Press release: Difficult to be a trade unionist in Africa

According to the Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights in the world published today by the International Trade Union Confederation, the difficulties for trade union activities have far from reduced in Africa in 2010 as trade union rights continue to be flouted. In Africa, the implementation of labour laws, where they exist, remains problematic. Over 500 people were arrested this year and more than 1,000 people lost their jobs on account of their trade union activities.

Swaziland is one of the most repressive countries for trade union rights. The state of emergency has been in place since 1973 and constitutional freedoms have been suspended. Trade union gatherings, particularly during the May Day celebrations are often brutally repressed, sometimes resulting in deaths. A worker died in custody after being arrested during the 1st of May festivities. Sipho Jele was a member of the Swaziland Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union (SAPWU) and the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).

Zimbabwe is undoubtedly the most dangerous African country for trade unionists.
Robert Mugabe’s regime systematically violates and represses trade union rights. Arrests, detentions, violence and torture are the sad daily reality for trade unionists. On 6 June, for example, Harare police chiefs forbade the Congrès des syndicats du Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions - ZCTU) from commemorating Hwange Colliery, the 1973 mining disaster which killed 427 miners. In Djibouti, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) expressed its deep concern at the government’s complete lack of goodwill to settle cases of trade union rights’ violations.

In South Africa, trade unions had to contend with severe repression and police violence throughout the year. Some demonstrations in Zambia, Mauritania and Algeria were suppressed using real bullets.

Joining a trade union in Africa is not easy. In Sudan, the Labour Code does not recognise trade union freedoms and there is only one state-controlled trade union. Judicial restrictions impede independent trade union organising, particularly in Botswana and Lesotho. When the trade unions can organise freely, the proliferation of trade unions can be problematic. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, employers and the government encouraged the formation of hundreds of trade unions which has weakened the trade union movement. The formation of “yellow” trade unions, favourable to employers in Burundi and Ethiopia has also been denounced in the Survey.

Certain trade union organisations were excluded from tripartite structures (for example in Mali or Mauritania). Furthermore, the protocols and tripartite decisions are not respected (in Namibia, Benin, Togo and Malawi). Strikes are therefore the last resort to force negotiations, when these strikes are not repressed with force and violence (arrests, harassment and dismissals).

The non-respect of social dialogue and collective bargaining in addition to difficulties joining a union in the export processing zones (EPZs) are big challenges to overcome. In Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Togo, many employers refuse to recognise trade unions and unionised workers are often victims of abuse and harassment.

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary said that “Despite all of these difficulties, millions of women and men in Africa maintain their commitment to trade union action or are discovering its benefits. Everything possible must be done to ensure that the fundamental trade union rights of African workers are respected”.

Read the complete survey