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View the documentILO's 1992 World Labour Report

ILO's 1992 World Labour Report

Rise in joblessness and exploitation

The International Labour Office's 1992 World Labour Report, released last summer, is the first in a new series being published by the organisation. Designed to reflect the current changes in the international scene, the Report is divided into four chapters, dealing with the following topics: human rights, employment, labour relations, and social protection and working conditions. In a year of tremendous political upheavals and economic recession, the 1992 Report makes grim reading for workers and trade union activists across the globe. It is often a tale of murder and imprisonment, but above all, of joblessness and exploitation, particularly of women and children, under both democratic and dictatorial regimes.

Unemployment is inevitable at a time of recession, but the breaktaking rate at which it is increasing (reflecting obviously the depth of the crisis) is what the Report highlights with practically every part of the world, except South-East Asia, severely affected.

Africa: a gloomy forecast

In Africa nine million people are currently unemployed in towns and cities. In sub-Saharan Africa, the unemployed represent 18% of the urban labour force up from 10% recorded in the mid-1970s. With the number of productive jobs expected to increase by only 2.4% per annum by the end of this decade, the number of the urban jobless is expected to rise from 9 million to 28 million (an increase of about 310%). Most of these people will be, as they are today, young, educated men and women. The report observes the irony that 'while education and training might be thought as the keys to future employment, in fact in Africa the more educated you are, the less likely you are to find suitable work'.

The continent's poor economic performance, the worst of any region in the world, is, of course, largely to blame. But there is no denying the fact that the systems of government introduced after independence have contributed to the current situation. These were systems that muzzled trade unionism in various ways, fostered corruption, nepotism and tribalism and prevented workers and employers from working together for the good of society and of the nation.

The report, however, welcomes the wave of democratisation sweeping across Africa, which is already having a positive effect. 'There is a trend now', it says, 'for governments to reduce their level of involvement in labour issues and to allow or invite unions and employers to participate more to resolve issues themselves... In this new environment trade unions have also become more active. They are frequently the only mass organisations which cut across tribal lines, so they can offer a political focus encountries where opposition parties have previously been outlawed. Indeed they have often been key actors in the transition to democracy'.

Mass labour migrations: need for planning and control

For parts of the world that have been used to full or near full employment, the current situation must be particularly painful. Unemployment in the industrialised market economies stands at 7%. Over 28 million people are out of work in the 24 countries of the OECD.

In Eastern Europe the number of those without jobs will soon reach 15-20% of the labour force as newly privatised industries shed excess labour, and governments remain preoccupied with political stability.

Only in South-East Asia are there shortages of labour, the report says. In Japan (1.46 vacancies for every job seeker), Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, where low birth rates and increasing reluctance of school-leavers to do menial and difficult tasks in factories and at construction sites have left huge gaps in the labour market, there are now thousands of overseas workers, most of whom are illegal immigrants from the Phillipines, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries. The report estimates that of the 300 000 workers on the move in the Pacific Rim, half are illegal immigrants

There are also large movements of migrant workers across Western Europe, particularly from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. With the latter countries unable to provide unemployment benefits or other forms of social security and with wages eight or ten times higher in Western Europe than those available at home, 20 million people could decide to move. The report warns that such flows need to be planned and controlled to avoid serious disruption, and regrets there is as yet no international agreement on how this could be achieved.

Protection of workers and child labour

The report points out the risks being faced by organised labour throughout the world: the violent deaths of trade unionists in Latin America and their imprisonment and torture in a number of other countries, including the Phillipines, China, Sudan and in Israel's occupied territories. These are the heavy prices being paid to secure protection for workers.

Unfortunately many groups of workers continue to survive without any protection whatsoever, among them child labourers, whose numbers are increasing, not just in absolute terms but as a proportion of the world's children. 'The exploitation of child labour is one of the most disturbing aspects of the international labour scene,' the report laments. Employed to work in all kinds of places - in quarries, mines, carpet factories, brothels, etc., they often earn as little as seven dollars a week for a 1 2-hour day.

Although exact figures are difficult to come by, the report estimates that Asia has some of the highest numbers of child labourers - up to 11% of the total labour force in some countries. India probably has as many as 44 million. African countries are reported to have up to 20% of their children working - about 17% of the total workforce. Twelve million children are said to participate in various categories of work in Nigeria. Child labour is, of course, not confined to the developing countries. 'Italy has some of the highest numbers in Western Europe. Spain, too, has significant numbers. In the United Kingdom, a survey in 1985 discovered 40% of children questioned were working, the majority doing so illegally, either in terms of the hours they worked or the jobs they were doing. In the United States, the majority of child workers are employed in agriculture and a high proportion of these are from immigrant families,' the report claims.

It recognises that, although poverty is the driving force behind child labour, many children work because 'there is nothing else to do: schools are unavailable, inadequate or too expensive'. However, the consequences of work on the health of a child can be devastating. Soft bones can be deformed by long hours of work and eyesight damaged by sustained concentration.

If children have to work, measures need to be taken to support and protect them. The report cites the case of Brazil, where the Government works with voluntary agencies in providing counselling and health services to working children. However, in the immediate term, it recommends the removal of children from dangerous sites and an end to their involvement in extremely difficult tasks and immoral jobs. The long term aim, it says, must be the elimination of child labour altogether. To this end there should be, as a first step, the enactment and enforcement of legislation by governments limiting the basic minimum age for work in all sectors of the economy.

Augustine OYOWE