Remote work promising though not quite for Africa

Leave a comment / By: manifel / 05 September, 2020 12:47:53PM
Remote work promising though not quite for Africa

As the Covid-19 pandemic has taken hold, not much was known whether, or to what extent, working from home could affect productivity.

This has inevitably led to various surveys on how remote work is doing. It is important to know, as productivity drives economic growth and sustainability. 

The findings are unexpectedly promising. One such survey of 800 corporate employers conducted by the HR consulting firm Mercer shows working from home as productive as before the pandemic, if not better. 

94 per cent of the employers in the survey say their company productivity was actually the same (67%) or higher (27%) than it was before the pandemic, despite many of their employees having been working remotely this year. 

One in three of the employers now expect half or more of their employees to continue working remotely post-pandemic.

Though the survey findings don’t quite speak for most countries in Africa, their significance is in showing what is possible in repairing battered economies.

But they also highlight crucial differences why much of the continent will lag in reaping from remote work.

The differences are better articulated by the International Labour Organisation, which has analysed the potential share of workers across the different regions of the world who could work from home.

The ILO estimates that, while around 30 percent of North American and Western European workers are in occupations that allow home-based work, in Sub-Saharan African it is only 6 per cent.

One of the underlying reasons for the disparity is income levels, which reflect the economic and occupational structures of countries.

Other factors are social and environmental — such as access to broadband internet and likelihood of owning a personal computer, whether the housing situation allows working from home, or whether the person has the necessary social networks, such as having fixed clients, for other types of home-based work.

In the same vein, many workers in developing nations are employed in occupations that cannot be done from home. These occupations are also more common. 

Labour experts show that it is six times more common to be a street vendor in a low-income country than in a high-income country, and 17 times more common to be an agricultural labourer.

The ILO analysis however shows that while not all occupations can be done at home, many could. Only that the potential to do so requires, at a minimum, that countries make the necessary investments in improving telecommunications infrastructure.

Other digital advances such as digital authentication and mobile banking and mobile payment systems can potentially allow more occupations to continue their activities. This is an area Rwanda and other EAC countries have an edge.

The labour organisation adds that future investments in housing could relieve overcrowding, making it more feasible for people to work from home, or at least to be more productive whilst working from home.

And, with the shift to working from home, both during and potentially after the crisis, it will be necessary for governments to ensure that homeworkers — whether traditional, industrial homeworkers or ICT-enabled home-based employees — are provided the same rights and benefits as if they were working at their employers’ site.

These should include equality of treatment in remuneration and other working conditions.

The call should also apply to those who worked from home before Covid-19. Their extent can be drawn from the ILO, which has estimated the world’s workforce that worked from home on a permanent basis prior to the pandemic.

The estimates vary for the region, as elsewhere. In Rwanda and Uganda, for instance, those working from home permanently before Covid-19 were between 10-15 per cent of the workforce.  

In Tanzania they were less than 5 per cent. While no data is available for the other EAC countries, of the 15 million in informal employment Kenya, a significant number worked from home before the pandemic.

Most of these workers — not just in the EAC but around the world, worked in a wide range of occupations including industrial outworkers (e.g. embroidery stitchers and beedi rollers in India), artisans, self-employed business owners and freelancers, in addition to employees.

The views expressed in this  article are of the author.

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