CYNTHIA SAMUEL-OLONJUWON: Pitfalls and pluses: how the pandemic has rewired Africa’s labour market
While social dialogue and harmony between workers and bosses has improved, gender inequality has worsened
To better understand the disruptions to the workplace, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) partnered with employer and business membership organisations from across Africa to map and analyse how the pandemic has shaped the future workspace.
The results are captured in a new report, “The Next Normal: The Changing Workplace in Africa — Ten Trends from the Covid-19 Pandemic that are Shaping Workplaces in Africa”. Some of the results are to be expected, others are more surprising.
No single trend has defined the pandemic era more than the shift from physical to remote work. Of the nearly 750,000 people working for the more than 1,000 enterprises surveyed (with a focus on formal enterprises), nearly 36% worked remotely during the pandemic. However, remote work was more common among some groups of workers than others, leading to a key finding: what someone does often determines how they work — both now and in the future. Many businesses are now embracing hybrid work, where workers spend some time in the office and some time outside it.
The Covid-19 pandemic is also changing how and who businesses are hiring. Three in 10 enterprises have already changed their hiring criteria to include new groups of workers they had not previously considered, such as fully remote workers not living near the workplace. The eroding connection between location and work presents both opportunities and challenges for enterprises in Africa. Increasingly, they will have to compete with enterprises from around the world for workers with key skills.
One major policy implication from remote working concerns the environment. Transport makes up 23% of global carbon emissions. Driving and aviation are key contributors to emissions from transport, contributing 72% and 11% of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions respectively. Remote working and less business travel can certainly help bring down these figures.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, productivity has improved or remained constant at most enterprises — an inadvertent consequence of the pandemic for many businesses that were pushed to find new ways of doing things. Eighty-five percent of the enterprises surveyed said Covid-related changes resulted in either an improvement or no change to productivity.
Productivity gains have been driven in part by the push to find digital processes to replace analogue ones and were least common in businesses where this is challenging, namely manufacturing. Enterprises are also changing the way they think about productivity, with the majority saying they have increased their focus on outputs as the key measure of productivity.
Looking ahead in terms of skills, digital, communication, innovation and teamwork are the top priorities for enterprises. More than 40% of enterprises cited each of these skill types as a top-three need in the future. Enterprises also noted that workers with multiple complementary skills are especially valuable. Enterprises have also changed the ways they train, share knowledge and collaborate. One of the most prevalent changes to training and collaboration has been the growth of digital training courses, which have been adopted by more than half of enterprises surveyed.
From an ILO perspective, one of the most heartening findings that has emerged from the pandemic has been the renewed vigour of social dialogue and partnerships between employers and unions. Collectively, workers’ and employers’ organisations have responded rapidly and effectively, helping ease societal anxiety. They have shown their institutional value and credibility in these testing times by mobilising their respective constituencies and acting quickly for the wider good.
This is in line with the ideals of the Abidjan Declaration, which was endorsed by the ILO’s constituents representing governments, workers and employers at the 14th African Regional Meeting in 2019 and guides our work in the region.
Social dialogue has been central to tackling the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa. The vast majority of enterprises had workplace dialogue during the pandemic, with the most common topic being workplace health and safety, discussed at 86% of workplaces. A significant share of enterprises (37%) noted that labour relations had improved during the pandemic. At the national and sectoral level, workers’ and employers’ organisations took on important roles and contributed to many bipartite and tripartite agreements across the continent.
The changes brought about by Covid-19 will have wide-ranging implications for public policy over the coming years. The main issue is that the legal and regulatory frameworks in many countries have not kept up with the changing ways people work. Respondents reported that labour market regulations were behind the curve. The next few years will be pivotal in shaping the legal and regulatory frameworks in important areas including remote work and others. Once set, these frameworks will form the basis for governing work for decades to come.
Social dialogue will be a vital tool in ensuring that future labour markets are inclusive. In some ways, the pandemic has made this more challenging, for example by deepening gender inequality in the workplace. There are many reasons for this, including the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work borne by women during the pandemic. Women are also more likely to be in vulnerable temporary and part-time positions and hard-hit sectors such as leisure, hospitality and retail. However, it is vital that women and other workers are not disadvantaged by the challenges created in the wake of the pandemic.
While the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have been significant across the board, some groups such as informal and casual workers have been hit especially hard. Informal employment represents up to and occasionally more than 90% of total employment in many African countries. These enterprises are particularly vulnerable to economic shocks and were often excluded from Covid-19 crisis-related short-term financial assistance programmes for businesses.
In addition, the pandemic exposed the fragility or indeed absence of social safety nets. Many schemes, if they exist, require forms to be completed online and exclude large segments of the population who have no internet access or limited digital literacy. Migrants, especially undocumented migrants, often were not covered.
As we look to the future, these twin issues of informality and social security need to be at the forefront of our collective efforts to build back better.
• Samuel-Olonjuwon is assistant director-general and regional director for Africa at the International Labour Organisation.
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