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Transforming Labour Dynamics in East Africa: A Call for Reform
By Hon Sadik Warfa
Thursday May 9, 2024


In the 19th century, to motivate workers and advocate for better working conditions, fair wages, and the eight-hour workday, International Workers' Day or May Day was established. Celebrated at the beginning of this month, May day remains significant for East Africans. It is marked by various events and activities organized by trade unions, workers' associations, and government agencies. However, the impact of workers on society is immense and perhaps deserves more than just a single day of recognition. Maybe dedicating the entire month to commemorate the achievements of the labor movement would be more fitting.

During his Presidency, while commemorating Labor Day in September 6, 2010, Barack Obama remarked, “It was working men and women who made the 20th century the American century. It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today.” His words underscore the importance of valuing labour and skills, especially in an era where AI and online jobs are gradually taking precedence.

Months after Somalia's admission into the East African Community (EAC) a pivotal moment that will mark its progress towards economic empowerment and regional integration, Labour Day and this month in General should be an opportunity for the leaders to focus more on not only celebrating the workers but also creating conducive environments and regulatory frameworks that bolster investor confidence and safeguard property rights. It is particularly commendable the efforts by the Somalia Government to ensure the country has a space in the trade movement and activities in the East African Region.

In Somalia, the labour market spans various sectors, including agriculture, livestock, fishing, trade, and increasingly telecommunications. The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and online employment has ushered in a new era of both opportunities and challenges in this dynamic field. This transformation is particularly noticeable in Africa, where unique socioeconomic dynamics intersect with advancements in labor and technology. It's imperative to assess the impact of the digital revolution on labor laws and regulations, especially as countries across the continent grapple with its implications. Notably, Somalia's strategic partners, such as the World Bank, are commendably aiding the expansion of primary education in underserved areas through initiatives like the Education for Human Capital Development Project. Additionally, stakeholders in the East African Community (EAC) can bolster the sector by establishing regional centers of excellence, facilitating widespread access and integration.

As Somalia strives to position itself as a regional economic centre, there are valuable insights to be gained from countries like Rwanda. Rwanda's remarkable economic expansion, propelling it to become one of Africa's and the world's fastest-growing economies, serves as a notable example. Particularly noteworthy is the success of its services industry, notably in Kigali, which has flourished, cementing the city's status as a prominent tech hub. To further stimulate economic growth and attract foreign investment, the government has implemented a range of visa and permit programs tailored for entrepreneurs, investors, and professionals.

These visa programs facilitate short-term visits for business engagements such as meetings, seminars, conferences, contract negotiations, and other related activities. They also support the establishment of new businesses or investment ventures in specific sectors of the economy. The adaptable nature of Rwanda's business processes accommodates a diverse array of activities. Moreover, the application process is streamlined, with permits typically issued within 48 hours or less via email.
Somalia stands to benefit significantly by adopting a similar approach to enhance the accessibility and efficiency of its business processes. This strategic move could catalyse economic development and attract much-needed investment to the country.

Energy plays a pivotal role in economic development, being essential not only for household needs like cooking and lighting but also for various sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, and machinery. However, approximately 85% of Somalis lack access to electricity, relying instead on costly and polluting diesel generators managed by private electricity service providers charging inflated rates. This scarcity impedes progress in business, education, and healthcare. Fortunately, Somalia's abundant sunshine, averaging 255 sunny days annually, presents an opportunity for solar energy adoption. USAID's Power Africa East Africa Energy Program (EAEP) has facilitated investments in clean and affordable solar energy to expand electricity access, thereby fostering economic growth, enhancing security, and improving health and education outcomes. In light of Somalia's vulnerability to climate change, investment in renewable/clean energy sources is crucial. For instance, Kenya's impressive investment in geothermal energy, exemplified by the 280MW Olkaria IV plant, and wind energy serve as models for potential energy diversification strategies in Somalia.

The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and the growth of online employment have brought in a new era of opportunities and problems in the constantly changing field of labour. Nowhere is this change more evident than in Africa, where distinct socioeconomic processes combine with the junction of labour and technology. Examining the impact of the digital revolution on labour laws and regulations is crucial as countries throughout the continent struggle with its ramifications.

AI and online employment have the potential to bring about previously unheard-of levels of productivity, global connectedness, and economic expansion. But it also brings up important issues like labour rights, job security, and the growing digital divide. In Africa, where employment marketplaces are frequently marked by fluctuating levels of informality and unstable working conditions.

Labour and employment issues are bound to appear in developing countries, they however can be worked up through collaborative efforts and robust policy frameworks. Demand for high and low-skilled labour, economic differences between Member States and interpersonal networks has led to the high mobility and intraregional migratory movements of people searching for better livelihoods, this if utilized well will lead to better management and improvement of resources and labour markets in the East African Region.

East Africa can draw inspiration from countries that have successfully implemented flexible work arrangements such as remote work, flexible hours, and part-time employment. Notably A significant portion of the Somalia and by large the East African region workforce operates in the informal sector, which often lacks legal protections and social security benefits. I encourage that employers and employees create a social security fund, compositions, medical care and employee compliant process which are managed by regional institutes, this will not only enhance productivity and improve work-life balance but will also Aid in the betterment of services and infrastructures in the East Africa states.

Building strong and transparent governance structures, including labour laws and regulations, is also paramount in ensuring the protection of workers' rights, promoting decent work, and attracting investment. Strengthening institutional capacity and enhancing public-private partnerships can facilitate the implementation of effective labour policies and programs.

The labour issues facing East Africa are multifaceted and require holistic reforms encompassing policy, education, and social protection. By abolishing outdated policies and adopting best practices from other regions, East Africa can unleash its full economic potential and create a conducive environment for inclusive growth and prosperity. It is imperative for policymakers, businesses, and civil society to collaborate actively in driving forward the agenda for labour reform in the region.

Mr. Sadik Warfa, an international relations, governance, and labor consultant, previously held the position of Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and served as a Member of the Federal Parliament for the Mudug Constituency in Somalia.


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