Decent work in Burkina Faso is a work in progress, but more vital than ever after the coup

Decent work in Burkina Faso is a work in progress, but more vital than ever after the coup

Although the concept of ’decent work’ is gaining ground, the recent coup d’état and military takeover, in addition to ongoing insecurity in the country, magnified by chronic food crises linked to climate change, will not facilitate the task at hand.

(Juan Luis Rod)

Since the last century, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has been striving to promote decent work policies around the world, not least because, according to international consensus, decent work is the cornerstone for achieving and sustaining peace, enabling recovery and building resilience. In Burkina Faso, the idea has gained ground and is very slowly taking root in the sphere of employment. But this is a work in progress, with gigantic warning signs on the horizon, not only because of the current coup d’état in the country and the seizure of power by military forces on 24 January, but also because of growing insecurity and chronic food crises linked to climate change.

According to the World Bank, Burkina Faso is “a low-income, resource-constrained Saharan country” where 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, 11 per cent of these in extreme poverty, mainly in rural areas. In rural areas, the agricultural and forestry sector employs almost 80 per cent of the working population. With almost 21 million people, the country has a very young population, with 78 per cent of Burkinabe people under the age of 35. The proportion in informal employment is around 95 per cent.

In addition to the chronic food crises that have plagued the country for decades, growing insecurity, which has just culminated in a coup, has disrupted the lives of many communities since 2018. For example, due to attacks and threats from armed groups, at the start of the 2021 school year, around 11 per cent of schools remained closed (2,682 schools). In addition, Burkina Faso has more than 1.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), representing 6 per cent of its population; and these figures are expected to increase in the near future.

In this context, Burkina Faso, which has been a member of the ILO since 1960 and has ratified 43 ILO Conventions, recently began revising its labour code. It is also in this context that it has been trying to implement policies to promote employment and decent work since 2004, the year in which an African Union summit in the capital city of Ouagadougou launched policies to reduce poverty through job creation on the continent.

But not just any kind of work. In 2007, a first Decent Work Agenda (DWA) established a framework for the period 2007-2015.

“Africa is the continent with the highest number of working poor in the world. The problem is not lack of effort. People in Africa work hard day in and day out [...]. It is time to take action that lives up to their aspirations,” proclaimed the then ILO Director-General Juan Somavía at the launch of the agenda.

Starting in 2015, the ILO, hand in hand with the African Union, launched an ambitious programme focusing on youth, social protection and strengthening social dialogue. To support member states in implementing the DWA, the ILO established so-called Decent Work Country Programmes (DWCPs). These programmes make it possible to define the expected results and the activities planned to achieve them, as well as the resources needed to carry them out and the actors involved in their implementation. In addition, a series of indicators are used to measure the level of programme implementation. In Burkina Faso, the DWCP has been elaborated with a participatory approach, i.e., it involves different national partners (trade unions, employers and government) and is approved by decree in the Council of Ministers.

DWCPs, far from being watertight programmes, are intertwined with national employment and social protection policies. This is the case of the ongoing Labour, Employment and Social Protection sectoral policy. This policy integrates all the principles of promoting decent work, social protection and women’s socio-economic empowerment.

However, in 2020, when the ILO took stock of ten years of intervention in the field of youth employment (2009-2019), the conclusions were not encouraging. According to the document, while a significant number of young people were managing to enter the labour market each year, they were barely managing to earn a living let alone have a better future, due to the increase in informal and precarious employment for young people and a labour market integration that was increasingly delayed over time. Ten years after its adoption, the results of the national employment policy were “disappointing, at best mixed,” the ILO said.

Tripartite dialogue: the ’Decent Work Country Programme’ in action

The design and implementation of the current DWCP (2020-2022), although it remains to be seen what will happen in the aftermath of the coup, has been built with the support of workers’ organisations, in particular the National Confederation of Burkina Workers (La Confédération nationale des travailleurs du Burkina Faso, CNTB), the National Council of Employers (Le Conseil national du patronat, CNPB) and state actors such as the Directorate General of Labour (La Direction générale du travail, DGT). Indeed, one of the main key results of the programme has been the promotion and strengthening of tripartite dialogue.

