‘Politicising the migrant debate prevents us from thinking about new solutions,’ says Togo’s former prime minister Gilbert Houngbo

By Julien Clémençot
Posted on Monday, 12 September 2022 12:58

Gilbert Houngbo, on 1 September 2022, in Geneva. © Damien Riunaud/ITO

Immigration, Qatar’s labour rights, gender equality...Togo’s former prime minister Gilbert Houngbo, who will become head of the International Labour Organisation on 3 October, answered our questions and reacted to Beninese President Patrice Talon's decision to restrict the right to strike.

On 3 October, Togo’s former prime minister Gilbert Houngbo will become the first African director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the oldest UN agency. While he is still heading the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for a few weeks, we met him on 1 September at the ILO headquarters in Geneva. We published a preview of the best extracts from the interview, which was broadcast on RFI on 3 September as part of our joint “Grand Invité de l’Économie” programme with RFI.

Jeune Afrique: In August, the ILO announced that global unemployment would fall by the end of this year. What is the labour market situation on the continent?

Gilbert Houngbo: Every year, between 12 and 15 million young people enter the job market. There is a problem with matching supply and demand. Governments know that they need to do more to encourage private initiative, develop skills and direct young people towards promising sectors.

Education experts have been pointing to these supply-demand mismatches for decades: why is it so difficult for governments to invest in education?

Governments are starting to make an effort. It’s a question of how public investment and budgetary space is distributed. These are complex issues. Some countries send young people to train abroad, but the rate of return is low, sometimes less than 20%, and this also consumes a large part of the budget. Training efforts also need to focus more on women.

Does gender equality, an issue that the West has been focusing on more and more over the last 10 years, have the same relevance in Africa?

I think so. We are seeing more and more young girls who are very well trained. But I recognise that many barriers still remain.

Is it safe to say that part of the continent’s economic backwardness could be erased if women participated more in creating wealth?

Certainly. A few years ago, a World Bank study demonstrated this very well. Take the agricultural sector, for example. Women do not have access to the same levels of productive resources (land, inputs, finance) because preference is given to men. I saw this when I was prime minister. Whether in the North or the South, we are far from having won the battle for equality. Rwanda is probably the African country that has done the most in this area.

What is your view on uberisation – the platform economy – which raises questions about employee protection?

This is an issue that concerns me. It is one of my priorities. The digital transition is inevitable and we know that it will create more jobs than it will destroy. We need to ensure that these are decent jobs. To do this, we need to preserve the existence of an employer-employee relationship. Currently, many platforms do not have this relationship, and therefore do not guarantee a minimum of social protection. In Africa, unfortunately for the moment, we are copying the model without learning from its weaknesses.

On the continent, states tend to give companies golden bridges to attract them. They are less active in defending social rights.

Putting in place mechanisms to attract foreign investment is a trend that will continue, but that is not the problem. The real problem is the negotiating capacity of African states. Historically – and unfortunately this is still sometimes the case – the big problem in this kind of situation was the issue of corruption. Today, even when the government is not corrupt, states do not have the capacity to negotiate well with investors. But it is quite possible to put in place conditions to attract investors while demanding compliance with ILO rules. Our job is to accompany governments in this area.

When we talk about social security coverage, we can look at the plight of domestic workers, more than 90% of whom have no social security. What should be done?

The conventions exist, their application simply needs to be reinforced. But we cannot talk about domestic workers and the care economy without talking about the issue of migration: when you have workers in an irregular situation, you cannot integrate them into a social protection system. We should be able to dissociate this issue from the question of regularisation, which is sometimes even political. This problem does not only arise in the West, but also in countries of the South.

In the West, there is a lot of talk about the problems linked to labour shortages in certain sectors, in the social sector for example. Do you think this calls for more immigration from Africa and elsewhere?

When we see the current situation, where there is indeed a lack of hands in certain countries, I think we should consider offering migrants the possibility of going back and forth. This is already done in the agricultural sector. The International Labour Office (ILO) can help. There are many young people who would view this very positively. Sometimes, politics gets in the way of thinking about alternative solutions that would benefit everyone. Today, as soon as we talk about immigration, the debate is politicised.

A few days ago, Patrice Talon was the guest of the French employers’ association and he congratulated himself for having limited, or even prohibited in certain essential sectors, the right to strike in his country. He believes this measure will help Benin take off economically. What do you think about this?

I have a lot of respect for President Talon, but I see it as a step backwards. I experienced strikes during my time as prime minister and I can understand the difficulty, probably even the frustration, but nothing can replace social dialogue.

What can the ILO do in this case?

We are not here to dictate to our member states. In this case, we will obviously continue to advocate. This decision goes against the conventions that Benin signed and I don’t think that the President’s aim is to put his country at odds.

Are companies sufficiently concerned about basic workers’ rights? In Qatar, there has been a lot of talk about the construction sites for the football World Cup which starts in November.

First of all, we welcome the fact that occupational health and safety issues are included in the core ILO conventions. Coming back to Qatar, when you have a difficult situation, you have to engage in dialogue with that member state. The issue in Qatar was raised in 2014-2015. Ironically, it is now being discussed because of the World Cup, but Qatar has made a lot of progress and it seems that nobody wants to talk about it.

Before, there was the Kafala system (sponsorship prior to hiring foreign workers) which included confiscating passports. This is no longer done. In addition, the minimum wage has been increased and 280,000 people have benefited from it. To improve working conditions, the authorities have changed the law and banned outdoor work between 10h and 14h. Even though much work remains to be done, these efforts should be acknowledged.

A question for the director of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which you are still in for a few weeks. A third of Pakistan is underwater. In Africa, several countries such as Senegal and Niger have also suffered deadly floods in recent months. How can we quickly invest in climate change adaptation?

Through government and private sector investments. Adaptation projects are not necessarily the most profitable, so it is more difficult to finance them and develop innovative measures. At the moment, investments are going more towards solutions. But we must also increase the resources devoted to adaptation.

What examples can you give?

For example, setting up more efficient water drainage and treatment systems. In rural areas, this means ensuring that buildings are able to withstand torrential rains. It also means using water more wisely, for example in agriculture.

The war in Ukraine is causing a serious food crisis: is African self-sufficiency still wishful thinking?

It is a very realistic and necessary goal. Before Covid-19, Africa imported $70bn worth of food every year. And it was estimated that this would rise to $170bn by 2030 if nothing was done. Today, the war in Ukraine is exacerbating the situation. This issue demands that Africa invest in increasing its production, processing capacity and access to African markets.

Is the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), even if it will take a long time to implement, a source of hope?

It is one of the African Union’s greatest achievements. How long did it take the Europeans to build their common market? Being a political leader also means knowing how to invest while knowing that the dividends will not be forthcoming immediately.

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