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US withdraws Swaziland’s preferential trade status

3 July, 2014The failure of the Swaziland government to uphold the rule of law and respect worker and human rights has resulted in the loss of preferential trade status with the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

US President Obama announced on June 26 2014 the termination of Swaziland as a beneficiary country of the AGOA, effective from 1 January 2015. The loss of AGOA eligibility will affect duty-free access of Swaziland’s garment exports to the US, worth USD50 million in 2013. 

“The US required that Swaziland address five recommendations, which were reasonable and in fact lenient, but the government failed to act” explains Wonder Mkhonza, General Secretary of Amalgamated Trade Union of Swaziland (Atuswa). Amongst these recommendations was respect for freedom of association and freedom of assembly.

Amongst key concerns is the 2012 deregistration of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (Tucoswa) and international pressure, including attempts by the ILO to ensure that the Swaziland government recognizes the federation, have thus far failed.  Atuswa, formed through the merger in September 2013 of a number of unions, including three IndustriALL Global Union affiliates, in sectors including manufacturing, metal and mining, also remains unregistered.

Trade union activities are often disrupted by the police. Trade union leaders are subjected to harassment and live with the threat of arrest and detention when going about their work. The recent conviction of a trade union leader and the imprisonment of a union lawyer for criticizing the lack of an independent judiciary the in Swaziland, are further indicators that the situation is worsening in Swaziland. An ILO fact finding mission in January 2014 found that no progress was made in the past decade.

In May 2014, prior to the deadline to meet the eligibility requirements, Atuswa led a march of about 400 garment workers to hand over a petition to the Swazi Prime Minister. “We petitioned the government to address the five recommendations so that Swaziland would keep its trading status with the US and save jobs, but up to today government has not responded to our petition.” said Mkhonza. 

The US will review Swaziland’s AGOA eligibility again in December 2014, thus the Swaziland government does have a window, albeit a small one, to assume its responsibility now to respect workers’ rights and regain preferential trade status.