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The changing face of trade unionism in Africa

Two of Africa's leading lights in the trade union movement, Hassan Sunmonu, Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and Andrew Kailembo, Secretary General of the Africa regional section of the Intemational Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU-AFRO) spoke to the Courier about the changing face of trade unionism in Africa in the wings of the annual meeting ACP/EU social partners meeting, held in Brussels on December 681995.

The wind of democratic change blowing through Africa has opened the door to a re-emergence of free trade unionism. On the other hand, an increase in violations of labour and trade union freedoms by governments has been seen. At the same time, structural adjustment and the devaluation of the CFA franc have set back union attempts to take advantage of political pluralism. Trade unionism was an important element in precipitating an end to one party regimes notably in Mali, Zambia and Malawi, and trade union pluralism has grown with the dismantling of one party systems.

'In this democratisation process, some governments fear the role of the trade union movement. This is particularly so when they see that it is independent and working with a free press, conversing with society,' says Andrew Kailembo, who was elected head of the Nairobi-based ICFTU-AFRO in 1993. It has 44 affiliated organisations in 40 African countries and a membership of 27 million.

Hassan Sunumo renewed a four-year term as head of the OATUU (based in Accra in May 1995. The Organisation claims to represent all trade union tendencies in Africa including the non-aligned. Its Secretary-General is confident that unions will have a strong voice in the continent in future. 'Governments in our countries have become intolerant as a result of the trade union movement leading civil society in a number of countries in demanding the restoration of the people's democratic rights. They used to feel that unions should only deal with bread and butter issues; but every human being is a political animal, and we have a right to air our opinions about the way our countries are run.' He adds: 'Trade unions are saying that they played an important role during the pre-independence period, fighting against the colonial past. Now they want to see that proper democracy is established. When you have democracy, you also have free and independent democratic unions.'

Both umbrella bodies are active in exposing violations of trade union rights and labour freedoms. According to Mr Sunmonu, 'we go to the governments to present the complaints of our affiliates and discuss them with officials. We don't simply attack violations out of hand. There is always another side to the coin. And countries are sometimes very embarrassed when they see the OATUU report on activities.' Both men make a strong call for greater dialogue with the IME and the World Bank on the content of structural adjustment programmes.

Their fears that the 'social partners' are being ignored in the design of IMF and World Bank programmes are also underlined in a recent study by the Brussels-based ICFTU - which has 127 million members in 124 countries - of 13 French-speaking African countries. This study asserts that structural adjustment has set back trade unionism's ambitions of pluralism, as well as progress on labour rights.

The ICFTU report refers to the World Bank Development report for 1995 which says that structural adjustment poses a 'serious challenge'. The ICFTU goes on to recommend 'intervention in labour markets,' to 'reduce the bias against small and informal businesses and agriculture.' Public sector reforms are seen as 'crucial for increasing the quality of services offered' and a 'simultaneous reduction in public employment and a more competitive wage structure' is urged.

According to the report: 'Politicians are again tempted to employ repression in stabilising society so that the requirements of conditionality are accepted unopposed'. The offer of a 'docile workforce' facilitates external investment. It also claims that the 1960s scenario is being repeated. This was when the politicians quest for centralisation to meet the goals of the initial five-year plans first destroyed pluralistic structures in French-speaking Africa. Trade unions, says the ICFTU, were swallowed up and private sector employers marginalised. The state assumed almost complete control of industrial relations.

The report stresses that 'the train of structural adjustment left the station some years ago and workers and their trade unions are on board. Today, the question is not when the trip begins, but where it is going and what route it will take. As political leaders examine (ways) of restructuring labour legislation and industrial relations, as part of an attempt to restart stalled economic growth, they are confronted by the conditions of the international financial institutions.' The study continues: 'Latent tensions have become transparent in the process of drafting new labour codes. Demands for 'flexibility' of employment and working hours have increased pressure in governments to impose fewer restrictions in areas such as employment contracts and procedures, authority of labour inspectors, dismissal for economic reason and temporary work.'

