The myth of sustainable jobs in extractives

The optimism for "decent" and "sustainable" jobs in extractive industries does not fit with the reality in many African countries.

Image credit Sara Geenen.

Despite extractive industries’ lousy reputation as major polluters, human rights violators, and instigators of social and political conflicts, many observers remain remarkably optimistic, or at least pragmatic, about the potential for mining to create jobs in poor countries. Instead of looking at alternatives to ween the world off extractives—degrowth, disinvestment, recycling—international organizations, governments, and (most obviously) the private sector have doubled-down, emphasizing that mining can actually contribute to achieving the SDGs (specifically SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth).

According to organizations like the ILO, the World Bank, UNCTAD and UNDP, mining is an important source of job creation. Obviously, these jobs will not fall out of the sky, hence we see a general push for local content and local economic diversification policies, which will, allegedly, stimulate domestic linkages and create jobs. And not just any jobs, but decent ones: jobs that afford dignity, security, a sufficient living wage.

Yet perhaps the optimism for “decent” and “sustainable” jobs in extractives should be tempered, especially in low-income African countries. Recent research, e.g. Sara Geenen’s work in Ghana and DRC (part of which has been published here) and Diana Ayeh’s work in Burkina Faso, suggest that local content policies do not provide a quick-fix to the problem of domestic linkages, nor do they necessarily create decent jobs in extractive industries.

Geenen’s research, in particular, draws attention to the fact that such polices are implemented in complex political arenas, where power-holders use them as political instruments to accumulate profits and control rents. Direct and indirect employment are managed by labor brokers: chiefs, community elders, and members of community forums, but also staff of human resources departments, high-ranking people from the parent company, and managers from subcontracting companies, all of whom jostle to arrange employment for their own “clients.”

While these clientelist practices do involve a certain degree of redistribution (via access to jobs), they also inhibit social mobility and structural change, since these are typically precarious, low-wage jobs—a far cry from the “decent” work envisioned by the ILO. This points toward Barchiesi’s observation that the ideal of decent work is all too often subsumed by the actually-existing practice of workers accepting bad jobs as better than no jobs at all.

In 2017-2018, Geenen conducted a survey with 223 Congolese and 226 Ghanaian workers. These individuals may work alongside others directly employed by multinational companies, but are themselves employed through third-party subcontractors (a strategy which, along with hiring for 22-day periods, absolves multinationals of contractual obligations, while also blurring the traditional distinction between direct and indirect jobs).

Not surprisingly, our analysis of this data shows that there is significant variation in both employment stability and wages depending on whether someone works directly for the multinational (better conditions), or indirectly via a foreign or domestic subcontractor (worse conditions). Of course, pay scales can vary across different job titles, but we find that even in cases where workers have the same job title and perform the same work, discrepancies persist. As one Congolese worker lamented: “We do the same job, working shoulder by shoulder all day long, but at the end of the day he gets a bonus and I don’t.”

A more novel finding is that even within the pool of subcontracted workers, there exists a benefits gap between those working for foreign vs. domestic subcontractors. In the DRC, a mere 3% of the surveyed workers working for domestic subcontractors— primarily labor-hire firms owned by local elites—have a permanent contract, whereas 30% of those working for foreign subcontractors do. Monthly earnings also vary: the former earn 206 USD/month, the latter 228 USD/month. In the Ghanaian case, we find greater employment stability —65% of those working for domestic subcontractors and 81% of those working for foreign subcontractors have permanent contracts—but an even more remarkable difference in monthly wages: 169 USD vs. 224 USD, respectively.

Admittedly, the wage differentials could also reflect different job categories—domestic subcontractors may be more likely to be tasked with hiring for positions that pay less across all sectors (e.g. jobs that no do not require special credentials such as a license to operate heavy machinery, etc.), something we will parse in future analysis. However, while this might explain the comparatively lower wages, it does not explain the substantial difference we see in the relative lack of contract stability among those employed by domestic subcontractors. The stability implied by the decent work agenda is intended to apply to all forms of waged work, not just “privileged” categories.

Worse, these contractual hierarchies transcend paychecks, creating new forms of social marginalization and exclusion. “There is a company bus transporting workers from the site to the city,” another worker explained, “but there is a category of sans papiers: the subcontracted workers. Even when they already boarded [the bus], when company workers show up, sans papiers need to back off.” Almost all subcontracted workers mentioned how this affects their dignity: not having a contract, in their view (and, apparently, the view of their colleagues with contracts), is not having a job.

Questions of dignity are not peripheral: while we may critique the overwhelming and often debasing centrality of wage work in late capitalist economies, we can still acknowledge that work is often a source of pride and self-esteem, particularly in social contexts where an important aspect of performing masculinity is demonstrating one’s ability to earn. And, it foregrounds questions of how labor is systematically devalued through somewhat arbitrary distinctions between what, precisely, constitutes skilled vs. unskilled labor.

For the subcontracted workers, then, these forms of wage-work hardly constitute the ‘decent’ jobs policymakers hoped local content mandates would create. Multinationals offload as many responsibilities as possible on to both foreign and domestic subcontractors, the latter of which (owned by local elites) offer the least stability and lowest wages. This is not inclusion, but adverse incorporation.

Our data also supports Tania Li’s sobering observation that those who have been dispossessed of their lands and livelihoods are typically not included in the capitalist project, not even as low-paid, casual workers: of the 223 workers surveyed in the DRC, only 47 previously counted artisanal mining as their principal occupation, while an estimated 12,000 artisanal miners have been chased from their work areas in these same concessions. In the Ghanaian sample there were only 2 (out of 226).

Has the mining industry created jobs? Yes. But too many of these are precarious, low paid jobs. And, as seen especially in the DCR case study, the industry has simultaneously eliminated a staggering amount of already-existing jobs.

It is time to question shibboleths about extractive industries leading the way to development through job creation, linkages and local content. Clientelist practices and precarious jobs hold little potential for structural transformations at the bottom of the global production network; instead they create new inequalities, as some groups are adversely incorporated, while others are marginalized and excluded from the extractivist project all together.

About the Author

Sara Geenen is a lecturer in International Development, Globalization, and Poverty at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp.

Mollie Gleiberman is a PhD student at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp.

Elie Lunanga currently studies at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. Elie does research in Development Economics.

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