Decent work for all? We need to talk about rural informal employment!

The idea that there are universal rights in relation to work, and a universal standard that delineates acceptable from unacceptable work, has an impressive pedigree. Rooted in Article 23 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; solidified in the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; promoted for nearly two decades through the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda; and incorporated into the 2016 Sustainable Development Goals – the aim of “decent work for all” has received the full backing of the international community.


Now let’s meet Kwaku, a 26-year old man who lives in Brong Ahafo, Ghana. Kwaku farms on a relatively small scale, producing tomatoes, maize and yams on rented land. He sometimes uses improved seed and fertiliser, but by-and-large his farming is characterised by limited technology, hard manual work and low productivity. In order to supplement his meagre income from selling crops he works for larger farmers as a “by-day worker”, and he also makes and sells charcoal. He is poor but not desperate. In many ways he is not very different from thousands of other rural young people in Brong Ahafo.


Kwaku and those in similar positions might be described as self-employed, as private-sector operators, as informal workers or as micro-entrepreneurs. Regardless of the label that is used, the question is: what is the relevance of the decent work agenda to Kwaku, and how realistic is it to think that he will benefit from policies and programmes to deliver “decent work for all”?


Decent work deficits

Decent work is normally described in terms of providing:

  1. A fair income
  2. Security in the workplace
  3. Social protection for families
  4. Prospects for personal development and social integration
  5. Freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives
  6. Equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men


There are a number of studies that have sought to identify “decent work deficits” for particular groups of workers in particular situations. Some of these studies have focused on people in informal employment, specifically in urban and peri-urban areas.  We are not aware of any studies of decent work deficits of the millions of small-scale farmers in rural Africa.


On the face of it, Kwaku’s decent work scorecard is pretty grim, as he is facing significant deficits in each of the six areas. Despite how Kwaku combines a number of different income-generating activities, he does not have many options – at least not very good (or decent) ones. As rural people make up the bulk of the working population in most African economies, and many find themselves in situations similar to Kwaku’s, his decent work deficits encapsulate a major policy challenge.


Addressing the challenge

There are two approaches to this challenge. The first is to look for opportunities to improve the situation of people like Kwaku, by, for example, working to increase their productivity, promoting membership in cooperatives, connecting them to supply chains, and increasing access to off-farm activities and agricultural wage employment. This is essentially the route taken by Tom Lavers and Eleanor Tighe in their recent chapter in World Employment and Social Outlook, “The role of decent work in ending poverty in the rural economy”. Interestingly, while this chapter has a strong poverty focus, it says relatively little about decent work per se. The assumption seems to be that opportunities for gradual reductions in poverty offered through these avenues – e.g. greater bargaining power for producers who form or join cooperatives and engage with value chains – can eventually lead to decent work.


The second approach is to start with the notion of decent work itself, and ask whether self-employment and informal work in rural areas, and the associated diversified and portfolio livelihoods, can ever provide a suitable basis for it. By their nature these activities and employment relationships are beyond the reach of labour law and regulations, and the conditions of work they offer are often highly precarious, so how can Kwaku’s right to decent work ever be guaranteed? Some suggest the answer is in formalising informal work and employment relations, but there is little sign of change along these lines. Alternatively, a first step might be to acknowledge that work alone, at least in these circumstances, cannot be expected to deliver decent livelihoods to people like Kwaku. For example, universal public health insurance, and a basic income grant to provide a financial baseline, and a strong sense of moral economy would help address some decent work deficits.


Rural relevance?

But it goes without saying that in the absence of a living wage, even these interventions will leave rural people with significant deficits. Are policy makers bold enough to contemplate the kind of radical shake-up of labour-capital relations that would be needed to deliver a living wage to the millions of rural workers in Africa?


Decency and decent lives are the right goals, but decent work as it has been articulated appears to be of limited relevance to work and livelihoods in rural Africa – it is simply not a realistic prospect for most rural people at present. This results in a tension between the twin goals of “decent work for all” and “leave no one behind”, and unless this tension is addressed, Kwaku and so many others will likely be left behind, once again.

Written by, Jim Sumberg, Philip Mader and Justin Flynn