Our Partner's Corner : The traditional ways of working need to be redefined post-Covid-19
In West Africa, while the number of Covid-19 infections have been lower than elsewhere, the immediate economic impact of the pandemic was staggering. In 2020 alone, the working hours lost corresponded to seven million jobs, mainly affecting women and people in vulnerable employment.
Odigie Akhator Joel, an activist and trade unionist, working at the African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa). He was one of our guest speakers at the press conference that we held to launch the West African Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index (CRII). He opined that “problems and challenges will always be around us, but the challenge is to “refuse to agonise, rather we must continue to collaborate with other progressive forces to organise, mobilize for change”.
Question : What was the state of workers' rights/ labour policies when Covid-19 hit West Africa ?
Joel Odigie: African workers have experienced job losses that the International Labour Organization (ILO) is now saying is worse than we had earlier anticipated (during and immediately after the various lockdowns and restrictions measured imposed to contain the pandemic). Workers have also witnessed income losses. Workers in the informal economy have suffered more. These categories of workers earn income mostly ondaily basis. When the lockdowns were imposed, they suffered hunger. Most had to deal with the dilemma of staying indoors and facing hunger or going out to seek earnings to feed themselves and their families and expose themselves to the virus. We must alsonote that most workers depleted their savings, and several of them ran into debt mainly to buy food and pay rent. Former and auxiliary workers in the Aviation, tourism, hotel and transport sector faced the most and immediate negative impact of COVID-19 restriction measures. Lots of workers were also forced on leave without pay. For migrant workers, especially those in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States, several of them experienced wage theft. Their employers sent them away, and others were involuntarily repatriated to their countries without being paid their wages. With COVID-19, we saw that most workplaces are not operating in a healthy and safe manner -there was a gross inadequate provision of Personal Protective Equipment. For health workers and other frontline workers/first responders, they were exposed to the virus and hundreds of them in Africa contracted the virus with some succumbing to it.
Question : How has the pandemic exacerbated the violations of workers' rights in West Africa, especially for informal women traders ?
Joel Odigie: We are now witnessing the continuous shrinking of the spaces for the enjoyment of civil liberties. Workers are being denied the right to physically protest as a means of driving accountability and participation in governance. We also witnessed the situation where Gender-Based Violence (GBV) spiked, especially during the lockdown. Women, young people, and children were locked in with their abusers/violators and so they suffered further abuses. COVID-19 being a mobility disease has also brought about the situation where migrant workers have been exposed to and suffer racism, xenophobia and hate abuses. The Working From Home (WFH) arrangements put in place by employers have led to the intensification of jobs (more workers are being forced to work more and round the clock). In fact, the traditional 8-8-8 (Eight-hour work -Eight-hour family life and Eight-hour rest) daily life arrangement has been compromised to the detriment of the workers, their health and family life. Still, on WFH, workers must provide and most still provide their own office space, working materials such as internet, data, and electricity, etc. to work and deliver tasks and meet deadlines. All these have contributed to mental health challenges (stress, anxiety, worries, loss of confidence, hypertension and in some extreme cases, suicide). For women, their workloads have increased as most were teachers during the time when the schools were closed. For those who are migrants and informal economy workers, the experiences in the loss of jobs, fall in income and spiking inflation on account of the global supply chains disruptions mean that they are facing deeper socio-economic woes.
Question : What are some measures that can be implemented to improve labor rights in the Covid-19 recovery ?
Joel Odigie: We need to collectively push for equitable vaccination. Already, we are seeing a deluge of misinformation and disinformation concerning vaccination. We need education and awareness advocacy to counter false narratives. On vaccines access, we need to continue to support the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its effort to use its COVAX facility to reach everyone. We must work to ensure that African governments must consciously push for imaginative, collaborative, and inclusive employment generation. This will need to focus on young people, women and indigent households and communities.
- COVID-19 brought about the intensification of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). Africa is lagging on this. We must build robust advocacy on digital rights (infrastructure, education, and access). Lots of workers will need to be retrained and reskilled to be able to fit into new emerging ways of working.
- Advocacy on health as a human right -we are glad that WHO has pronounced unequivocally on this by asserting that health must and should be accorded a human status in law and practice. This will mean that we must be prepared to hold governments accountable when they fail on this. In essence, this right must be justiciable (legally enjoyed). The Abuja Declaration of 15% national budget dedication to healthcare must be aggressively pursued. Only a healthy workforce can bring about shared prosperity.
- Respect for rights at work -with COVID-19, we saw the reverse and repudiation of labour and workplaces rights. These abuses must be reversed. With WFH arrangements, it may be daunting but possible. We need to discuss and have better regulation of the WFH space. We also need to have occupational health and safety policies revised and made compatible with new work environments.
- We need a just transition to deal with climate and environmental changes challenges. Climate change affects works and workers and their communities adversely. We need to make genuine, steadfast, and sustainable changes to how we live and work in ways that are friendly and supportive of our environment.
- Importantly but not least, the expansion of access and coverage for social protection provisions is urgent and needed. Here, financing an expanded access and coverage regimes of social protection provisions is not difficult. We should continue to fight to rid Africa of Illicit Financial Flows (IFFs).
Question : The recent CRII revealed that West African countries lose a lot of money from tax incentives to corporations, especially foreign ones. How does that impact workers and local communities ?
Joel Odigie: Loss of revenues is loss of financing opportunities for advancing social protection provisions. It is a loss of resources to create jobs and grow the tax base of more wage-earners and taxpayers. It is a loss of finances needed to expand public infrastructures. This loss will also hamper genuine efforts to get more women out of the poverty and inequality conundrum.
Question : How can civil society and labor unions better collaborate to ensure that the growing levels of inequality in the region is addressed and workers' rights are not further encroached on in the recovery from Covid-19 ?
Joel Odigie: We need to build genuine and focused alliances. For instance, ITUC-Africa is consciously working with Oxfam because we believe that greater power and influence come from a greater and stronger base and spheres of influence. By working with Oxfam, we can leverage their work and mutually build winnable campaigns. We strongly believe that we need a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Oxfam to further this collaboration. A structured and formal way of engagement cements our alliances. This study that has been done by Oxfam can benefit from greater spread and traction in terms of official responses through the utilisation of trade union structures that we have in 52 of the 54 African countries. We want to partner CSOs more in evidence-based research work and to share information, knowledge and experiences. We win when we fight together dedicatedly!