Africa Union Leaders Share Tactics to Empower Workers

Addressing unemployment and underemployment, especially for young workers, is the most pressing issue for trade unions across Africa, according to participants in an African Labor Leaders Exchange Program sponsored by the Solidarity Center.

Speaking at a December 9 panel discussion at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., six union leaders from Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and South Africa discussed the challenges in securing economic prosperity for working people—and their strategies for empowering workers in the formal and informal economies.

“What faces us is high levels of unemployment, poverty,” said Edward de Klerk, deputy general secretary of South Africa’s United National Transport Union (UNTU).

“Unemployment is an African issue,” said Philip Kwoba, director of Youth Organizing with the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) in Kenya. Unions in Kenya are reaching out to informal economy workers, which include many young workers, helping them form worker savings associations as a step toward unionization and gaining bargaining rights. “We are allocating resources to help,” said Kwoba.

Members of the panel, moderated by Solidarity Center Regional Program Director for Africa Imani Countess, said poverty also is fueled by low wages. “Wage inequality is this battle still we have got,” said de Klerk. In Nigeria, unions are tackling wage issues by addressing government policies that reduce the pay of public-employees, including teachers, said Muhammed Nasir Idris, National Treasurer Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT).

Lack of employment opportunity and poverty in Liberia  puts youth at risk of labor trafficking within the country’s borders, said Liberia Labor Congress (LLC) General Secretary David Sackoh.

Sackoh said labor recruiters take children from parents in their villages, promising the children will go to school in the city. Instead, the children are used in forced labor. “Even though our research shows (the children) want to return,” they are unable to do so for seven to 10 years,” he said.

Sackoh pointed to the Liberian trade union movement’s tremendous victory in eradicating child labor at the Firestone Natural Rubber Liberia plantation, and said the union movement now is working to address the issue at the seven other plantations across the country.

During questions with the audience, which included a packed crowd of union activists, policy experts and international experts, union leaders also discussed drawing more women into trade union leadership.

“Getting women elected to high offices is now on the union agenda,” said Boniface Kavuvi, general secretary of the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW). Kavuvi pointed to domestic workers in Kenya, represented by KUDHEIHA, as an example of dynamic organizing and strong leadership by women in Kenya. “They have done a tremendous job,” he said.

In Liberia, unions are pushing for 30 percent representation by women in union leadership, mirroring the country’s effort to increase women’s representation in the national legislature, said Isaac Grant, LLC organizing coordinator.

The six union leaders traveled to the United States for a South–South labor leaders’ exchange in which African labor leaders met with community and trade union organizers across the southern United States. The Solidarity Center worked with the U.S.-based labor education program, the National Labor Leadership Initiative (NLLI), to facilitate the exchange, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.