A step forward towards SDG 8 in Sierra Leone

The trade union movement of Sierra Leone has been fundamental in the negotiations leading to the country’s ratification of eight ILO conventions and one Protocol. These ratifications will lead to improved conditions and rights for migrant workers and houseworkers active in Sierra Leone’s enormous informal economy.

Danish Trade Union Development Agency - DTDA

Recently, the West African country ratified eight ILO Conventions and one protocol. The ratification of these labour instruments were an important step towards recognising, promoting and implementing decent work in the country. The nine ILO tools will enter into force on 25 August 2022.

Max Conteh, the secretary-general of the Sierra Leone Labour Congress (SLLC) is very satisfied with this result. “It is a big step in the right direction for the labour market,” he said, and added “the ratified ILO tools create a clear framework for workers’ demands and rights. We’ve been working hard, together with the government, to pass these tools. Now, we are pleased that our efforts and campaign have borne fruit. They will benefit the workers and give us a common ground for the continued work towards modernising our outdated labour laws.”

Furthermore, these ratifications are also a successful result of more than ten years of policy work and the fruitful long-standing partnership between the SSLC and the Danish Trade Union Development Agency (DTDA).

“These ratifications are certainly excellent news for a country where workers suffer from systematic violations of rights,” reminded Mads Bugge Madsen, DTDA Director, in reference to Sierra Leone’s ranking in the ITUC Global Rights Index and the dire situation in terms of the Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG 8) on decent work and sustainable economic growth.

Migrant workers: A vulnerable group

Three of the ratified ILO conventions are about migrant workers. The partnership between the DTDA and SLLC has paid a special attention to these workers, who find themselves in very deprived working and living conditions.

There are some 100,000 migrant workers in Sierra Leone. They often come from Guinea, Liberia, and other West African countries. Most of them are employed in the informal economy, working as day labourers in the construction sector, taxi drivers, fishermen, street vendors, house workers, etc. As informal workers, they have no contracts, no collective bargaining agreements, and no organisational health and safety arrangements. They are basically rightless.

Around 2.6 million people (90% of Sierra Leone’s labour force) are working in the informal economy. However, while Sierra Leoneans do benefit from some sort of network to rely upon in case of dismissal or illness, migrant workers do not have access to such networks. They have left everything in their home country, and they live without any form of security. Consequently, they are extra vulnerable and have special needs for the protection of their rights.

Stronger trade union movement

The initial official steps towards taking care of the migrants’ interest were taken in October 2017, when the government of Sierra Leone adopted a national migration policy and the SLLC started to exert a considerable pressure to have the policy developed.

“The ratification of ILO Conventions 97, 143, and 189 is of the outmost importance, and it is a sign of our strength and influence,” said Conteh.

This strength has its roots in the fact that the SLLC has organised up to half a million workers of the informal economy in recent years. Workers have been organised into federations within the existing federations. The increased membership base has given an important weight to SLLC and has led to creating a closer social dialogue with the government.

”Now we are urging the government and its partners to get the ILO conventions implemented as soon as possible. The SLLC will continue to play an active role when it comes to securing the workers’ conditions,” assures Conteh.

Closer to SDG 8

When the nine instruments were ratified in August 2021, ILO general director Guy Ryder welcomed the initiative and pointed out that no African country has ever ratified that many instruments at once.

“They are a testimony of the will of the people of Sierra Leone for peace, stability and good governance. They demonstrate its resilience in ensuring that recovery from crisis is founded on human rights and decent work,” said Ryder.

Mr. Ryder noted that the nine instruments are close to the other West African countries’ initiatives on regulation of the labour market, and that they focus on the same thematic areas: migrant workers, forced labour, occupational health and safety, and house workers. This may be synergetic and is promising for a coordinated effort for decent work in West Africa.

* Photo: Local builders working on a construction site in Kerry Town in Sierra Leone / Credit: Staff Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC Crown