|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 March 2002
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Work for (nearly) everyoneIn an exclusive interview, ILO executive director Kari Tapiola explained to Gihan Shahine how the organisation is helping Egypt fight the daunting issues of child labour and unemployment
Kari Tapiola, executive director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), had a message to impart at the Arab League Conference held on 2 March: "The organisation is at your service," he said.
What service the organisation can offer Egypt was the main topic of discussion during Tapiola's three-day visit last week.
Egypt has ratified 61 ILO conventions to date. The conventions cover important labour issues such as child workers, unemployment and poverty, providing social protection, promoting decent work, and ensuring fundamental rights for workers such as freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
But it remains a moot point whether more legislation is the answer to Egypt's endemic labour problems.
Child labour is a case in point. Egypt has ratified convention number 138 of 1973 on the minimum age for work and convention number 182 of 1999 for Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. On 6 May, Suzanne Mubarak will launch the first Global Report on Child Labour on behalf of the Arab region.
In fact, Egyptian law already largely conforms with the conventions. From the start of the 20th century, Egyptian legislators have been regulating work for children in some industries. More significantly, the minimum age for employment has been raised to correspond with the completion of basic education (primary and intermediate school), which coincides with Convention 138.
But legislation, experts say, has failed to get children out of work. As is often the case in matters controversial, no accurate statistics of child labour in Egypt exist. But unofficial figures suggest that children between six and 18 years of age accounted for almost nine per cent of the Egyptian workforce in 1974. A decade later, the figure had risen to an estimated 11 per cent. In 1988, the proportion dropped to under eight per cent, but only because of a general growth in the size of the workforce, not because of a decrease in the number of children working.
It gets worse. Experts suggest that children aged between 12 and 14 constitute almost half of all paid labour. And a quarter of all working children are aged between 6 and 21.
Tackling unemployment and child labour are high priority issues on the government's agenda, but are current strategies successful?
photos: Khaled Guweili & Kamal El-Garnousi
The causes are many. Failings in the schooling system have driven many children out of classrooms and into paying jobs -- a practice tacitly encouraged by unscrupulous employers who welcome cheap and deft labour. Experts insist that to combat child labour, Egypt must revise its social insurance system, not the labour laws.
The ILO estimates that, worldwide, some 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 work for a living. Tapiola argues, however, that there is merit in the wide-scale ratification of ILO conventions, because it often means a country has a strong political will and is committed to tackling the issue.
"Ratification creates legal obligation," Tapiola explained. "When a country ratifies a certain convention, we expect it to be able to apply it and try to live up to the international standards set by the convention. Which, of course, gives us the chance to cooperate."
On the mechanism of cooperation, Tapiola remarked, "We don't import models: we sit with governments, figure out problems and priorities, and help design a programme that is best suited to tackling their problems. An ILO special committee then monitors progress, gives advice and comments on the degree of commitment shown by the country that has ratified a certain convention." "That," Tapiola added, does not mean "we expect the world to be perfect. We do not, for instance, expect countries to eliminate child labour altogether. Progress is what we care about. We may manage to eliminate child labour in one small area, but even that drop in the sea is significant. It means we can make it in another place. It would be a fatal mistake to consider that a problem is too huge to solve."
So what progress has Egypt so far made? The full picture will come with the global report but, for now, Tapiola is satisfied. "The committee has reported nothing that would be considered a serious problem," he said. He added that "the Egyptian government and civil society should proceed on the way they have chosen."
But there are deeper issues, of which child labour is only a symptom. Child labour, Tapiola acknowledges, is usually the result of a stagnating economy manifest in tiny family incomes and escalating poverty. Low and unstable wages, and the absence of a comprehensive social insurance system compound the problem, and children are forced to contribute to the family income.
This leads us neatly to unemployment: an issue that sits at the summit of the ILO agenda -- for Egypt, and the world. Unemployment is swelling into a global epidemic that has stumped experts -- and Egypt is no exception. The problem grew particularly grave after 11 September, which threatened "an estimated 30 million jobs worldwide," Tapiola observed.
"In Egypt, losses to the economy have reached billions of dollars as important sectors, especially tourism and transport, have been negatively affected," he commented.
