ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Europe’s Industrial Revolution spurred unprecedented technological and economic progress. It also inflicted a tremendous human cost. Millions of workers toiled in dangerous conditions. The same would hold true some two centuries later in East Asia, where explosive industrial growth was coupled with sweatshops and child labor.
Now African leaders are plotting their own era of mass industrialization. In the Ivorian capital Abidjan this week, delegates from across the continent and beyond gathered for a six-day conference themed, “Industrialization for an Emerging Africa.” A high-powered panel of speakers declared Africa primed to take off as the new “workbench of the world.”
“Industrialization cannot be considered a luxury but a necessity for the continent’s development,” said Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the new head of the African Union Commission.
Carlos Lopes, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), declared Africa primed for a “structural transformation,” with industrialization and value-added activities supplanting agriculture and raw commodities exports as the cornerstone of the continent’s economic activity.
The lofty rhetoric masked a distinct lack of specific proposals for achieving such goals. But the conference reflected a growing consensus among African leaders and observers that to sustain its high levels of growth beyond commodities booms, industrialization must be prioritized—and the sooner the better.
For Africa’s workers, the prospect of sweeping industrialization carries promise and peril. On a continent that has simultaneously recorded some of the world’s highest rates of growth and unemployment, labor-intensive industry could bring millions of new jobs for Africa’s bulging youth population. But labor rights activists raise concerns about what exactly those jobs will look like.
Imani Countess, the African Regional Program Director at the Solidarity Center, an international labor rights organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO, noted the downward pressure on wages and working conditions in Africa’s most industrialized country, South Africa.
Manufacturers, she said, are telling the South African government, “If you want to be able to employ the large numbers of people who are unemployed, then you have to allow a differentiation. You have to allow for, for example, textile manufacturers to set up a different standard that isn’t in line with South Africa’s national labor standards.”
Governments and unions that insist on higher wages and better working conditions risk being passed over in favor of cheaper industrial hubs. Indeed, Africa’s greatest potential appeal to manufacturers is its supply of inexpensive labor.
“These multi-national corporations—they look at where they will be competitive and where they can have cost advantage,” said Kandeh K. Yumkella, Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). “Our people must make an effort to lower the cost of doing business, reduce bureaucracy, invest in other enablers.”
Those realities place labor advocates like Countess in a tough spot. She readily acknowledges that wide-scale industrialization is the only way to lift millions of African out of poverty. She insists, however, that companies can both hire and provide adequate working conditions.
“The argument that companies put forward is such a false one,” Countess argued, citing the benefits of a better-motivated workforce, increased productivity, and a positive public image. “Because the kinds of investment that we’re talking about on the part of manufacturers and global corporations isn’t one that negatively impacts their bottom line.”
Chris Elias, President of Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, added that industrialization need not visit the same human toll on Africa that it has elsewhere. In realms like occupational safety, manufacturers now have extensive experience to draw on. He also pointed to the proactive stance many African employers have taken in the last two decades against HIV/AIDS to educate their employees.
Still, the future of labor rights will depend largely on the oversight of individual governments and international organizations. Asked by GlobalPost at a press conference whether the issue had been broached in Abidjan or would be at future gatherings, Lopes of the ECA only replied that the delegates “didn’t discuss labor rights as such,” although they did emphasize equitable growth. An African Union conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in April will address labor issues.
Despite the challenges ahead, Countess is confident that African trade unions are poised to fight for their interests. Unions in the agricultural and mining sectors have notched several notable victories in recent years. In Liberia, for example, the union at the Firestone rubber plantation won a series of concessions in its last round of collective bargaining, including a more than doubling of salaries and a ban on child labor.
“I think that if you were to look behind this meeting and look behind the push toward industrialization, you would find the very heavy footprint of trade unions,” Countess said.