way for the marshalling of facts and public pressure to bring about some real change. This requires research, communication and, above all, ideas about how decent work regimes may be instituted, maintained and enforced.
Work cut out
That there is a great deal of work to be done was made clear in Cape Town this week at a Decent Work Regulation in Africa workshop hosted by the universities of Durham in the UK, Cape Town and Canada’s York University. They aim to build "an international network of researchers and policy-makers with knowledge and understanding of what’s happening in communities worldwide". All with the object of ensuring that workers’ rights are respected in safe, secure and fairly paid work.
As the workshop heard, this is a very far cry from the situation in Ethiopia, where the government is committing millions of dollars to expanding its garment sector and attracting foreign investment. Girma Tafere Kebede of the Ethiopian Textile Industry Institute told of poor conditions, and common harassment of the mainly young, female workforce employed at wages as low as $25 (less than R340) a month – and where falling pregnant is a sackable offence.
Although Ethiopian productivity is low and labour turnover high, these are early days. If the country – which has the second largest population in Africa – gets it right, employing the most advanced technology, Ethiopia could make a major contribution to domestic job creation.
Herein lies the problem, the "elephant in the room": the world is already awash with surplus production, and this has led to a race to the bottom in terms of costs. This, in turn, has encouraged the development of sweatshops and the spread of "unacceptable work".
Major structural change is clearly needed. However, if sound regulations were in place, closely monitored and enforced, such change might follow.
As a result, the putative network is focusing on various methods of enforcement involving different stakeholders. It is a course they have had to adopt in the absence of an alternative. And this is partially a reflection of the ongoing weakness of the trade union movement.
In the wake of Rana Plaza, Philip Jennings, general secretary of the UNI Global Union that played a part in brokering deals with buyers, distributors and manufacturers regarding pay and conditions in Bangladeshi factories, pointed to the crucial role of unions. There was a drive to unionise the Bangladeshi workforce, but it seems, eventually, to have petered out.
Yet it is clear that an independent, democratic union organising the majority of workers in any sector of the economy will provide the best means of maintaining regimes of decent work. Perhaps the actions of this university-based network will galvanise the labour movement to make a priority of the Decent Work project as an essential reform on the way to radical economic transformation.
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