Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights


Given the increasing reduction of purchasing power in Africa, coming on top of a food crisis, the continent’s workers and unions often find themselves faced with employers very loath to meet their demands. Indeed, in both the public and private sectors, employers have used every means at their disposal to quash protests, and the authorities too have shown no hesitation in deploying strong-arm tactics, hypocritically invoking notions of public order and economic development.

On 6 and 7 April, for instance, rioting broke out in Mahalla, a town inhabited by workers in the Nile Delta north of the Egyptian capital, Cairo, after the security forces forced workers’ representatives at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, the country’s largest textile factory, to cancel its strike. The general public, frustrated by what it regarded as provocation, took to the streets in large numbers. The ensuing repression claimed six people’s lives and resulted in 200 workers being arrested and three trade unionists imprisoned for 54 days. In August, 32 female workers at a cigarette factory were fired and roughly treated for supporting an unjustly dismissed colleague. Egyptian union activists know they are bound to face merciless repression as they seek to defend their democratic ideals in a country that has renewed its state of emergency for two years. The same applies in Tunisia, where police resorted to excessive violence in the mining region of Gafsa. Injustices and cronyism there triggered a wave of social unrest, in which one person died and dozens of workers and labour activists were given very harsh custodial sentences. In Algeria and Morocco, unions were subjected to harassment because of their irrepressible drive for reform and their refusal to kowtow to the government.

In Zimbabwe, the government maintained a climate of terror directed against political opponents or anyone suspected of wanting change or seeking to influence the vote in their community, such as trade unionists and teachers. The unions faced violence throughout the year: one activist was killed, several more were tortured, some female unionists were sexually assaulted, dozens of trade unionists – including the main union leaders – were arrested and/or beaten, and various union offices were ransacked. It is the most authoritarian regimes, like the one in Zimbabwe, that have violated trade union rights most systematically. Examples of this include Swaziland, where union activities are brutally suppressed, Sudan and the countries in the Horn of Africa, where unions are unable, in practice, to operate. In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association no longer has legal status, after the judiciary definitively ruled in favour of a union that faithfully toes the government line.

Numerous violations of trade union rights in many countries can be attributed to insecurity, political troubles and armed conflicts. A strike by ‘redeployed’ officials in northern Côte d’Ivoire was violently put down by former rebel soldiers who still control that part of the country. In Mauritania, the members of the military who ousted the country’s first democratically elected president since its independence on 6 August lost no time in attacking trade union rights: two demonstrations were suppressed, workers were molested and various union offices were stormed. In Chad, the Central African Republic, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where thousands of women were raped - repeated violence has prevented the unions from operating normally. In Guinea, after the coup on 23 December 2008 following the president’s death, measures were adopted prohibiting trade union action and political activities.

The exploitation of Africa’s rich mining deposits has not been conducive to greater respect for trade union freedoms. In Zambia’s renowned mineral-rich Copperbelt region for example, the unions unrelentingly denounced the ever-worsening social climate in the mining industry. Much of that sector is in the hands of Chinese operators who are often considered brutal and indifferent towards respecting workers’ fundamental rights or meeting safety standards. The ‘curse of oil’, the notion whereby income generated through oil sales only benefits a minority and can lead to conflict, struck again in Sudan and Chad, where union activities are either very tightly controlled or repressed. Another trend continued in 2008, too: Asian companies, mainly Chinese, of which droves have set up in business in Africa, are employing large numbers of workers from their respective countries who can be exploited at will. These migrant workers have no trade union protection. In Equatorial Guinea, a strike by Chinese workers was bloodily suppressed by the security forces, leaving two workers dead and several others injured. Subsequently, 300 strikers were sent back to China. The Guinean government chose to describe this as rioting, stating that it did not want that kind of uprising in the country, whilst the Chinese authorities strongly denounced the conduct of their compatriots.

Employers in many African countries are making increasing use of outsourcing, temporary employment contracts and other forms of precarious work to undermine trade union rights. In Nigeria, unions in the oil sector fiercely criticised the manoeuvring by multinationals which are taking advantage of streamlining and restructuring measures to sack union activists in the first round of dismissals.

Good news has been in short supply though there has been some. In Liberia, after years of struggle the union representing workers at Firestone finally secured a collective agreement. Also, some independent unions were eventually recognised in countries that are normally very hostile towards them. And a number of countries (Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mozambique and Namibia) amended their labour laws, making them more conducive to the exercise of trade union rights.

But in Madagascar, the reverse applies. There the authorities not only introduced fresh restrictions on the right to strike, but also - without consulting the unions - adopted a law governing export processing zones (EPZs) that allows employers to require their employees to work longer hours on pain of dismissal. And the outlook is hardly encouraging in Mauritius or Namibia either, where the authorities are striving to make their EPZs even more attractive by providing fresh exemptions.