But this coordination of efforts among the three actors appears to be one of the main challenges for the advancement of national policies and programmes stemming from ILO support, sources tell Equal Times.

According to Ferdinand Zoungrana, head of the legal, fiscal and social service of the CNPB, the labour actors are willing and determined to move forward with the DWCP, but the political will should be stronger:

“The commitment of the social actors has been achieved, but the government should work in symbiosis so that we don’t continue with the same old song and dance. As long as there is no political will to really take ownership of the projects, they will be implemented, but with disappointing results time and time again,” Zoungrana says.

Marcel Zandé, secretary general of the CNTB trade union confederation, stresses that the commitment of the actors is insufficient and that the objectives have not been met: “The jobs that have been created fall far short of the targets set and less than half of them meet the requirements of decent work. If an employer can afford to renew a contract as many times as he wants, that is not a stable job. For example, in the mining sector, wages are above average, but the work is precarious and does not respect the scope of decent work.”

In addition to the lack of synergy between the different actors, contextual insecurity is the other major (and obvious) obstacle: “Each actor defends their own interests, and it is difficult to define who intervenes at what level. Moreover, companies find it difficult to thrive in this unstable security environment, reducing the impact of the programmes,” Zoungrana adds.

One of the biggest challenges, Zandé explains, is the finalisation of sectoral collective agreements, which is a key point of the DWCP: “We would like to see sectoral provisions, in particular certain agreements. For example, the negotiation of a mining sector agreement has been underway since 2014 and has not yet been finalised, because it is highly criticised by investors. But the same can be said of the sector agreement for the public works programme that we have put on the employers’ table, or the cultural sector agreement.”

According to Zoungrana, the main obstacle to progress in updating collective bargaining agreements is the wage issue: “Depending on the sector, there are big fish and small fish, and the big fish can negotiate the agreement to suit them.”

Labour code reform: employers and trade unions at the negotiating table

In 2021, employers and trade unions revised 25 articles of the labour code. More than half were modified by consensus, in particular those related to the duration of contracts or the number of times a temporary contract can be renewed (maximum three times), compensation in the event of unfair or irregular dismissal (three months’ salary), maternity leave (15 months) or paid holidays and exceptional leave.

Disagreements arose over issues related to the right to strike, blockades and pickets, collective dispute resolution, trade union representation in the company or temporary work and subcontracting.

“The labour code was adopted in 2008 under the government of Blaise Compaoré [the former president of Burkina Faso from 1987 to 2014, who is being tried in absentia for the assassination of the president who preceded him, the revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara] and was intended to attract investors. After the joint re-reading in 2021, we were able to find convergence on a number of provisions and further reduce the differences on other points. If the law is adopted in this sense, the result will be balanced, as many situations will have to be reviewed in order to favour decent work,” Zandé said at the end of 2021.

“We wanted to agree on as many points as possible and leave the rest on ice. Basically, we agree on what our disagreement is. Now it’s in the hands of the Council of Ministers: let’s see what happens,” Zoungrana adds.

It remains to be seen when and if a future Council of Ministers will endorse the proposal. If it does, the road to decent work will have taken decisive steps and tripartite dialogue will have been boosted. However, in December 2021, amidst a situation of heightened insecurity and acute social unrest (following a terrorist attack that killed 53 people), the Burkinabe president, Roch Kaboré, dismissed the prime minister and his government and appointed a new one led by Lassina Zerbo. Following Monday’s coup, the military junta has deposed Kaboré, suspended the constitution and dissolved both the government and the national assembly.

With all issues open in the aftermath of the coup, and based on what has happened in the past, there is the very real possibility that the authorities (reinstated or new) will not fully take on board the recommendations of employers and trade unions. Likewise, the debate on decent work will be marginal and incomplete as long as the working conditions of most of the population in rural areas or in the informal sector are not addressed.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Sara Hammerton

This article was produced with the support of the Belgian trade union ACV-CSC and the Directorate-General for Belgian Development Cooperation.