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Building sustainable unions in Africa


The IMF regional office in Africa works closely with affiliates to build international solidarity, strengthen trade unions and improve the lives of workers. As described in this report, the challenges are enormous requiring a strategic focus on building sustainable unions as can be seen in Tanzania and Swaziland.


Successive waves of political, cultural and economic colonization and global power struggles have left Africa an economic shell. Today, human and mineral resources are extracted and small pockets of industrialisation remain to support the ongoing plunder. Alongside this, vast ghettos of poverty and suffering exist.

The countries that make up Africa are a diverse grouping in terms of geography, population size, language, wealth, distribution of wealth, life expectancy, health, public sector resources, trade union size and cohesion, labour market size and HIV prevalence.

The depth and deepening of poverty in many African countries has often not served to mobilize workers and their organisations but has in fact weakened them both politically and organisationally.

Colonial and neo-colonial effects

Historically, colonial powers pushed Africa into the production and export of raw minerals and agriculture and the importation of processed goods. After independence many African countries tried to build a domestic economy by producing locally what was being imported. This also tended to employ more people. But Africa was caught in a debt trap and to try and escape this debt countries were forced to accept Structural Adjustment Programmes. These programmes and the dropping of tariffs through trade liberalisation saw a move from import substitution to export oriented-growth.

However, the increased presence of foreign companies has had a negative effect on the development of many sectors in African economies, creating a poverty cycle with increasing unemployment and people relying on subsistence activities in the informal sector.

The winners from these economic policies have been big business and the losers the people of Africa. These policies have also caused a lot of disinvestment by governments in the metal sector. For instance in Zambia the state used to own and support metal and engineering sectors.  Some of the state-supported industries like engineering firms were liquidated and closed down as a result of the structural adjustment programs of the 1990s. It is the same group of externally imposed policy measures that is resulting in privatisation of services such as water, electricity and health care, often making these services more expensive and forcing poor people deeper into poverty.


Approximately 315 million Africans, nearly one third more people than the entire population of the U.S., survive on less than one dollar per day. Eighty per cent of the African population survives on less than two dollars a day. Africa is the only continent in the world to have grown poorer since 1979. From 1990 to 1999, poverty in Africa actually increased by three per cent, whereas in all other areas of the world poverty declined by about seven per cent.

The number of people living in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa has nearly doubled, from 164 million in 1981 to 315 million in 2001. Moreover, 33 of the 49 countries defined by the United Nations as 'Least Developed Countries' are in Africa.

HIV & Disease

Africa's health systems are near total collapse due to the combined effects of structural adjustments, the plundering of human resources by the West and the demands placed on the system by malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.

According to UNAIDS, every day in Africa, 6,600 people die and another 8,500 contract the HIV virus, 1,400 of whom are newborn babies infected during childbirth or by their mothers' milk. Africa is home to 25 million people with HIV - 64 per cent of global infections.

Mass deaths due to disease are not a new phenomena. Despite a country such as the U.S. eradicating malaria, the efforts of the West to do this in Africa have proved alarmingly incompetent, driven as they are by questionable agendas and support for drug companies. Africa must not wait for the West to solve the problems of HIV/AIDS but must drive its own agenda.  It is not only a medical problem, but also an economic and development issue.

Trade union situation

Potential agents for social change in Africa are trade unions. However, given the broader political and economic situation, African trade unions face many challenges. The shift from domestic capital to foreign investment has resulted in the collapse of many local industries. This reduction in employment levels and a shift from permanent to atypical employment over the past ten years in most African countries has led to a decline in union membership.

Like in many other parts of the world, African unions tend to reflect the structure of capital. The decline and stagnation of many industries that occurred following liberalisation of African economies, has left in its wake many small and fragmented unions that are not sustainable through membership contributions alone. External funds became a way for these organisations to sustain themselves, often resulting in unions more accountable to outside funding organisations than to their membership. This, coupled with poor democratic structures, corruption and lack of accountability to members resulted in unions becoming increasingly irrelevant to its members.

