Social dialogue is the key to fostering trade union participation in recovery and resilience in Africa

The Covid-19 pandemic has mutated from a health emergency into one of the most serious global socio-economic crises in living memory. Its adverse impacts can be felt throughout society, especially in the world of work, and particularly in Africa, where it has exacerbated underlying structural challenges and humanitarian crises throughout the continent.

According to the African Development Bank’s African Economic Outlook 2020, economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa was projected to fall sharply from 3.1 per cent in 2019 to -3.2 per cent in 2020 due to the effects of the pandemic, marking the first recession in the region for over 25 years.

Meanwhile the number of positive Covid-19 cases on the continent continues to rise as the rates of vaccination fall seriously behind the rest of the world; globally, 150 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been administered per 1,000 people, but in sub-Saharan Africa that figure is about eight doses per 1,000 people.

Covid-19 has exposed existing inequalities, the vulnerability of workers, heightened unemployment and underemployment levels, further weakened Africa’s already fragile health systems, and worsened domestic and foreign debt burden. The pandemic conflates all these factors in the context of long-unresolved historic and structural economic injustices that the African continent continues to face.

Labour markets around the world were disrupted in 2020 on a historically unprecedented scale. Some 8.8 per cent of global working hours were lost which translates to 255 million full-time job losses. Although not as many working hours were lost in Africa, the pandemic hit the continent’s workers, most of whom work in the informal economy, hard. Countless jobs and livelihoods were completely lost.

While it is clear that Covid-19 has grossly affected workers, African governments have attempted to implement measures to impede the spread of the virus without meaningfully engaging with workers on issues that affect them. Social dialogue, a mechanism that brings the social partners (government, workers and employers) together to discuss and negotiate on work-related issues, has in most countries has been piecemeal or non-existent.

In some countries, workers have been sidelined in the critical decisions that affect their lives and in other cases there has been little information provided to them. In other instances, governments have used divide and rule tactics to stifle trade union activities and push through Covid-19 measures without consultation. This situation has created a detestation of the Covid-19 measures among workers and has deepened inequities among the people working in productive and support sectors like agriculture and transport. Without social dialogue to improve the plight of workers, the post-Covid-19 environment foretells a future of distrust and apathy.

This situation calls for immediate reversal by employing inclusive approaches like social dialogue as a mechanism in managing the Covid-19 pandemic with workers being able to contribute to important decisions around the containment of this devastating pandemic. We can only build back better if we use a multi-stakeholder approach.

Trade unions reveal the scale of the problem

The daunting challenges faced by trade unions in managing the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world of work prompted the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to conduct multi-country studies (which are still to be published) on strengthening trade unions social dialogue capabilities in managing the Covid-19 pandemic.

So far, the evidence suggests that trade unions are able to access the information on Covid-19 which is made publicly available, however there are challenges surrounding trade unions having their voices heard by governments. The state of (public) emergencies and curfews imposed to enforce Covid-19 compliance has, in some cases, frustrated the upholding of social dialogue mechanisms.

In Somalia, Botswana and Sierra Leone, for example, 84 per cent of the workers polled by the ITUC indicated that their central government assumed excessive powers that imbalanced the tenets of social dialogue. Other respondents indicated that lockdown measures compromised the abilities of trade unions to attend Covid-19 dialogue meetings and gatherings, while others indicated that their dwindling resources have affected their abilities to protect workers.

It is important to appreciate that there is an established tendency by governments to view trade unions as being anti-government and therefore potentially standing in the way of their implementation of Covid-19 measures. Measures to maintain social distancing and restrict physical meetings gave governments the green light to justify their refusal to collaborate with all sectors, although such decisions have had greater ramifications on the plight of working people.

Policy alternatives

According to International Labour Organization (ILO), for social dialogue to take place, the following must exist:
1. Strong, independent workers’ and employers’ organisations with the technical capacity and the access to relevant information to participate in social dialogue;
2. Political will and commitment to engage in social dialogue on the part of all the parties;
3. Respect for the fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining;
4. Appropriate institutional support.

Therefore, in order to sustain social dialogue at the national level, the roles of partners must be made clear to all stakeholders to hold each other accountable. Trade unions need to have their capacity strengthened in knowledge of the theory of social dialogue, in policy analysis, and also policy advocacy to be able to attend and effectively participate in social dialogue meetings when called by governments. At the national level, this means institutionalising social dialogue meetings, while making the meetings more transparent and meaningfully inclusive.

As the Covid-19 pandemic persists, with its far-reaching socio-economic consequences, the ILO is calling for effective tripartite social dialogue and cooperation that brings together governments, employers and workers’ organisations to design effective strategies and policies to address its impacts. This implies that trade unions must find their place on the national taskforces set up to address the issues caused by the pandemic. To add value, trade unions must continue to engage with their constituents on Covid-19 to be in tune with grassroots issues, gather appropriate data and disseminate the information to feed into the dialogue process.

Trade unions must also embrace the new digital tools for engagement that have become so prevalent during this time to strengthen their outreach to the workers.
To improve trade union participation in such dialogues, trade unions must foster a spirit of collaboration instead of being seen to be in competition with other stakeholders.

Trade unions must also have adequate information on how to manage social dialogue processes in order to be effective social partners and be recognised as actors in development in their own right.

On one hand, considering that Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the world of work, governments should ensure that worker representatives are included in other national platforms that have been set up to drive the recovery and resilience-building agenda post Covid-19. This will ensure that the voices of workers are heard at the highest level of policymaking and in the spirit of the SDGs, guarantee that truly no one is left behind.

On the other hand, governments must be made to understand that in order to build back better, workers need to be at the forefront of this recovery, in line with SDG 8 and recurrent themes of decent work i.e., employment, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue. This should also include policies addressing the cross-cutting issues of gender, women, youth, and the informal economy. Excluding trade unions from recovery processes will only lead to more social exclusion and inequality.