Advancing decent work: Empowering women and youth through the African Continental Free Trade Area

The African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) organised a regional seminar focusing on issues such as free trade, investment, industrialisation, and job creation to improve the working and living conditions of the millions of women and youth who are today working in the informal economy.

The informal economy in Africa is confronted with several challenges. Noteworthy among these is the substantial representation of women and youth in the informal sector, resulting in poverty levels below the minimum survival threshold due to unstable incomes. Workers in this sector endure extended working hours and are vulnerable to occupational hazards, making it challenging to invest in their children’s welfare and future. Low investment in production, coupled with a lack of insurance for employment, salary, and health, contributes to inadequate working conditions. The absence of social protection further exacerbates the plight of those engaged in the informal economy. Additionally, the governance challenge pertains to the provision of basic social services, emphasising the pressing need for comprehensive measures to address these multifaceted issues.

In a bid to strengthen the capacities of young trade union actors and advocate for the rights and opportunities of women and youth in the informal sector, in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), ITUC-Africa organised a comprehensive regional seminar from 23-25 November, 2023. The 3-day regional seminar delved into critical themes such as free trade, investment, industrialisation, and job creation within the AfCFTA framework.

In his opening statement, Comrade Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, the former General Secretary of ITUC-Africa emphasised the pivotal role of the informal economy in sub-Saharan Africa, highlighting its status as a key component of regional economies. He underscored the need for policymakers to recognise the informal sector’s importance, calling for an environment that supports small and medium-sized enterprises, including those in the informal sector.

Trenton Elsley, Executive Director of the Labour Research Service of South Africa, emphasised the significance of the AfCFTA as a beacon of hope aligned with the African Union’s Agenda 2063. While acknowledging the opportunities it presents, he urged addressing inequality to ensure equitable distribution of benefits. Juha Vauhkonen, Head of International Affairs at the Trade Union Solidarity Centre of Finland (SASK), praised the AfCFTA as a platform for unprecedented economic growth and prosperity, stressing the trade union movement’s critical role in advocating for fair labour practices and inclusive development. Ernest Nadome from the Central Organisation of Trade Unions in Kenya - COTU (K), echoed the importance of reconsidering aspirations and priorities of women and youth for the AfCFTA’s success. Strengthening women’s skills, fighting against workplace violence, and mobilising women and youth were emphasised as key priorities. Hilma Mote from ILO-ACTRAV Geneva also underscored the importance of relying on international standards, including ILO Recommendation 204, to ensure the formalisation of the informal economy.

Hod Anyigba, the Chief economist and Executive Director of the Africa Labour, Research and Education Institute (ALREI) of ITUC-Africa, provided insightful recommendations. His suggestions encompass a holistic approach to addressing challenges within the informal sector. He advocated for targeted research focusing on the informal economy, emphasising the need for innovative strategies to organise and support this vital sector. He equally highlighted the importance of robust data collection mechanisms and called for a gradual and careful process of formalisation that does not compromise the economic development of informal workers. Furthermore, he stressed the significance of promoting inclusive industrialisation and aligning efforts with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure decent work in the informal sector. The recommendations also extend to the analysis of capacity development needs tailored to regional interests and the removal of barriers in regional trade through the free movement of people across borders. These comprehensive suggestions underscored the importance of multifaceted approaches to enhance the conditions of workers within the informal economy, especially women and the youth.

“We need to acknowledge the significance of Africa’s informal economy and its impact on the future of the continent. We must therefore develop thoughtful leadership for workers in the informal economy. Although this economy is characteristic of developing countries, it is not covered by legislative regulations. The lack of adequate social protection for these workers is a handicap for their formalisation. However, better governance of natural resources can support the assistance and support of informal workers,” said Hod Anyigba.