Africa afflicted by anti-union repression

In 2007, the anti-union repression in Africa again affected tens of thousands of men of women who were simply calling for decent work and a future for their children.

Brussels, 20 November: in 2007, the anti-union repression in Africa again affected tens of thousands of men of women who were simply calling for decent work and a future for their children. The latest ITUC Annual Survey on Violations of Trade Union Rights is again scathing in its criticism. The undemocratic nature of many political regimes, the absence of the rule of law and inadequate labour legislation have allowed many managers and employers to exert intolerable pressure on unions and their members. In Guinea, the repression orchestrated by President Lansana Conté and his associates was unspeakably brutal. During the huge demonstration in January and February, which was based on a series of legitimate demands, the police violence resulted in 129 deaths, with 1,700 people injured. Dozens of trade union leaders were beaten and arrested, women were raped and the Labour Exchange was ransacked. Rabiatou Diallo and Ibrahima Fofana, the two main leaders of the trade union group (the "Intersyndicale") that organised the strike, narrowly escaped death.

In Zimbabwe too, albeit sadly more predictably, the despotism of a single man brought about a new wave of violence and trade union rights violations. President Robert Mugabe remained merciless towards the unions. In this distressed country, all the unions’ attempts at conciliation were destroyed. The thwarted unions were forced into carrying out a large number protest actions, all of which were peaceful. But despite the peaceful nature of these demonstrations, hundreds of strikers were suspended, whilst dozens of others were sacked, beaten or arrested. Any hint of social uprising was met with implacable repression, for instance in January when 22 miners’ wives were arrested for trying to organise a demonstration to get pay rises for their husbands. The leader of a teacher’s union received death threats and another died a few weeks after being arrested and tortured. However, the violence was not restricted to those two countries. In Mozambique, for instance, a striker was shot dead by security guards in a sugar cane plantation. 

Against a background of constantly worsening social conditions linked to the rising price of food and essential services, the strikes and other protest actions by African workers all too rarely brought them positive results. On the contrary, in many countries employers and/or the authorities systematically repressed anyone demanding better conditions. Gaps in labour legislation were often used by governments as an excuse for banning totally justified protest actions. More specifically, incorrect interpretations of “essential services” were grounds for forbidding many strikes or demonstrations or, when they did go ahead, for suppressing them. That was the case in South Africa, where the authorities made use of police repression. In Egypt, hundreds of “illegal” strikes and sit-ins took place. In Chad, the government tightened up the law on the right to strike in order to quash a general strike in the public sector. In Morocco, many arrests and charges were made on1st May for “attacking sacred values”.

Many workers were met with police violence and unjust punishments when defying the authorities in order to defend their rights. This was the case in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Namibia, Uganda and Tunisia, amongst others. Sometimes the repression was massive, with hundreds of dismissals in the largest strike in post-Apartheid history in South Africa, 1,000 miners sacked by the Canadian group Barrick in Tanzania and no fewer than 34,000 strikers sacked on a single day by a governor in Nigeria.

The ITUC Survey reports a rise in anti-union acts in the media sector. In Nigeria and Cameroon, employers chose to silence the demands of their employees by firing large numbers of them. In Kenya, journalists were dismissed for belonging to a union. In the Democratic Republic of Congo there were virulent attacks on trade unionists in both private and public media. One union official at a private press agency received a death threat and three journalists from the public television station were arrested and subjected to ill-treatment. In Tunisia, where the trade union activities of journalists are widely repressed, some progress was noted at the end of the year with the creation of a new trade union that is at least partially independent.

Last but not least, the ITUC’s Annual Survey stresses that in too many countries trade union rights remain closely controlled by the authorities or are totally non-existent. Independent unions are severely repressed, marginalised or banned in such countries, which include Swaziland, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti.

The ITUC represents 168 million workers in 155 countries and territories and has 311 national affiliates.

For more information, please contact the ITUC Press Department on: +32 2 224 0204 or +32 476 621 018.