This Issue of BUWA! offers feminist critiques of the current discourses framing the future of work in Africa. This is a very timely and critical theme given that there is a marked interest globally in better understanding and predicting the future of work. A number of research institutions, think tanks and others interested in labour and occupational issues have since invested in research and created platforms that have enabled debate on this issue. For instance, in 2013, the ILO initiated a global dialogue on the future of the work that we want. This led to the establishment of the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work in 2017. The Open Society Foundation (OSF) also invested in an initiative exploring the issue which seeks to understand how technologies, for instance, will likely impact the vulnerable communities OSF cares about. The World Economic Forum (WEF) published a report in January 2016 focusing on The Future of Jobs.1 In the report, the WEF estimates that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new jobs – jobs that don’t yet exist.
A few assumptions and theories underpin this global interest and current preoccupation with the future of work. One key theory is that the proliferation of technology will have very significant impacts on jobs and work as we currently know them, such that some jobs could be completely obliterated while new ones may be conceptualised. Another major assumption is that developments in the world of technology – dubbed the fourth industrial revolution – and related advancements in artificial intelligence and data-driven economies might render human capital irrelevant in the future. For instance, the 2016 WEF report predicts that 41 percent of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation, as are 44 percent in Ethiopia, 46 percent in Nigeria, and 52 percent in Kenya. Automation means that a new set of job skills will be required.
However, much as the ‘future of work’ has found a firm space in the discourses shaping the global work agenda, there is limited debate and reflection in Africa – let alone among African feminist economists – on this subject. For a number of reasons feminists need to be shaping these narratives as well as the response strategies ensuing from them. Firstly, because of the already existent gap in gendered perspectives in interpreting global and local processes that have unfolded in the past few years. The second reason is the reality that women on the African continent predominantly occupy precarious and vulnerable positions in job value chains while there is a dearth of analysis on what impacts the fourth industrial revolution and other factors might have in either increasing or mitigating these vulnerabilities. Third, existing gender gaps in technology adoption and use on the continent warrants a closer analysis of what the future holds for women in Africa against the backdrop of increasing inequalities among women due to differential geo-localities and related socioeconomic factors. For African feminists, the debates about the future of work are not just about the changing dynamics in the kind of activities and how these activities will be done. Rather, the debates ought also to be about the power dynamics and positioning of African women in the global economic and political schemes.