The 45th Arab Labour Conference called on Arab governments to initiate labour market reforms, rethink social legislation and incentivise production and investments.
Labour ministers said production and investments in the Arab region could be encouraged through plans that achieve sustainable and comprehensive development in Arab countries.
“Arab labour markets must be prepared to absorb this incessant flow of workers,” said Fayez al-Mutairi, director-general of the Arab Labour Organisation, which monitors labour conditions. “Slow economic growth in the Arab region is a real challenge that Arab governments need to overcome.”
A total of 17 labour ministers and delegations from 20 Arab countries attended the conference, scheduled for April 8-15. The annual event was different this year in that it brought governments, the business sector and labour associations together.
Conference participants discussed challenges facing the Arab labour market, national policies and the complaints of the private sector as well as the problems facing labour associations in the Arab region.
The event took place amid unrest in several Arab countries, which has taken a heavy toll on labour markets across the region. In Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and the Palestinian territories, unrest has had a devastating effect on labour markets and slowing economic growth at the regional level, officials said.
Palestinian Labour Minister Mamoun Abu Shahla pointed to increasing unemployment rates in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip as cause for concern.
“We need support to be able to give hope to these unemployed Palestinians,” Abu Shahla said at the conference.
In Iraq, three years of fighting against the Islamic State, deteriorating economic conditions and huge spending on the military left the country’s economy in tatters and the labour market in deplorable conditions. Almost 40% of Iraq’s workforce is jobless, said Hassan al-Shemary, a representative of the General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions.
“The war has brought almost everything in five Iraqi provinces to rubble,” Shemary said. “This is making things worse for the country’s embattled economy and labour market.”
In the Arab region, about 13 million people — almost 10.5% of the workforce of the region — are searching for work, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said. Unemployment is especially high among women and workers aged 15-24, the ILO said.
“The economies of Arab countries suffered greatly because of the accumulation of crises in the region,” said Libyan Minister of Labour and Rehabilitation al-Mahdi Wardhamy. “This has reflected very negatively on the abilities of the labour markets in all states to generate jobs for youth.”
There was heartening news, however. Egypt lowered its unemployment rate to 11% this year, down from 14% last year, according to the country’s labour minister.
Egyptian Labour Minister Mohamed Saafan said the unemployment rate drop reflected the Egyptian government’s hard work. “Behind it was also the allocation of huge investments for infrastructure projects, ones that managed to create jobs for a large number of people,” Saafan said.
Reforms in Saudi Arabia are being initiated to involve local labour in economic activities, even at the cost to tens of thousands of foreign workers in the oil-rich country.
Apart from demanding reform for social legislation in Arab countries, Arab labour ministers at the concluding session of the conference said increased production would open the door for more demand for labour, which would ultimately affect the number of jobs available for Arab workers.
Mutairi and his colleagues at the Arab Labour Organisation underscored the need for unified labour standards in the region. They called on Arab governments to pay more attention to occupational safety, offer support to professional training strategies and monitor progress on reducing the unemployment rate.
There is also a need to monitor the emancipation of women in Arab labour markets as shown by reports indicating a rise in the number of unemployed women, the Arab Labour Organisation said.
“Unemployment is a fact in the Arab region, one that we must not overlook or forget,” Mutairi said. “We work hard to find solutions to this problem, but nobody can solve this problem alone, which is why we need stronger Arab unity.”
Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.