A trade union's orientation towards rich organisations in the North for support has also undermined solidarity between unions as they compete for resources to tackle national issues. Issues-based funding, focused on topics such as gender and HIV/AIDS, can result in unions paying lip service to the issue to gain resources, instead of ensuring the subject is integrated into central organisational activities and values. Lack of communication and administrative infrastructure is also a contributing factor that weakens unions in Africa.

Given the constraints, the IMF Africa regional office has developed a strategic approach concentrating on certain countries where there is a 'critical mass' of workers with the potential of sustainable unionism across the sectors of that country. A central component of this strategy is the development of sustainable general manufacturing unions.

Tanzanian Union of Industrial and Commercial Workers (TUICO)

Some unions in Africa have realised that their survival depends on the unity of workers in the country - irrespective of the sector. One such union is the Tanzanian Union of Industrial and Commercial Workers (TUICO). The union was formed ten years ago. When it was formed it moved away from a narrow sector union to a more inclusive or general union. The union organises workers from about five different sector of the economy, including metal, textile, energy, commercial and banking sectors. They also organise workers in the informal sector.

The IMF began working with TUICO in 2003 on a project to improve the union's capacity to produce education materials and conduct their own union education and increase membership. When IMF started the project the union had around 28,000 members. Today the union has grown to have more than 50,000 members. The union has achieved this growth despite continued loss of members through retrenchments. The project has managed to train more than 400 shop stewards and produced materials on collective bargaining, health and safety, women in the trade union and workplace and labour laws.

The IMF feels that in order for the labour movement to be able to survive in Africa it needs to develop unions similar to TUICO. There are manufacturing industries in Africa and we need to bring workers in different sectors together in solidarity. This approach will also assist unions to combine their resources to greater effect. Today TUICO is one of the unions that can be classified as self-sustainable.

Swaziland Amalgamated Trade Union (SATU)

Five years ago the IMF, working closely with NUMSA, embarked on a project to build and assist the union in Swaziland to merge and form a stronger metal union. Over the years some unions in Swaziland were known as "briefcase" unions - as they essentially consisted of a general secretary operating from his briefcase. These unions had no resources and no full time staff.

The IMF project produced a new union in 2003 called Swaziland Amalgamated Trade Union (SATU). The union covers about five sectors, including metal, construction, mining, commercial and security workers. The union has grown from less than 2,000 members when it merged to 3,500 today. While there have been set backs, such as some sectors being forced by the national centre to pull out of the union, the union is becoming stronger every day. Now there is a union in Swaziland that can successfully lead campaigns, including leading a strike against a Chinese TNC. The union employs four staff members and pays them from its own finances.

Sustainable unions

The success of this union is because of the unity of workers in Swaziland irrespective of sectors. For the IMF, sector unions do not have a future in Africa. Instead, workers, their unions and the IMF must focus our resources and efforts into building self-sustainable unions that are not dependent on outside sources of funding and are better able to demand changes that will result in the sustainable development of the region.


Zimbabwe unions merge

Zimbabwe Metal Energy and Allied Workers' Union was launched at its inaugural congress in Harare, in February this year. The union is the result of a successful merger of four unions in Zimbabwe.

The merger was strongly supported by the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), which passed a resolution at its last congress calling for the merger of small unviable unions to reduce the number of affiliates to the national centre from 36 to 13.

In the region, IMF affiliate Numsa also gave support to its sister union, facilitating discussions, assisting in the formulation of the constitution and providing continued support in areas such as setting up administrative systems and branch structures.

IMF regional representative, Stephen Nhlapo praised the new union saying, "This merger is an example to fractured unions all over Africa of the viability of mergers to build solidarity and create sustainable unionism, but most importantly it is a great step forward for metalworkers in Zimbabwe."

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