Spotlight interview with Hilaire Mbuandi Ngoma (CSC-Congo)

“Informal economy workers have to be offered practical services to convince them to unionise”

CSC-Congo has already recruited 200,000 members, mostly women, in the informal economy. But in a country where informal work accounts for 97.5% of all economic activity, organising the informal economy remains a mammoth task for trade unions. Hilaire Mbuandi Ngoma, vice president of the CSC, who is in charge of the informal economy, explains the challenges faced.

How did you first come into contact with the union?

I had been working at a leather goods company employing 350 workers for nine months. The working conditions were poor and the wages very low. I was only 25 years old, but my colleagues encouraged me to become the representative of what was then the single union. I was re-elected to this post within the company on several occasions. When pluralism was introduced to the trade union movement in 1990, I joined the newly formed CSC in 1991. In September 1991, the company where I was working was plundered and the machinery completely destroyed.

Was it then that you became a full-time union officer?

Yes, I started out as a local secretary in Kinshasa. We then went on to set up a regional secretariat and I became the regional secretary for transport and communications, then the assistant cross-sectoral provincial secretary for the city of Kinshasa, and subsequently the general secretary of the wood and construction sector. I learnt a lot during that time. After ore extraction, wood is the second source of income in the bush. 80% of the production in this sector is exported, but the wages and working conditions are appalling. We put up a hard fight and managed to secure some improvements such as better lodging conditions for workers sent to the bush and a reduction in the time spent away from their families from six to three months. The trunks are transported by raft, and we managed to obtained better conditions for these workers. We also secured better working and living conditions at the sawmill.
The situation for construction workers is very tough. We managed to obtain a sector-wide collective agreement that protects their wages, even though they are still too low for the workers to make ends meet.

You were elected as vice president of the CSC in 2003. During this Congress, the CSC decided on a new policy to defend informal economy workers. Why was that, and how are you progressing?

In our country, even people with a formal employment contract need to have some kind of informal activity on the side to make ends meet. In the informal economy it’s “everyone for themselves”, there’s no employment contract, no timetable, no health insurance. The workers are abandoned to their fate, with no social protection. Many young university graduates find themselves working in petty commerce. In 2004, the CSC launched its policy to defend and unionise informal economy workers. We started by drawing up an inventory of the various activities: widespread petty commerce, agriculture, fishing, mining, transport, and a whole host of other activities. We decided to prioritise the petty commerce, transport, agriculture, fishing and livestock sectors.

The main problems we have identified are, firstly, the red tape and police harassment affecting small traders. Secondly, the lack of information concerning their rights and duties as citizens and workers. And thirdly, the absence of protection mechanisms as well as credit, savings and production cooperatives.

What practical services do you offer informal economy workers to attract them to the union?

We started by working to resolve the problem of taxes and administrative papers by negotiating with the public authorities. We managed to get certain taxes withdrawn, which is a concrete result. We also embarked on work to raise awareness among the workers themselves, making contact with them at their places of work. We have set up small committees, with which we hold discussions after work, usually after 6pm. Time management is a major problem for these people who work 7 days a week, all year round, without holidays, and without anyone to stand in for them when they reach old age.
We are also working to improve the hygiene conditions at work, but we are limited by our serious lack of resources.

But your main priority is organising these workers?

That’s our main objective. The State does nothing so we have to support them and help them to structure themselves. We have around 200,000 members in the informal economy, mainly in petty commerce. The union card, which costs $0.70, covers all the basic information, including the workers’ nationality and place of origin. Most of the members are women, who account for 68% of the total, except for in the transport sector (there is no public transport so private individuals provide the service of transporting goods and people). There are trade union representatives for the informal economy in 11 provinces and four of them are women.
In a country with 60 million inhabitants and an informal economy employing 97.5% of the population, 200 000 members is still a drop in the ocean; the task ahead of us is huge.
We have to offer quality services to attract them, like normalising tax payments, which is something we are working on at the moment. Another important service is providing them with health insurance, which is the next step we plan to take. We are in the process of launching a project with this aim in mind, raising awareness among the workers concerned and giving them training.

Do you have information on how other African unions are tackling the issue of organising the informal economy?

We are taking inspiration from the work already done in certain West African countries. We went to Lomé and Cotonou for an exchange of experiences, and it helped us a lot. The countries of the North are not faced with the same realities, so the countries of the South have to work together to make progress. How do we get to the stage of ultimately formalising all these activities? It’s a long and arduous task involving not just the unions but also the public authorities, which have to take into account the informal economy on which the country’s economy rests. In Togo, for example, they are much further ahead of us already and have a Ministry for the Informal Economy. In Congo, there is a new department within the Ministry of Economy, but it has difficulty establishing contact with the workers, who fear more red tape and new taxes.
The Agriculture Ministry has brought us together with other civil society organisations for an emergency programme regarding food self-sufficiency, providing our members with fertilisers. The authorities have associated us with this programme because they recognise the visibility we have among the workers.

You insist on the need for basic training in the informal economy…

The lack of resources is alarming when it comes to basic training, such as literacy. There is a huge gap between the small minority of graduates and the vast majority of workers with only a very low level of education. We have carried out three awareness-raising activities on HIV/AIDS, for example, because informal workers are the most affected. The root of the problem is, above all, ignorance. Another problem is child labour, which is very common in the informal economy. We try to raise awareness among the parents, to make them understand that a child’s place is in school.

What’s the situation regarding migrant workers?

There are many West African migrants working in the informal economy, especially in Kinshasa. Integration starts with the language, and many of them speak our language well. But they are wary about letting the union approach them, preferring to remain as inconspicuous as possible. They are structured among themselves and there is strong solidarity between those of the same nationality, especially the Nigerians, Malians, and Senegalese…

Interview by Natacha David

(1) The CSC is one of the three ITUC affiliated organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, along with the CDT and the UNTC.