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African Union Conference Tackles Unemployment, Poverty - 2004-09-03


An African Union conference on unemployment and poverty has opened in Burkina Faso, with human rights groups and unions calling for more government jobs and guarantees for worker security.

The conference opened Friday in Ouagadougou with civil society groups, unions and human rights organizations from West Africa discussing the themes of employment and poverty. It will end next Wednesday and Thursday with an African summit on employment.

The head of the Burkina-based InterAfrican Union for Human Rights, Halidou Ouedraogo, says he hopes leaders at the summit will recognize public employment as the backbone of Africa's economies.

He says the liberalization of African economies under the budget austerity programs demanded by international lending agencies gutted the public sector. He says it transformed the only reliable source of employment into what he calls a precarious environment of contractual workers lacking job security.

Mr. Ouedraogo describes the African economies as mostly informal, with workers enjoying no legal protection from thieving, scheming profiteers. He says this is no way to ensure progress within the global economy.

According to some estimates six out of every 10 African adults are unemployed or work in unregulated and untaxed informal economies.

In addition to more public employment, activists like Mr. Ouedraogo are calling for minimum wage laws, the establishment of social security, universal medical coverage and standards for hygiene and security at the workplace. They also say workers with HIV/AIDS and pregnant women should be given special benefits and protections.

Burkina's employment and youth minister, Alain Ludovic Tou, who helped organize the summit, agrees with most of these ideas. He says the recent deaths of African migrant workers trying to get to Europe in ship containers underscores the desperate need for change.

Mr. Tou says such disturbing images should motivate African leaders to provide economic incentives for African youths to remain in Africa.

He says the summit will not end with empty promises.

Mr. Tou says what will make this summit different is that it will be just about employment and tackling poverty and that it was convened for Africans by Africans.

He says leaders will look for ideas on how to formalize the economy, as well as easing access to credit for youths. He also says governments will be looking to increase funding for the farming sector as well as making employment a central issue in domestic policies.

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