The Urban Spring of May 1st

By Edmundo Werna

Cities throughout the world face the challenge of how to create more – and decent – jobs. On Labour Day, Edmundo Werna makes the case for an extensive urban dialogue as a necessary condition for a proactive employment policy.

April 2018

According to the mayor of Tab-uçu, a city’s government used to be expected to organise the urban territory for work to be productive (for example through good zoning and transportation). Now, the challenge is to create more and better work in the first place. Local authorities are the first layer of government to feel the impact of unemployment and underemployment through decreased tax revenues, increased welfare expenditures, and the escalation of crime and social unrest.

Where is Tab-uçu? It could be in any region of the world. It is a given name to illustrate the priority challenges that many cities face – i.e. how to generate more and better jobs. Important as it is, good urban planning is not enough. In a way, this challenge has always been present. But perhaps it was not on the radar of urbanists.

Cities and towns are not only places to live but also to work. This article is exactly about the interface between labour and urbanisation. Workers’ protests have happened often in urban environments. May 1st, for example, has an urban origin: to commemorate the Haymarket affair, which occurred in Chicago on May 1886. Moving forward to 2010, the Arab Spring was also triggered by an urban protest and was an urban phenomenon that was closely related to employment deficits. Labour Day is an opportunity to remember its urban origins and to focus on the urban aspects and opportunities of labour anew.

There is widespread data on the deficits of urban employment and working conditions throughout the world, and there is no need to repeat here. The question is what to do about the situation.

The Visible Hand: Proactive Employment

An important lesson is that the private market (the ‘invisible hand of the economy’) alone has not been able to generate sufficient and decent jobs. This means that we cannot be passive, depending only on the expansion of the economy. There is a need to be proactive. A lot has been done to prepare the ground, such as skills training, enterprise development, fostering cooperatives and the like. While this creates employability, it will not generate jobs per se. Concrete measures that can and should be taken by governments include:

  • Targeting sectors of the economy which have more employment potential
  • Using procurement to expand job creation
  • Providing legal guarantees for work
  • Using labour-intensive techniques as opposed to capital-intensive ones

The specific sectors for targeting vary according to the locality. Therefore any measure has to start with an analysis of the employment content of each sector, followed by policies to prioritize. Targeting has often been used in national policies, but the process can be transferred to the urban economy.

Procurement entails including a minimum number or rate of employment creation in a bid. Again, it has been applied at national level and can be used locally.

Legal guarantees for work are somehow new. Such guarantees provide a minimum number of days of secured wage employment in a financial year. They can also be implemented in combination with procurement to ensure that private companies subcontracted to carry out public works use an agreed minimum number or percentage of workers. India has an interesting example specifically applied to rural areas, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. South Africa has a national-level programme (Expanded Public Works Programme) and an incipient urban one, called Community Works Programme. These are ideas that could be further explored at the urban level and replicated elsewhere.

Labour-intensive techniques have been used on-and-off. While replication has remained rare – reasons ranging from a lack of funding to funding’s focus on rural development – there have been successful implementations of this measure. Such cases include the upgrading of low-income settlements to generate jobs. One example is the Hanna Nassif low-income settlement in Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania). The settlement houses some 20,000 people. It was upgraded via a so-called community contract that included drains, footbridges, roads, road crossings, water kiosks and water pipes. This approach entails that the funding agency contracts a community-based organisation to provide the necessary labour to carry out the upgrading works. This strategy generates local employment, provides training for local workers, provides the opportunity to carry out the work with respect to labour standards, and also leads to savings that are retained in the local community.

As the above example evidences, the production of the very urban fabric can be fused with the promotion of more and better jobs . In addition to slum upgrading, the provision of infrastructure, water and sanitation, housing and other types of buildings, can go a long way with the use of labour-intensive techniques and respect to labour standards. The policies mentioned before (targeting, procurement, guarantees, labour-intensive techniques) can be used with a focus on the built environment, generating assets for the city as well as employment.

Urban Spring

For public policies to work, a popular base through participation is fundamental. The article would like to promote the idea of an extensive urban dialogue focusing on employment creation combined with the production of the built environment.

As outlined in a working paper of the International Labour Office (Van Empel and Werna, 2010), urban development literature and practice have promoted approaches related to specific issues (such as participatory budgeting) or area-based approaches (such as community participation). While both approaches have brought some livelihood-related benefits, for example via support for economic sectors, many other issues still need to be addressed. For example, a large number of urban workers lack elements of social protection and/or respect to their rights. These are important issues for reducing urban poverty, yet they are seldom addressed in the aforementioned participatory processes.

In addition, as also mentioned in the aforementioned working paper, it is known that a large amount of informal sector activity is tied to formal sector activities through a sub-contracting chain. Contrary to what early theses about the informal sector argued, formal and informal workers do not operate in disconnected universes. Therefore, decisions that affect informal workers and small enterprises are tied to larger scale businesses as well as to negotiations with formal workers. So far, such linkages have not been addressed by urban or community-based processes. However, it is important to address these linkages in an integrated way.

In the world of work, a participatory approach called social dialogue is commonly used. It entails discussions among workers, employers, and/or governments. Social dialogue has been preponderantly carried out at the national level, but there are some examples of urban platforms particularly in a number of South American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru). The world of work is increasingly fragmented, with different types of workers, enterprises, and employment relations. With the progress of telecommunications, there have been arguments about the diminishing importance of personal contacts as a basis for dialogue and decision-making (e.g. the idea of e-governance). Online communication can actually be an instrument to help people get together, but it has not replaced personal contact. Urban areas provide the strategic opportunity for different actors to have dialogue personally.

Labour issues of national relevance do not necessarily apply to all municipalities in a given country – and, at the same time, they do not include certain issues specific to municipalities. An urban agenda, derived from a social dialogue process in a given municipality, has the advantage of focusing specifically on local questions, which cannot be addressed in detail in the overall policies of the Ministry of Labour. Also, such agenda, because it is local, is more flexible and can take on board specific measures more quickly than national-level initiatives. Social dialogue can be a platform to catalyse the roles of local actors in labour policy-making and their respective implementation.

Everyday Should Be the 1st of May

In sum, I want to argue two points. First, the need for pro-active employment policies. Second, that participation is fundamental as the base for such policy-making. Participation should combine existing urban practices with labour-related practices.

The May 1st celebrations are by and large urban gatherings. The celebrations provide a great opportunity to discuss labour and urbanisation. While more and better jobs are fundamental for the development of urban areas, urban areas are at the same time more than ever instrumental for work-related participatory movements. Labour, as mentioned earlier, is fragmented, and one should not underestimate the possibilities that urban areas hold for different types of workers and other actors to get together. The idea of an ‘Urban Spring’ is one of transformational dialogue and participation to flourish.

Edmundo Werna

Edmundo Werna

Edmundo Werna has worked for over 35 years on different aspects of urban development with particular attention to municipal management, livelihoods, and housing. He started his career in the 1980s in field activities such as territorial planning and upgrading of low-income settlements, moving on to policy advice and academic research. Werna joined the UN in 1998 and is currently with the ILO (International Labour Office). He has been the focal point of this UN agency for the New Urban Agenda throughout the process leading to Habitat III and the subsequent deliberations after the summit. He holds a PhD in urban development from University College London (UK).
Edmundo Werna