2009 Survey of violations of trade union rights - Africa

Africa: Insecurity, political unrest and armed conflict at the root of trade union rights violations

Africa: Insecurity, political unrest and armed conflict at the root of trade union rights violations

Brussels, 10 June 2009 (ITUC Online): In Africa, in the course of 2008, eleven people paid with their lives for their trade union activity or, at least, their participation in strikes or demonstrations. For the same reasons, over 500 men and women were arrested, more than 250 were injured, sometimes seriously, whilst some trade unionists were tortured and beaten up by the security forces or else by unidentified persons, often at the bidding of the authorities. Dozens of leaders and ordinary workers were sentenced to prison terms. Over 2000 strikers were sacked. Whilst the latest annual ITUC report on union rights violations around the world clearly reports many of the victims in Africa, it is also true that the antidemocratic nature of many of the current regimes, collusion between many employers and the authorities and the more general problems of insecurity, lack of justice and impunity rarely allow a full picture of all the cases of abuse to emerge.

Though subjected to criticism year after year by the ILO and its monitoring bodies for their serious attacks on union rights, several countries, including Swaziland and Djibouti, continued to harass key union leaders such as Jan Sithole, General Secretary of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), arrested twice, and Hassan Cher Hared and Adan Mohamed Abdou of the Union djiboutienne du travail (UDT), who were subjected to constant harassment.

In Zimbabwe, the key union leaders, Wellington Chibebe and Lovemore Matombo, General Secretary and President, respectively, of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), and Takavafira Zhou, President of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), were beaten up and arrested, on repeated occasions. The violence reached its peak during the election campaign, when the authorities and their cronies ransacked trade union offices, attacking and torturing union activists and their leaders. Suspected of wanting political change or just the chance to influence the vote in their communities, teachers’ representatives and other union activists were targeted by the regime. A case in point was that of Sheperd Chegwu (PTZU), who was abducted, tortured and subsequently assassinated. The school head had previously been pestered by members of the militia of ZANU-PF, the governing party. Women trade unionists were also submitted to sexual attacks. Anti-union violence persisted throughout the year.

Linked to the growing deterioration of purchasing power, the continent was shaken by social disturbances. The legitimate protest actions of workers and the general population were sometimes brutally repressed. In Egypt, in Mahalla, a workers’ town in the Nile Delta, rioting broke out after the security forces had forced the workers’ representatives at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, the country’s largest textile factory, to cancel its strike. The general public, frustrated by what it regarded as provocation, took to the streets in large numbers. The ensuing repression claimed six people’s lives and resulted in 200 workers being arrested and three trade unionists imprisoned for 54 days. In August, 32 female workers at a cigarette factory were fired and roughly treated for supporting an unjustly dismissed colleague. In Tunisia, in the (phosphate) mining region of Gafsa, the toll was scarcely less dramatic, with one demonstrator killed and dozens of workers and trade unionists sentenced to very heavy prison terms. Corruption and cronyism were the source of problem here. In most countries in Northern Africa, unions were harassed as a result of their fierce desire for change and their refusal to kowtow to the authorities. Another leading activist was killed in 2008, the emblematic Nigerian union leader Alhaji Saula Saka, who was assassinated by four unidentified persons at his home in Lagos. The murder was almost certainly linked to the key role he held in the transport workers’ union.

Numerous violations of trade union rights in many countries can be attributed to insecurity, political troubles and armed conflicts. A strike by ‘redeployed’ officials in northern Côte d’Ivoire was violently put down by former rebel soldiers who still control that part of the country. In Mauritania, the members of the military who ousted the country’s first democratically elected president since its independence on 6 August lost no time in attacking trade union rights: two demonstrations were suppressed, workers were molested and various union offices were stormed. In Chad, the Central African Republic, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) repeated violence prevented the unions from operating normally.

The ITUC Survey confirms another negative trend that is continuing to halt the development of the African continent: the exploitation of Africa’s rich mining deposits has not been conducive to greater respect for trade union freedoms. In Zambia’s renowned mineral-rich Copperbelt region for example, the unions unrelentingly denounced the ever-worsening social climate in the mining industry. Much of that sector is in the hands of Chinese operators who are often considered brutal and indifferent towards respecting workers’ fundamental rights or meeting safety standards. The ‘curse of oil’, the notion whereby income generated through oil sales only benefits a minority and can lead to conflict, struck again in Sudan and Chad, where union activities are either very tightly controlled or repressed. The ITUC also notes that Asian companies, mainly Chinese, of which droves have set up in business in Africa, are employing large numbers of workers from their respective countries who can be exploited at will and have no trade union protection. In Equatorial Guinea, a strike by Chinese workers was bloodily suppressed by the security forces, leaving two workers dead and several others injured, while 300 strikers were sent back to China. The Guinean government chose to describe this as rioting, stating that it did not want that kind of uprising in the country, whilst the Chinese authorities strongly denounced the conduct of their compatriots.

Employers in many African countries are making increasing use of outsourcing, temporary employment contracts and other forms of precarious work to undermine trade union rights. In Nigeria, unions in the oil sector fiercely criticised the manoeuvring by multinationals which are taking advantage of streamlining and restructuring measures to sack union activists in the first round of dismissals.

The report does note some progress however. In Liberia, after years of struggle the union representing workers at Firestone finally secured a collective agreement. Also, some independent unions were eventually recognised in countries (such as Egypt) that are normally very hostile towards them. And a number of countries (Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mozambique and Namibia) amended their labour laws, making them more conducive to the exercise of trade union rights. In Madagascar, the reverse applied, however: there the authorities not only introduced fresh restrictions on the right to strike, but also - without consulting the unions - adopted a law governing export processing zones (EPZs) that allows employers to require their employees to work longer hours on pain of dismissal. And the outlook is hardly encouraging in Mauritius or Namibia either, where the authorities are striving to make their EPZs even more attractive by providing fresh exemptions.

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