Hidden agenda?

Work, ideally, should be decent. Respectable work in a safe environment with adequate remuneration is a goal to which most people aspire. The search for this goal is the story of human history and ingenuity. Yet the origins of the term “decent work” reveal much beneath the surface of this apparently reasonable idea.

The term was introduced by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1998 as part of a programme to modernise the institution. Initially, the reforms were modest, but it soon became clear that the ILO intended a significant extension of its mission. At the 1999 International Labour Conference the director general noted that “the cornerstones of the ILO’s activities have changed — Policies of economic liberalisation have altered the relationship between the state, labour and business. Economic outcomes are now influenced more by market forces than by mediation through social actors, legal norms or state intervention — For the ILO these are seismic changes — creating new demands and new opportunities for social action.”

The ILO’s mission, determined in 1919 in very different circumstances, was losing relevance in a globalising economy. By 2001 its sphere of influence had been greatly extended. In 1999 the director general said the ILO’s goal was “decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”, the goal had been elaborated in greater detail by 2001:
“[Decent work] is about your job and future prospects; about your working conditions; about balancing work and family life, putting your kids through school or getting them out of child labour. It is about gender equality, equal recognition, and enabling women to make choices and take control of their lives. It is about your personal abilities to compete in the market place, keep up with new technological skills and remain healthy. It is about developing your entrepreneurial skills, about receiving a fair share of the wealth that you have helped to create and not being discriminated against; it is about having a voice in your workplace and your community. In the most extreme situations it is about moving from subsistence to existence.”

The ILO’s terms of reference now included micro-level conditions and an emphasis on employment outcomes, rather than the economic and social mechanisms to attain those outcomes. Later the director general said that the ILO should combat “the image of the ‘toothless’ institution”, that the ILO “must have the will to make a difference to the path of globalisation”.

The ILO’s growing ambitions in the area of international economic policy are problematic for two reasons.


The first problem is that tinges of protectionism can be discerned in the “decent work” agenda. As early as 1998, developing countries feared that the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work — which set high labour standards that may not be attainable for some developing countries — are used by developed countries as protectionist measures in international trade,for instance by limiting imports from countries that do not meet such standards, as the United States did in 2006.

Governments do not create jobs
The second problem is that “decent work” may be used as a pretext for unwarranted expansion of the role of government. At the 2009 International Labour Conference the director general indicated that “decent work” could be used not to reduce poverty, the ILO’s historical position, but as an employment and job-creation strategy. This is a marked shift in the consensus on the ends to which government policies might be applied, including the direct government creation, protection or subsidisation of jobs. ILO research argues that government measures to create jobs are urgently needed.

Against this backdrop, in 2008 South Africa belatedly initiated a Decent Work Country Programme. As of January 2011, the first stage of the three-stage programme is partially completed; a draft document will be available only later this year. Yet it is possible to anticipate how the programme might ultimately look, because the research underpinning South Africa’s “decent work” agenda is comparatively advanced. It has emphasised “peripheral” employment in the informal sector; “precarious” employment in the temporary-employment sector; “casualisation” in third-party employment relationships; atypical and non-standard employment; and outsourcing and sub-contracting.

In 2010 South Africa’s “decent work” agenda took on employment arrangements that do not conform to the standard bilateral, “permanent” relationship. The results can be seen in the four Amendment Bills approved by Cabinet in 2010 which intend to outlaw “labour brokers”, severely curtail the use of temporary employment throughout the economy and dramatically extend union membership.

This year “decent work” will concern itself with the direct creation of five million public-service jobs. The architect of the new growth path (NGP), Minister of Economic Development Ebrahim Patel, for a long time represented union federations at the ILO. The NGP, in other words, is not an isolated document or a historical accident it is part of a broader ideological thrust that has its origins in the ILO’s carefully stage-managed “decent work” agenda.

And the ideology is advancing fast. This month South Africa’s state-owned enterprises received instructions from the minister of public enterprises to create upward of 500000 jobs in 2011. Inevitably, instructions to private business enterprises will follow regarding the number and type of jobs they will be compelled, through fines and criminal penalties, to create.

Missing is a simple fact: Governments do not create jobs. Governments divert productive resources to less productive ends. Those ends may be desirable in and of themselves (such as the creation of roads, schools, hospitals and police stations) and for this democratic societies may vote to pare the advantages to society with the deadweight cost of government.

But governments do not possess the means to create jobs and government’s foray into large-scale job creation is doomed to failure. As the expanded public works programme demonstrates, government-created jobs will be neither sustainable nor “decent”, though I shouldn’t be surprised if they are unionised.

Loane Sharp is a labour economist at Adcorp.

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