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Kid collects cardboard / Willem Velthoven via Flickr

Global labour in crisis

Vera Borsboom | 02 July 2014

Developing a stable and decent labour market is a matter of willingness and making choices.

On 24th April, the collapse of an eight-story garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed over a thousand people and left more than 2,500 injured. Hundreds of people have drowned in boat tragedies in the Mediterranean as people migrate from North Africa to Southern Europe in search for work. In the Gulf countries, Emiratis and expats enjoy a luxurious lifestyle from cheap labour, with workers from countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia being paid a minimal salary, living in poor accommodation and working in difficult and dangerous conditions.

In times of disaster, like the factory collapse in Bangladesh, it is impossible to ignore these urgent matters, but labour issues - for example, the stability and flexibility of jobs and labour conditions - are not often on the agenda in international debates. The Society of International Development (SID) put this issue up for debate on 10 April 2014 during a seminar on ‘global labour’.

International employment trends were expected to follow the Western path of relatively stable jobs and decent working conditions in an inclusive working environment. However, current developments seem to be heading the other way. Around the globe, jobs are becoming increasingly unstable and unemployment is high, especially among young, female and semi- and unskilled workers. A lack of acceptable working conditions and mediocre pay, particularly in agriculture, are often compared to modern-day slavery. Is it necessary to take action on issues of global labour? Who is responsible for effectively tackling both urgent and less urgent matters? And what is the priority: creating more employment or better working conditions?

The Dutch government’s new trend in development cooperation, which focuses on trade rather than aid, can be a bridge between questions of development and employment. Tackling global challenges like exploitative labour contracts with developing countries calls for strong international cooperation. That also means opening up economic spaces and allowing markets to drive competitive economic growth. While official development aid has not provided sufficient stimuli for economic transformation, fairer rules for international trade, opening up markets and educating skilled workers may be more effective.

As a basis, we need a broadly shared set of values as well as strong international ties. On a national level, strong leadership and effective governance are the key to improving the quantity and quality of labour. However, the institutional capacities of many poor countries – African countries in particular – are weak. Governments face much more pressing issues and labour conditions are not a priority. Developing a stable and decent labour market is a matter of willingness and making choices and this is where the importance of labour unions comes in. When people have the opportunity to make their voices heard, they may influence policy-makers in favour of fairer labour conditions. For individual workers, being able to organize themselves and have their voices heard is vital in achieving this impact.

The question of giving priority to creating more jobs or decent working conditions is a matter of choosing between quality and quantity. The agricultural sector for example has the potential to employ many people as it has relatively low skill requirements. However to do so, the sector needs to receive sufficient attention and subsidies or credits. The service sector, on the other hand, is in many countries unable to employ a large number of people as it needs high skills. The industrial sector, and the extractive industries in particular, can provide many jobs. But they have a considerable  negative impact on developing countries, attracting a lot of foreign direct investment but often not resulting in inclusive growth for the country supplying the the minerals and other natural resources. Instead, they create low-paid ‘indecent jobs’ with difficult or sometimes dangerous working conditions.

Jobs, regardless of whether they are decent or not decent, have the power to establish a certain sense of dignity for individuals. Moreover, earning money enables people to make choices. As a first step, this may be more important than creating ‘decent’ jobs. However, inevitably, people will want to move on to better jobs.

Economic growth is essential to keep developing countries on a convergent course with the OECD countries. But the view that ‘as long as economies are growing, it’s fine’ is short sighted, and neglects matters of productivity, inclusive growth and decent working conditions. The seminar’s panel members - SID frontmen Larry Cooley from Washington DC, Thomas Nowotny from Vienna, Arthur Muliro from Rome, and SID International’s President Ambassador Juma Mwapachu - as well as some individuals in the audience expressed themselves in favour of increasing employment rather than prioritizing the creation of decent jobs. Does this mean that establishing paid jobs is more important than sustainably constructed factories and healthy and clean accommodation for migrant workers?

Photo credit main picture: Kid collects cardboard / Willem Velthoven via Flickr

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Vera Borsboom

Vera Borsboom is Project Officer at the Society for International Development-Netherlands Chapter...

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