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Why the International Labour Organisation’s latest strategy for Africa may be a game changer

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Picture: ANA File – We need to promote access to employment for the 200 million women and men who are deprived of it. Not to mention the mission to free 160 million children forced to work, Gilbert Houngbo, ILO director general says.

By Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga

Gilbert Houngbo, the first African director general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), began his five-year term on October 1 in a world shaken by overlapping crises, a soaring cost of living, and yawning inequalities made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The former Prime Minister of Togo, and until recently the head of the United Nations’ Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), is already familiar with the internal workings of the organisation having served as deputy director in charge of field operations for four years until 2017. He spoke with Geneva Solutions during his first week in office.

GS: When you were running for this leadership post, you said that a new social contract was needed for the global labour market. When do you plan to put it in place and how?

Boosting social justice in today’s world is a challenge. But a common understanding about progressive economic and social policy is evolving as countries struggle to emerge from the enormous crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and to try to prevent an economic recession as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

More than ever, the organisation must work with governments, employers, and workers more effectively to ensure social protection for four billion people worldwide. I wish to even go beyond that and push for social protection globally.

We also need to promote access to employment for the 200 million women and men who are deprived of it. Not to mention the mission to free the 160 million children forced to work.

Putting in place a socially sustainable anti-crisis mechanism should be done in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. We should also increase our collaboration with the rest of the multilaterals, not only the ones in the UN system, but equally with the trade-related organisations such as the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development).

What about Africa, where most people are active in the informal sector?

The global economy is really based on the informal sector. But in Africa, it represents sometimes up to 80 per cent of the GDP. It plays a major role in production, employment creation and income generation. Informality puts workers at a higher risk of vulnerability and precariousness. We need to work with our member states, with workers’ and employers’ organisations, to ensure that the national strategy always keeps social protection at the heart of development. Therefore, it is also important to work on the financing of the schemes that would be set up.

In the European Union, more than three per cent of all available jobs are vacant meaning there are around six million jobs available due to a shortage of skilled people. Would it be a solution to ask qualified people from other regions of the world to fill vacant positions?

I’m fully in support of that. A lot of countries from the global South are already providing qualified workers to western countries. We can mention the example of nurses and other health workers from Austral Africa, the Philippines and India who are employed in the UK, Germany, and some Nordic countries. On one side it brings a solution, but it is also taking away qualified working people from countries. A win/win solution can be found.

The ILO can contribute positively in supporting these countries in stepping up the proper vocational training of these nurses or their equivalents and having agreements with countries where there are shortages. Sometimes it could only be for a periodic supply of that expertise or for a given period during the year, for example. So clearly there is some opportunity there that we need to deep dive into.

In less than two months, the FIFA World Cup 2022 will take place in Qatar. The country has been highly criticised for the working conditions of its large migrant population. How did ILO start to work with the country and are you satisfied with the reforms that have already been taken?

Globally, the assessment of ILO is that the State of Qatar has made big progress (abolishment of the kafala system, introduction of minimum wages, heat protection measures…) in a relatively short time. It needs to be said as we don’t see that often. Recognising progress does not mean that the job is done. Now we need a period of consolidation during which institutions in charge of the implementation and the inspection need to be developed. Both, Qatar and the ILO are willing to continue working beyond the FIFA World Cup.

Among the reforms made by Qatar, we can count the dismantling, in 2016, of the “kafala system”, which grants excessive powers to the employer over the employee. Will the ILO strongly encourage other Arab countries to abolish a system seen as a form of modern slavery?

The improvement that we have seen in Qatar is unique in the region. However, ILO has been working with other countries. For instance, in 2021 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia launched a big labour reform initiative which came into force earlier this year 2022. Things are moving, at difference pace according to the situation of each country.

Last August, China ratified two fundamental ILO conventions against forced labour, even though your organisation expressed deep concerns over employment practises in the Xinjiang region. Sending a technical advisory mission to China has been recommended. Could you tell us more about it?

The case of China was presented before our control mechanism, the committee of experts and the Conference Committee on the Application of the Standard (CCAS). It has been debated during the International Labour Conference in June, which drew several conclusions, including the technical mission. Of course, we are very much concerned about the allegations. What is crucial is that no matter how difficult the situation, we must make sure that we always keep engaging the member state. Never totally break the dialogue, the social dialogue, the political dialogue, and that engagement. I will hopefully have a chance to speak soon with the authorities of China in Geneva, or elsewhere. The government of China has indicated its willingness and readiness to really have a deep discussion and constructive engagement with the organisation.

Does it mean China has already given the green light for that technical mission?

It is a different process. In the coming weeks I will see exactly where we stand. But during the Conference discussion, the sentiment was that China is not refusing the continuation of the dialogue or an engagement.

Latin America is marked by unemployment and increasing numbers of the working poor. It is also the region with the highest number of complaints filled at the ILO. Could you give us more details about the kind of complaints? And how are you going to tackle this issue?

The complains are usually linked to the non-observance of the ILO conventions that the countries have ratified.

In Latin America, how many countries are not respecting the documents they’ve ratified?

Worldwide, you have a lot of countries not respecting what they’ve ratified. What is happening is that around 20-25 per cent of the cases are from Latin America, which makes it the region with the highest number. But it’s tricky. On one hand it reflects the issues that we have in the country, that should not be underestimated. On the other hand, a country can only face a complaint if it has ratified the Convention. So, the importance lies in the social dialogue and conflict resolution. We need to work with the workers, the employers, and the member states, to ensure that we can find ways, at the national level and at the regional level, to solve the problem before ultimately turning to the ILO supervisory mechanism.

Do you have plans to modernise ILO headquarters, including the system of the old institution, to be closer to the new way of working? For example, more social coverage because many people are working remotely?

A lot of initiatives have already been put in place. We’ll try to be much more effective and efficient. ILO must give a good example when it comes to teleworking arrangements in a way that fits with the conditions of work that today’s youngsters and workers, in general, are facing. At the same time, keeping an eye on the necessity for it to remain productive and how to use that teleworking arrangement as a win-win situation.

I would like to make the ILO better known by global citizens, to understand what we did during the last 100 years, and what we are doing now to build a better future.

Where will you make your first official trip?

It’s not yet decided. Maybe, my first big trip will take place in November to attend the G20 heads of state summit in Bali.

Fiankan-Bokonga is a senior UN Correspondent, TV, radio, and print journalist. She specialises in African politics and art, health and gender issues.

This article was first published in Geneva Solutions