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Unions in Sub-Saharan Africa strengthened by solidarity

18 April, 2019Unions in Sub-Saharan Africa face economic recession, deindustrialization, and precarious work coupled by high unemployment and poverty. Human and workers’ rights violations are common, including unfair retrenchments when mines and companies are closed. 

During an IndustriALL mission to Nairobi, Kenya, IndustriALL Global Union general secretary Valter Sanches and regional secretary Paule France Ndessomin met the six IndustriALL affiliates to discuss issues faced by Kenyan workers, including precarious work. Precarious work is prevalent in most sectors, including the automotive, textile and garments, oil and gas, and manufacturing and is threatening the existence of the union.

Bata shoe company, Total, and Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM) which assembles cars for Volkswagen, are some examples where precarious work is found. KVM counts 39 permanent workers and more than 300 precarious workers. The latter are denied full benefits, including leave as guaranteed by the labour laws. They also work from 8 am to 5 pm without a lunch break.

Trying to put a stop to these abusive practices, the unions are organizing precarious workers. Employers often respond by dismissing workers who join a union. The unions have taken the unfair and unlawful dismissals to court in order to reverse the decisions.

Women often work in dire conditions with low wages, experience violations of maternity leave rights, and sexual harassment and rape is not unusual.

Rose Omano, the chairperson of the IndustriALL Kenya Women’s Council said:

“We appeal to IndustriALL to give more support to women activities since the Kenyan labour movement is highly dominated by men. Women issues are union issues and must be given more attention.”

Valter Sanches said,

“IndustriALL has global campaigns against multinationals to improve working conditions, respect freedom of association and improve wages. Unions must also be more involved in the legislative agenda in their respective countries to enable workers to influence policy processes,”"

Building union power in Lesotho

The textile and garment sector in Lesotho, like most countries in Sub Saharan Africa, employs mostly women, and sexual harassment is an issue.

At the Nien Hsing garment factory, the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL) confronted the company over a sex-for-jobs hiring scandal which resulted in the resignation of a human resources manager. IDUL also fought hard, with support from IndustriALL, to have Nien Hsing reinstate a collective bargaining agreement that it had withdrawn.

In the mining sector, IndustriALL wrote to the UK-based diamond mining company, Firestone Diamonds, to remind them of its obligation to respect workers’ and human rights. The company’s Liqhobong mine in Butha-Buthe district in the Maluti mountains is denying IDUL access to organize workers. This is disappointing from a company that is gaining a reputation for digging big stones while workers have little to show for it.

“The IDUL face a range of challenges; from precarious work, low wages, unfair labour practices, and violation of human and workers’ rights including sexual harassment. The adverse conditions caused by precarious work and union busting employers cannot go unchallenged and IndustriALL and our global diamond network will continue to support IDUL.”

Valter Sanches

Training workshops on how to counter sexual harassment will be held as part of the IndustriALL campaign to end gender-based violence in the workplace.

“The power of unions comes from fighting together”

Valter Sanches in Eswatini

“The power of unions comes from fighting together”

Valter Sanches in Eswatini

Uniting workers to fight for their rights and for living wages is important for unions in Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Speaking to thousands of garment workers at Nhlangano factories, Valter Sanches, said:

“Some employers in the textile and garment sector are notorious for threatening workers in Eswatini with job losses with the ploy that they will take the production to Ethiopia.

"In turn Ethiopian workers receive similar threats when employers say they will relocate to Bangladesh. The employers do this to pay low wages, but we will not accept these games. IndustriALL will take the fight and that is why we unite workers from Eswatini, Lesotho, and South Africa. If we fight together, we will succeed.”

 The Eswatini affiliates said they were under “attack from different fronts” and welcomed the international solidarity and committed to “dirtying their hands in building a strong united workforce.”

Swaziland Electricity Supply Maintenance and Allied Workers Union is fighting for the reinstatement of four workers and the reversal of the suspension of 13 workers by the eSwatini Electricity Company who were suspended after taking part in a strike.

The Amalgamated Trade Unions of Swaziland (ATUSWA) is fighting against the victimization of its members. For instance, a factory at Fashion International at Matsapha is known to demote union leaders or threaten those that join the union. ATUSWA also faces the legal threats of being banned or deregistered.