Spotlight interview with Emmanuel Agbénou (CSTT-Togo)

"Trade union breakthrough in export processing zone"

Set up 20 years ago, Togo’s export processing zone (1) employs 9,000 workers, of which 60% are women, in around 60 companies. Trade union rights, although guaranteed under the Togolese Labour Code, are not enforced. Emmanuel Agbénou, confederal secretary in charge of worker education at the CSTT, tells us how, in spite of the obstacles, two trade unions have been formed there. To consolidate this trade union breakthrough, he is appealing for international trade union solidarity, especially in the area of training.

Created on 8 November 2009, the trade union of export processing zone workers, USYNTRAZOFE, was the first union to be formed in Togo’s EPZ. What are the reasons behind the creation of this union?

By law, export processing zone workers have the same rights as other workers in Togo, but since the export processing zone was set up, in 1989, they have been denied the fundamental right to form and join a trade union. Their basic rights are violated on a day to day basis. Several previous attempts to form a trade union had failed due to the resistance of the employers and SAZOF, the company managing the export processing zone (a semi-pubic body). But the workers finally stood their ground and succeeded in forming the first trade union in the export processing zone. Eighty-seven workers from eight different companies took part in the founding congress, held under the theme "Let’s Mobilise for Decent Work".

Had there not been any form of trade union organising prior to the formation of these two unions in Togo’s export processing zone?

Never! It was impossible for unions to take action of any kind in EPZ companies.
When the zone was set up in 1989, the government published texts governing the zone. These texts do not state that workers are not entitled to form trade unions, but the problem lies at practical level. The texts forbid labour inspectors from carrying out routine checks in the export processing zone. SAZOF has a structure in charge of settling problems between workers and employers. When a dispute arises between the two parties, it is this structure that settles it. The workers complain, however, that SAZOF often takes the employers’ side when there is a dispute. Our colleagues never win.

What organising methods were used to achieve this breakthrough?

It was no easy task, as we didn’t have the right to go into the companies to raise awareness. We had to call on the workers to meet us outside of their working hours. We gave employees from a cement works, for example, training in the principles and values of trade unionism one evening between 7 and 11 p.m. We are currently working with the workplace representatives, who are led by a president.
Togo has ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98. This means that workers are free to form trade unions without their employers’ consent. The challenge for us was convincing the workers to unionise, and they agreed to set up a union. The workers drew up the statutes, with our help. They were hesitant about inviting the heads of SAZOF initially, given their opposition to trade unionism in the export processing zone. After the close of the congress, the unionised workers sent a mail to their employers and SAZOF, informing them that the union had been founded.

It would seem that the movement in favour of trade union rights in the export processing zone is growing stronger, as a second union was formed not long after.

Indeed, a second union, the national union of export processing zone workers of Togo, SYNATRAZOFT, was founded. Two hundred and nine workers from 12 companies took part in its founding congress.

What is the main problem facing export processing zone workers?

Employers hire workers freely, often without a contract, and fire them just as freely, without severance pay in some instances. Precarious employment is a real problem, as many of the workers are day labourers without social protection.

Does the Labour Code not offer sufficient protection for export processing zone workers?

The Labour Code was revised in 2006. We, moreover, contributed to its revision. Export processing zone workers are not excluded from the national legislation. EPZ companies have advantages that other companies do not enjoy, but that doesn’t mean that they can violate workers’ rights. The Labour Code, taking on board the eight core Conventions, respects fundamental rights and principles at work. EPZ workers are protected by the Code in the same way as other workers, but the employers do not apply the law when it comes to hiring and firing.

What do the congress resolutions and recommendations advocate in terms of defending and organising export processing zone workers?

The congress participants committed, through their resolutions, to support all organisations working to defend the workers’ interests. They would also like to set up a structure to assist dismissed EPZ workers. Dismissals are very common in the export processing zone. When workers are dismissed, they are denied their rights. The new union will help dismissed workers to assert their rights and is planning to set up a commission to discuss piecework rates. The union also intends to work for the payment of the minimum wage in EPZ companies, in compliance with a decree passed in August 2008, and to ensure that all wage rises negotiated with the employers are effectively implemented. A great deal of work remains to be done...

What resources do these new unions rely on to fund their actions?

The new union would first and foremost like to rely on its own resources. We are going to rally the workers to pay their dues, as that’s a union’s first source of income. As they have just recently been set up, they do not have offices yet but their heads meet at the CSTT and it’s there that they receive their mail. They would be better off with their own headquarters where their members could come and hold meetings. But it has to be said that they have no money. They depend on the CSTT to send mail. A number of colleagues are mobilising to convince workers to join the new union en masse, to increase its revenue. The CSTT has committed to training the new members. It is also planning to meet the employers to explain that these new unions do not pose a threat to their interests, that the union is a social partner that has to work in consultation with the employers so that productivity is ensured, together with respect for fundamental rights.

What message are you sending out to the other trade union organisations affiliated to your confederation?

We are asking the other trade union organisations to be attentive to the members of these two new unions and export processing zone workers. No one in Togo thought we would be capable of setting up a union in the export processing zone, given the reticence of the EPZ management. It’s possible that we may have problems with the employers in the days to come; we are asking the other unions to show solidarity with us, so that we are supported when it comes to holding negotiations or taking action.

What message are you sending out to the international trade union movement?

The CSTT is the only one out of the six Togolese trade union centres that is currently active in the export processing zone. We need support from the international community. We want to train the representatives of the new union. We need support from all sides.

Interview by Servais Akpaca and Natacha David

(1)Togo’s export processing zone has 57 companies in operation and 32 companies in the process of setting up operations. It covers the following range of activities: pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, wood and metal construction, plastics, leather and clothing, agri-food and horticulture, synthetic hair, jewellery, boat maintenance services, software services and development, publicity design and production.