Rwanda: Social dialogue paves the way for agreements for hundreds of thousands of workers

By Lene Frøslev and Jacob Rosdahl, LO/FTF Council (Denmark)

Trade unions in Rwanda are expecting a breakthrough for organization of the labour market. Training of shop stewards in negotiations and social dialogue supported by Danish LO/FTF Council and with funding from the EU proves highly effective.

(c)Lene Froslev

Continuous pressure and a focused investment in education of shop stewards from the trade unions of Rwanda have opened up for labour agreements at an unprecedented pace. Lobbying, trainings and social dialogue between trade unions, employers and government are pushing forward the labour market in the tiny East African country.

“Before the end of the year, I am expecting to sign off at least 10 new agreements with businesses together with three sector agreements. It’s a snowball effect. I’m very optimistic,” says General Secretary Eric Manzi from CESTRAR (Centrale des Syndicats des Travailleurs du Rwanda).

The LO/FTF Council (Danish Trade Union Council for International Development Cooperation) has assisted with the development of training programs and training of trainers, and CESTRAR has utilized it to create awareness and assisted with the development of local shop stewards. The project is partially funded by the EU, and the trainings are focusing on basic workers’ rights, social dialogue and negotiation techniques.

25% raise

These trainings have produced remarkable results. At Kabuye Sugar Works, the workers have acquired 25% higher wages, and the safety of the workers has improved significantly. Gabriel Ndayisabye is the Kabuye shop steward and it is thanks to him that a local agreement has been signed. Today, workers and management have a good and productive relationship.

“We used to get a ‘No!’ when we requested management for improvements of the working conditions. Even if we did not have any protection and the salaries were low. The atmosphere was so tense between us, and we were often near confrontation,” says Gabriel.

Things have changed. Gabriel went to the trainings in negotiation techniques. He learned how to get the employers engaged in social dialogue, how to communicate demands, how to fend for a case, and to see things from different perspectives.

It was very successful notwithstanding it took 3 months of intense negotiations to reach an agreement at Kabuye. The managing director, Anselme Habinana, says:
”Workers that have good conditions are more motivated. Which in turn gives us stability and at the end of the day better results and greater revenue,” says Habinana. He admits that management used to view trade unions very negatively. Today, management and CESTRAR are always working on finding compromises together.

The importance of tea

The trainings have not only created improvements on Kabuye. The idea of social dialogue is spreading throughout the Rwandan labour market. A very tangible sign of this is the increasing number of agreements.

Up to now, there are only three agreements in Rwanda; two at the Sorwarthe tea factory and one at the Kabuye Sugar Works. These are the agreements that have paved the way for the breakthrough.

One agreement will cover each and every tea plantation in Rwanda. The tea plantations employ around 2,500 employees and additionally buy tea from almost 5,000 small holder farmers. The key to this agreement comes from the fact that the three biggest plantations and factories are owned by a monopoly, and the main tool is the agreement that is already concluded with the Sowarthe tea company, Eric Manzi explains.

The production of tea generates approximately twenty percent of Rwanda’s export revenue.

“When we conclude this agreement, it will have a tremendous impact on the labour market,” says Eric Manzi.

Construction and hotels

This also applies to the second upcoming sector agreement. The agreement is going to cover the growing construction industry with around 600,000 workers. A draft to an agreement has been written, but there are still many negotiations to come before a final conclusion is reached.

An expected third sector agreement, for which CESTRAR has high hopes, is the hotel business sector. This is also a huge sector in Rwanda since the tourist industry is growing.

According to Eric Manzi, around 10 agreements on business level will, beside the sector agreements, be signed in the course of 2015.
Employers are softening their tone

The three agreements and the ones to come are concrete results from a constructive, social dialogue between CESTRAR, the employers’ association and the government. The Employers have so far been tough at negotiations, but the company owners have realized the opportunities and benefits of a regulated labour market. Eric Manzi expects a more positive negotiating partner as the employers implement a new labour market strategy.

The government is the most important player on the labour market in Rwanda. A lot of issues are regulated by law, for instance the minimum wages, working conditions and social security. The government regulations are put into effect after recommendations from a Labour Market Council, in which CESTRAR plays a big role.

However, a lot of work places are not complying with the rules and regulations, and workers are often without great knowledge about their rights. Hence, CESTRAR is trying to rectify this inequity through trainings for shop stewards throughout Rwanda.