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Africa Priming to Become ‘Workbench of the World’ in New Industrial Era

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Europe’s Industrial Revolution spurred unprecedented technological and economic progress. It also inflicted a tremendous human cost as millions of workers toiled in dangerous conditions. The same would hold true some two centuries later in East Asia, where explosive industrial growth was coupled with sweatshops and child labor.

Now African leaders are plotting their own era of mass industrialization. In the Ivorian capital Abidjan this week, delegates from across the continent and beyond gathered for a six-day conference themed, “Industrialization for an Emerging Africa.” A high-powered panel of speakers declared Africa primed to take off as the new “workbench of the world.”

“Industrialization cannot be considered a luxury, but a necessity for the continent’s development,” said Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the new head of the African Union Commission.

Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), declared Africa primed for a “structural transformation,” with industrialization and value-added activities supplanting agriculture and raw commodities exports as the cornerstone of the continent’s economic activity.

The lofty rhetoric masked a distinct lack of specific proposals for achieving such goals. But the conference reflected a growing consensus among African leaders and observers that to sustain its high levels of growth beyond commodities booms, industrialization must be prioritized—and the sooner the better.

For Africa’s workers, the prospect of sweeping industrialization carries promise and peril. On a continent that has simultaneously recorded some of the world’s highest rates of growth and unemployment, labor-intensive industry could bring millions of new jobs for Africa’s bulging youth population. But labor rights activists raise concerns about what exactly those jobs will look like.

Imani Countess, the African regional program director at the Solidarity Center, an international labor rights organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO, noted the downward pressure on wages and working conditions in Africa’s most industrialized country, South Africa.

She said manufacturers are telling the South African government, “If you want to be able to employ the large numbers of people who are unemployed, then you have to allow a differentiation. You have to allow for, for example, textile manufacturers to set up a different standard that isn’t in line with South Africa’s national labor standards.”

Governments and unions that insist on higher wages and better working conditions risk being passed over in favor of cheaper industrial hubs. Indeed, Africa’s greatest potential appeal to manufacturers is its supply of inexpensive labor.

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