GERMANY: It isn't just about being in work

The International Center for Development and Decent Work at Kassel University is one of the five winners of the competition EXCEED - Excellence for Development.

Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is the Millennium Development Goal that the centre wishes to contribute to, as well as the more general millennium goal of developing a global partnership for development. For this purpose, Kassel is cooperating with institutions in India, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Pakistan and Mexico.

"It's not just about being in work," says project leader Christoph Scherrer, a professor at the Kassel's social sciences department. "Work also has to fulfil certain requirements regarding human decency and health."

This is lacking in many parts of the world. Child labour, insufficient social and legal security - the list of ills to cure is long. Scherrer says such problems can only be dealt with using an interdisciplinary approach.

Originally a social scientist specialising in international political economy, he realised that social, ecological, technical, medical and economic problems are interrelated where circumstances in a developing country force people into indecent working conditions.

At Kassel, his department works closely with the department of ecological agricultural sciences on how the scope for production and income can be improved in rural regions, how value added can be increased and how harm to the environment can be avoided?

One focus is on rural areas close to cities where farming is subject to special conditions. Contamination of the soil with heavy metal and agrochemicals, water pollution, special household waste: ecology, adding value and health protection are closely interrelated.

In its cross-disciplinary approach, the new Center for Development is guided by the Core Labour Standards of the International Labour Organization, a UN special organisation.

Among the issues the centre is concerned with is how to get governments to enforce the core labour standards in their own countries? Could trade be used to force states to fulfil their commitments and how could the informal sector gradually be reduced and work formalised in a country?

Sharik Bhowmik, a professor of sociology at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai in India, one of the centre's partner institutions, attaches considerable importance to the aspect of decent work. In his country, 7% of the working population enjoy employment for an indefinite period and on a legally secure basis whereas 93% of the gainfully employed are in the informal sector.

Bhowmik says that while industrial relations laws do exist in India, they are restricted to the formal sector: "The government that has now been re-elected has promised a composite law on labour and social security in the informal sector. This law has just been adopted, although it has not been implemented yet. And I believe that is a problem."

Passing a law is easy, he says, although its enforcement is difficult. One thing needed here is for staff to get organised to put pressure on the government.

Scherrer has considered whether governments could be moved to check whether the companies they are awarding contracts to are actually fulfilling the core labour standards: "One shouldn't be too optimistic about this. Corruption is rife when it comes to placing orders, and one soon comes up against one's limits."

Another example: how can domestic servants in Hong Kong (who often come from Indonesia and may not even hold a resident's permit and lack any legal and social security) protect themselves against inhumane treatment?

"These are the down-to-earth issues that we are addressing here," Scherrer explains. "Or take return money flows from migrants. How can governments be encouraged to create incentives for migrants to invest money they have earned abroad in sensible projects at home? What projects would make sense in the respective country, anyway? What is needed there?"

Issues like these are part of the research areas the ICDD covers and, to develop solutions, the centre has introduced 'travelling seminars'. Two people each - members of the teaching staffs from Kassel and from a partner university - present research results in central capitals throughout the world on such issues as how migrant money can be made use of sensibly at home.

Training qualified specialist staff is as important as research. This is done together with the partner universities, too. A masters course on labour policies and globalisation is already being run. It deals with economic and social factors that promote decent work.

The core of cross-disciplinary generation of knowledge at the ICCD will be undertaken by the graduate school of socio-ecological research for development. The school is being developed on the basis of already existing doctoral colleges in the social sciences and ecological agricultural sciences departments.

Each doctoral student is jointly supervised by professors from Kassel and one partner university. In addition to the research component, the students take part in an individually tailored modular teaching programme comprising social and natural science elements on a cross-disciplinary basis.

The teaching programme is jointly developed by the partners and run as summer or winter schools, excursions and field practicals in Kassel and Witzenhausen, where the German Institute for Agriculture in the Tropics and Subtropics is located, and in the partner countries.

* Stephan Weidt is a freelance journalist and author for Lemmens Medien and other publishers in Bonn.