Swazi government’s failure to respect workers’ rights leads to the loss of trade benefits

The United States withdrew Swaziland’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), effective as of 1 January 2014.

AGOA is a preferential trade program offering duty-free access to the US market. Swaziland joined the program in 2001 accepting the AGOA eligibility criteria, which include respect for the rule of law and respect for worker rights and human rights. About half of Swaziland’s clothing and apparel exports, which benefit from AGOA, are sent to the US. In 2012-13, exports of textiles, clothing, footwear and leather goods represented more than seven per cent of total export revenues.

However, the government has continuously failed to meet the eligibility criteria. Swaziland remains Africa’s last absolute monarchy where multi-party elections are prohibited and political activists are targeted and imprisoned. The Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), the only national centre in Swaziland, was de-registered in 2012, and its peaceful and legitimate activities are regularly thwarted by police. Labour laws fall short of protecting workers and instead grant police discretionary powers to arbitrarily arrest and detain trade unionists. Basil Thwala was imprisoned for two years for standing in a picket line. Thulani Maseko, a lawyer representing TUCOSWA, is still imprisoned for criticising the lack of independence in the judiciary.

“Though aware of the potential withdrawal of trade benefits, the government made no genuine effort to fulfil the eligibility criteria by 15 May 2014, the deadline set by the US Trade Representative. The inaction is evidence of the government’s complete disregard for the rights and livelihoods of workers,” explained Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

The ITUC calls on Swaziland to bring its laws and practices in line with international labour standards in order to ensure that workers’ rights are protected and decent jobs are created.