Official statistics claim a fall in unemployment from 8.2 per cent of the workforce in 1997/1998 to 7.9 per cent in 1998/1999, though most experts insist that these figures are untrue.
Egypt's population is growing fast (at a rate of 2.2 per cent a year). The labour force is growing even faster (at a rate of 2.6 per cent a year). The economy is growing at 4.4 to five per cent a year (according to government statistics). Over half a million reach employment age each year, according to a study by Samir Radwan, ILO senior employment adviser. And the economy is growing too slowly to provide them all with work.
A recent ILO study indicates that the worst bane lies in the structure and characteristics of unemployment. Since the 1970s, the number of youths out of work has steadily grown: almost 94 per cent of the unemployed in 1998 were new entrants to the market. About 90 per cent of them were aged between 15 and 29, while 70 per cent were aged between 20 and 29. Education also correlates inversely with employment, according to the report, indicating poor investment allocation in the field of human resources.
Although unemployment is fast becoming the government's central concern, the ILO study warns that Egypt's "approach to the challenge is less than adequate." While 833,000 new jobs need to be created each year to absorb new entrants to the labour market as well as the longer- term unemployed, the economy is only able to provide 600,000 jobs, according to the study. Its conclusion is that numerous policies have been drafted to encourage job creation, but these policies are "too general and too broad." Even the council of ministers agrees, saying that the resources allotted to the fight against unemployment are inadequate. The government's "National Employment Programme" in mid 2000, for instance, was "more a kind of emergency plan" and "has not even translated into action." Again, in July 2001, the government launched a "government employment scheme," according to which 800,000 job opportunities would be hatched in the public sector. But, said the study, this scheme "will not create any jobs in productive sectors and will increase the number of employees in a government which is already over-staffed."
What, then, can the ILO give Egypt? Advice, in the main. Generally, the ILO directs its efforts towards job creation, workers' rights, social protection, conversation between employers, workers and governments, and making what it calls "a decent work development strategy."
"In Egypt, we have been providing advice and working with the government on developing the national employment programme," Tapiola told Al-Ahram Weekly. But he stressed that the organisation is "not a funding agency."
"We promote full employment, but that doesn't mean we create jobs," Tapiola commented. "We help define problems and priorities, and then help design employment policies based on the resulting data, and also on our experiences in other countries. Meanwhile, we provide technical assistance and capacity- building programmes to help the government achieve full productive employment."
Jobs, Tapiola remarked, are principally created through small and medium enterprises. Globally, however, it is more difficult to create a small enterprise than maintain a big one: small entrepreneurs have no access to credit and have to jump through several bureaucratic hoops to get it. The ILO thus promotes enterprise schemes to help invigorate job creation.
There are some caveats. Tapiola firmly underlined that "the ILO promotes decent work, not just any kind of work. We actually aim at full and productive employment," Tapiola asserted. "But we try to help create better-quality work, the kind of jobs which are sufficiently good and safe; jobs which generate income. Only then we will be able to reduce unemployment and alleviate poverty," he said.
But, as Tapiola acknowledged, there are many obstacles on that path. A big one is the attitude towards skill acquisition. "We must help people develop their skills, so as to be able to move from one job to another. We no longer live in a world where people spend their lives in one job; youths need to be educated with a flexible attitude," Tapiola commented.
This is an important point for Egypt. The ILO study indicates that unemployment is not the only "misuse of human resources" in Egypt. Underemployment is also widespread in government departments, public authorities and the informal sector, which are characterised by low productivity and low wage levels. Furthermore, the Egyptian labour market suffers from a paucity of skilled workers, and too many workers without the proper skills.
Tapiola advises the "empowerment of labour in the informal sector," which has absorbed increasing numbers of workers in Egypt since the mid 1970s. "By that, I don't mean formalise that sector. Rather, we should provide vocational training to people working in the informal sector while also gradually implementing fundamental work rights."
Creating jobs for everyone, and decent ones at that, may seem a Sisyphean task. But Tapiola is undaunted. Of all the theories, suggestions, dialogue and talk, he says, "the challenge now is to translate them into action." For, as he puts it, even a drop in the sea is worth the effort.
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