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African and US trade unions call for decent work in trade and economic cooperation

9 November, 2023The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2-4 November, to strategize ways to strengthen an inclusive trading partnership between the US and 35 eligible African countries. 

AGOA is a US law which was signed in 2000 aimed at creating duty free access for eligible African countries to the US markets. Eligibility criteria includes adopting market-based economies, the rule of law, political pluralism, making efforts to curb corruption, introducing poverty reduction policies, increasing access to healthcare and educational opportunities, and the protection of human and workers’ rights. 

According to reports made at the Forum, trade and economic cooperation under the trade law has created jobs, promoted investments, provided business opportunities, and contributed to economic development.

Recently, some African countries that include the Central Africa Republic, Gabon, Niger, and Uganda were recently suspended from AGOA for violating human rights and not promoting political pluralism, effective from next year.

This Forum, which had over a thousand participants from governments, business, civil society organizations and organized labour, deliberated on key strategies to boost sustainable and equitable economic development, creation of decent jobs, and stimulating industrialization on the continent. However, there were calls for the extension of the agreement for a longer period when it expires in 2025.

Ambassador Katherine Tai, US trade representative, reiterated recognizing the vibrancy, ingenuity, and potential of AGOA. 
Wamkele Mene, the secretary general of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) said African economies were small and fragmented with an over reliance on exporting unprocessed raw materials. The AfCFTA was formed to create opportunities for intra-African exports of value-added goods through the integration and creation of a single market. He emphasised the importance of aligning the AfCFTA with AGOA.

South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, said:

“Africa must not be defined as a producer of commodities but must transform rocks into consumer goods.” 

He stressed the necessity to utilise vast reserves of critical transition minerals for industrialization. 

The organized labour participants comprised of 21 participants from ITUC Africa, regional trade union organizations, national federations, and national trade unions. IndustriALL affiliates that participated were from Madagascar, South Africa, and the US.

“The trade union movement is diverse, but we are united in support of AGOA as organized labour on the African continent and the US. AGOA has helped create millions of jobs, from clothing factories in Lesotho to farms in Kenya. It has been a mutually beneficial relationship with components produced in Botswana included in vehicles manufactured in South Africa, to critical materials exported to factories in Louisiana, thus supporting the economic integration of the continent and economic growth in both America and Africa,” 

said Zingiswa Losi, president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Ben Davis, USW’s director of international affairs, said there is a long history of workers' solidarity with African trade unions. The USW has campaigned against trade union violations with the NUM and NUMSA in South Africa, UWUL in Liberia, and SVS in Madagascar and confronted multinational companies like ArcelorMittal, Bridgestone, Firestone, Rio Tinto, and Sibanye Stillwater.

“USW continues to fight against the arrest and imprisonment of trade union leaders at the QMM Rio Tinto plant in Madagascar and will leverage on AGOA to stop the violations. USW members in Quebec, Canada, who are processing the ilmenite from Madagascar, were in solidarity with the workers,” 

said Ben Davis. 

Roxanne Brown, USW, international vice president at large, said:

“Trade unions can learn from the US-Mexico-Canada agreement on how workers’ rights and family sustaining jobs can be included in a trade agreement. Further, trade unions can work with civil society organizations in what I can describe as cross pollination where the relationship is based on protecting common interests.” 

“On a continent with a youth population bulge the creation of decent jobs is important. This means manufacturing industries in the automotive, energy, mining, and textile and garment industries have great potential to create the much-needed jobs and AGOA trade deals can make significant contributions,” 

said Atle Høie, IndustriALL general secretary.