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Swaziland: labour federation finally registered

21 May, 2015After a three year battle for recognition, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (Tucoswa) was registered by the Swaziland Ministry of Labour and Social Security on 12 May 2015. IndustriALL affiliate ATUSWA remains unregistered.

When the two main trade union centres, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions and the Swaziland Federation of Labour, as well as the independent Swaziland National Association of Teachers came together to form Tucoswa, the merger was widely welcomed.

However, shortly after the founding congress in March 2012, TUCOSWA was informed that the registration granted was invalid as the labour law did not cater fort the registration of federations. As a result the two main employers’ federations were also subsequently deregistered.

Initially the accusation from some government officials was that the new federation had political aspirations after the Tucoswa congress decided to boycott upcoming national elections if political parties remained banned in Swaziland. There has been building pressure for the registration of Tucoswa. At the International Labour Conference (ILC) of the ILO in 2014, the Swaziland government brushed aside accusation of repression centred on the unresolved issue of Tucoswa’s registration, in real terms constituting a ban on the labour federation.

The deadline of 15 May 2014 had passed for the five benchmarks that needed to be met for Swaziland to continue to benefit from preferential trade access to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity (AGOA). One of the five benchmarks was, “Full passage of the amendment to the Industrial Relations Act allowing for the registration of trade union and employer federations.” So shortly after the ILC, the US announced the withdrawal of Swaziland’s AGOA eligibility effective from 1 January 2015.

The situation worsened when in July 2014 international concerns for the freedom of expression and association and the rule of law in Swaziland peaked at the conviction of a human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and a journalist Bheki Makhubu for contempt of court and they were handed down two year jail sentences after a drawn out trial.

But pressure has continued in 2015 after several thousands of jobs have been lost as a result of the withdrawal of AGOA eligibility and mounting support for campaigns to release Maseko and Makhubu. At the end of March 2015, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa called for the immediate and unconditional release of Maseko and Makhubu.

The registration was granted without much fanfare but before the 2015 ILC. However this may come too late, as the focus has moved from calls for the unbanning of Tucoswa onto the imprisonment of Maseko and Makhubu, which has highlighted the plight of other political prisoners in Swaziland jails.

On 21 May 2015, the European Parliament will debate on cases of breaches of human rights, democracy and the rule of law with regard to Maseko and Makhubu and a motion for resolution on Swaziland has been put forward.

It is hoped that widespread international condemnation will result ultimately in condemnation from African governments as well as concrete actions to get Swaziland to comply with international standards on human and labour rights.

General Secretary of ATUSWA, Wander Mkhonza says that whilst the registration of the federation is a victory to be celebrated, this is only the beginning:

I think what we managed to do, is that we were able under the circumstances to remain in the minds of the people in general and workers in particular. Our immediate task now is to win back the confidence of the workers.