And the 50% devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994 had a 'profound effect on wage earners and further undermined union credibility.' Trade unions were taken by surprise as no consultations had taken place prior to the devaluation. There were initial protest strikes and demonstrations in Benin, Burkina, Gabon and Niger. Other unions held meetings and demanded wage increases ranging from 35% in Chad and 50% in Burkina, Mali, Senegal and Togo, to 100% in Gabon.

Whereas Andrew Kailembo speaks about the need for the IMF and the World Bank to engage in dialogue with social partners, Hassan Sunmuno regrets that the 'African alternative' to structural adjustment, endorsed by African nations in 1989, has never been implemented. 'What we are saying is that the World Bank is not restructuring in the right way because it is not involving the social partners. We believe there should be dialogue with the social partners,' he asserts. 'We criticise the World Bank in countries like Chad and Senegal because they have tried to impose expatriates on the governments who then encourage them to water down or abandon their labour laws. This is the business, not of the World Bank, but of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which is the specialised agency for labour legislation.' This year, the ICFTU has organised seven structural adjustment workshops in Ghana, Chad, Senegal, Gabon and Uganda. Participants have included Ministries of Finance and Economics, representatives of civil society and officials of the World Bank and IMF.

'Why,' asks Mr Kailembo, 'should the Ugandan government announce that it is going to retrench 10 000 people, without ever discussing the matter with the social partners? The key question is how you retrench. There should be a safety net for those moving into the informal sector, so that they have something to live on. If you retrench overnight, you create chaos. In the African continent, where you have no social security, if you take away one person's livelihood, you are effectively retrenching 10-20 people.' He claims that the IMF and the World Bank are now beginning to take note of their concerns.

Mr Sunmonu stresses the African alternative: 'What does structural adjustment mean?' he asks. 'Well, it certainly means sacrifice but how can we share the fruits of that sacrifice equitably. At present, less than 2% of the people - who have not made any sacrifice - are reaping 98% of the fruits.'

Both organisations are committed to wide-ranging education schemes, not only about trade union freedoms and labour rights, but also on economic integration in Africa. The OATUU is holding worker education programmes based on popular participation, empowerment, accountabilty of leaders, human and trade union rights, economic and social growth, and the pillars of the Treaty of the African Economic Community adopted in July 1990.

Hassan Sunmonu advocates human resource development and capacity building for unions in each country and talks about organising a sub-regional seminar winding up with a continental meeting. The ILO has pledged funds for three such meetings in Nigeria, Tanzania and Guinea bringing together trade union leaders, general secretaries of affiliates, women's organisations and research and education officers. 'We are also pushing African governments to develop the necessary political will for the integration of their economies through the establishment of the African Economic Community', he says.

But his organisation has ambitions too of being a 'creator of employment' through such things as investment in small and medium-sized enterprises. He points out that in Tunisia, for example, one affiliate owns an insurance company while another runs a hotel.

The organisation is hoping to attract EDF backing to build a new African Labour College in Ghana and a new Secretariat. The Chinese government has already offered some funding.

Both men feel Europe can also directly support labour rights in Africa by linking it with trade. The idea is that if labour standards are not respected, sanctions may follow - the much discussed 'social clause' to trade agreements. 'We think the EU could help us by sanctioning countries where trade union rights are not respected', argues Mr Kailembo.

Hassan Sunmonu notes, on this issue, that 'difficulties will arise over who is the accuser and who is the judge. You need a mechanism akin to that of the ILO, where, if a government breaks the rules, you can make a complaint about the violation, and there is a committee which judges the case on the basis of international labour standards. We want transparency and justice, and the application of universal standards in areas such as the use of child labour.'

Both men talk animatedly about the future and echo the thoughts set out at the end of the ICFTU study. This says that 'Africa is on the threshold of a new political, economic and social era where trade unions can once again play the positive role they once enjoyed in the struggle for independence. If the challenges of this altered environment are to be met successfully, a new vision is needed to guide the leadership, allowing for workers to go beyond past restraints in forging an innovative, truly African style of dynamic trade unionism and industrial relations.’ D.P.