The scale of the employment challenge for Africa

SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

This article references content included in the 2019 Spotlight Report, available for download at There will also be a side-event at the HLPF on 11 July, 9:30am-11:30pm at Baha’i International Community, 866 UN Plaza, New York. See the invitation here.


The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)), which governments adopted in September 2015, has been described as a “supremely ambitious and transformational vision”. Since 2015 the Civil Society Reflection Group (CSRG) has been monitoring how governments and international organizations have been implementing these.

In his assessment of progress on SDG 8: Trywell Kalusopa of the African Labour Research Network argues that the current capitalist global financial and economic production system needs to undergo radical change before it will be possible to promote sustainable growth, full employment and decent work.

Reclaiming the socio- economic space for realizing SDG 8 in Africa

It had been assumed that Africa’s economic growth spurt, with countries recording rates of more than 7%, would help make SDG 8 in Africa a done deal. However, so far this growth has failed to bring about any concrete employment gains as 80% of the population continue to work in the vulnerable informal sector, and only 19% of the working population (excluding North Africa) are covered by social protection systems, and therefore cannot be described as enjoying decent work.

Some African economists have suggested this employment picture is a hangover from colonial capitalism, where the formal sector only constituted a small segment of the economy, with the rest under pre-capitalist modes of production; something which post-independence policies have failed to remedy. At present Africa’s dominant development economic model reflects an unbalanced production system, unable to absorb the vast numbers of the unemployed/ underemployed into the mainstream economy. This will hinder progress on SDG 8.

Finding out the scale of the problem

The 2017 Africa regional report on Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stresses that in order to make inroads into changing the current system, policy-makers need a clear picture of the continent’s employment perimeters. Kalusopa says that the continent’s entire data collection and statistical systems need strengthening and to meld with SDG 8 targets in order to move forward on SDG8:

  • Governments need to collect disaggregated data by age, gender, income and geographical location so they can focus on groups that risk being left behind in the development process.
  • Employment-to-population ratios; vulnerable employment; the share of working poor (US$ 1 a day) in total employment; growth in labour productivity; gender equality, the future of work.

SMEs are a section of the economy with the potential to generate industrialization, entrepreneur revival and job creation, and thus contribute to SDG 8. More information is needed to assess this potential.

  • Governments should set up national data bases on the size and structure of the SME sector, including output, product range, employment and exports, and a competitiveness observatory.

Using all this data, governments, trade unions and business must join forces at national and regional levels to develop common methodologies for national labour market information systems. They must also draw up and assess national plans, all within the context of the SDGs.

Governments must then introduce:

  • Inclusive social protection for formal and informal workers; collective worker and employer representation and social dialogue; health and safety protection; environmental sustainability and equality at the workplace and beyond.

The informal economy and social protection mechanisms

The very high proportion of those in the informal sector in Sub-Saharan Africa means that most of the workforce, are exposed to unsafe working conditions, longer working hours, and uncertain, irregular and lower incomes. They are not protected by social security schemes or health and safety, and, maternity or other labour legislation, and as most are not unionised cannot bargain for better employment terms or protection from unscrupulous employers.

  • Governments should take immediate measures to formalise the informal economy and as a corollary should introduce social protection legislation for all workers, as this is crucial to achieve SDG 8.

New Social Contract

As a final demonstration of the aspiration to fulfil SDG 8, workers, communities, employers and governments should draw up a Social Contract:

  • This should include a universal labour guarantee for all workers, the respect for workers’ rights, decent jobs with minimum living wages and collective bargaining, universal social protection coverage, due diligence and accountability and transition measures for climate and technology.

Daphne Davies for Global Policy Watch

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