Gawanas Bience: "Decent work is about realizing how each of us can make a contribution to the whole"

Article | 23 April 2004

COTONOU, Benin – Last September, Gawanas Bience, a Namibian lawyer and ombudswoman in her country for the last seven years, was elected Commissioner for Labour and Social Affairs of the African Union (AU). ILO Online spoke to her about a wide range of issues, including employment, international labour standards, social protection and social dialogue. The Commissioner wants to promote within the AU the "social issues which don't rank high on the agenda".

What is your vision for the AU Labour and Social Affairs Commission?

I have worked for many years serving the Namibian people. I listened to the voices of Namibians who came to complain to my office. I saw despair, but also people determined to change their life. Their challenges are the challenges of Africa.. I witnessed the despair that we experience on a continent which is so rich while our people are so poor. And the question arises… why? For me, working for the African Union, means looking at the continent, and realizing that our people need more than our consideration, they need action. Some principles are very fundamental. I look at social issues from a human rights' perspective. It should not be a privilege for people to ask for better housing or access to clean water, better healthcare, or to decent work, all this should be on a development agenda shaped from a human rights perspective.

How is your agenda linked to ILO objectives?

Personally, I'm familiar with ILO activities. I worked at ILO headquarters in Geneva in 1982 as an intern during my law studies. There is no doubt that ILO standards are norms that apply across the world, including Asia, Latin America and Africa. What we need to do in the AU is to make sure that governments implement labour conventions as soon as it becomes practicable. Many governments have signed international human rights conventions but many of their commitments exist on paper only. The challenge for the AU and ministries of social affairs is to translate these commitments into tangible benefits for the people. I know that this is an ideal world perspective but if you don't have ideals you will never get anywhere. In the end, the African Union and the ILO share the same objectives.

What in your mind is a decent job?

I was a worker myself. In the context of Namibia, I have seen people treated without respect for their own human dignity. For me, decent work is about recognizing the dignity of the human being. And I insist on the word "decent" here… I'm also an employer. I have a cleaning lady who takes care of my home. We should never look at decent work as if it was something abstract, happening somewhere in the outside world. As employers, we should show respect to the people who are working in our homes, in our gardens. This is a fundamental question for me.

How can decent work become a tool for development?

What is development? It is an all encompassing concept. For me, development happens at many different levels. It happens at the physical, spiritual, mental level: Human beings need fulfilment in life. You don't need to be a managing director, you must feel that you are making a contribution. You can be a secretary, you can be whatever you want to be, as long as you feel satisfied by what you are doing… there is really a way of encouraging people in this respect. We always speak about commitment… is commitment about making profits? Or is it a commitment to the employee, so that the person feels that he or she is making a contribution to the company? Finally, decent work is about realizing how each of us can make a contribution to the whole.

You headed the Commission in Cotonou and you will organise the Extraordinary Summit of the African Union in September, what is your personal challenge?

I really want this Extraordinary Summit in September to deliver. The Summit should come to results that are meaningful to the people in Africa. I want to see that we really look at the issues, I want to see the interrelationship between the different issues that we will be discussing: between poverty reduction and employment. I really want to see that we go beyond just talking and that the Summit involves as many as stakeholders as possible. I hope that it is going to be different and that we will come to tangible results.

What would be the role of the ILO constituents, governments, employers and workers, in preparing and implementing the Summit?

There will be a partnership between the AU, the ILO, the host country, and other stakeholders. There is no doubt that the AU is a fairly new institution, it's an expanding institution, and we are still going through an adaptation and restructuring process.