Yesterday, I had the privilege to open a session on “promoting decent work” as part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Civil Society Forum held here in Washington. The session attracted nearly 100 participants, many of whom are leaders of labor and civil society organizations from all over Africa.
As I noted in my remarks, discussing what the International Labor Organization has defined as “decent” work may not seem like the most captivating topic, especially during a forum that also covered issues like climate change, wildlife protection and food security. But the topic drew a packed room and prompted over two hours of sustained discussion.
Decent work means earning a fair income, having safe and secure workplaces, and achieving social protection for families – which, taken together, make the difference between exploitation and a sense of hope and empowerment.
Much of the rest of this week’s summit is about how to promote increased investment and trade, both within Africa and to and from the continent. All of that is certainly important.
But the session I opened was about the human side of trade, investment and economic development – it was about focusing on the lives of those who work to make those trade flows possible, who need and deserve a larger slice of the economic pie.
Too often, we’re told by some that promoting decent work is somehow at odds with economic growth and development, especially in developing countries that falsely believe they can’t afford to have standards when it comes to worker rights, gender equality and protecting the most vulnerable.
This view reflects a fundamental misconception of what is required for real, sustainable economic growth. We need to promote development that, at its core, is about creating opportunities for “regular” people to better their lives. Labor is what gets sown into a nation’s economic future. And the kind of jobs that are created will determine the extent to which a country, whether the United States or a developing economy in Africa, is able to experience sustainable wealth and prosperity.
For our part, the U.S. Department of Labor long has been committed to support that type of economic development in Africa. Just a few days ago, for example, we announced our intent to fund a $10 million project in Ethiopia, which addresses exploitative child labor by helping youth develop the skills needed to secure decent work appropriate for their age.
I left yesterday’s session excited about the passion and commitment of the African labor and civil society leaders in attendance, and I was encouraged by our frank dialogue about the responsibilities of governments to create employment opportunities with strong enforcement of labor rights and social protections. I look forward to building on that dialogue and working together to help create a better economic future for the people of Africa − one based on the promise of “decent work.”
Chris Lu is the deputy secretary of labor.