Government-Issued Debt, Illicit Financial Flows Bleed Africa Dry, Say Unions

Government-Issued Debt, Illicit Financial Flows Bleed Africa Dry, Say Unions

A solidarity action by more than 1,000 workers on the streets of Lusaka, Zambia, last month highlighted an Africa-wide, worker-led campaign to address the consequences of mounting government debt and illicit financial flows.

“It is necessary for Africa’s debt to be canceled to stop the bleeding of African economies,” said Rose Omamo, deputy president of the International Trade Union Confederation-Africa and IndustriALL vice president, who helped deliver a petition to Zambia Labor and Social Security Minister Brenda Tambatamba March 21, 2024. Solidarity Center partner ITUC-Africa represents 17 million working men and women in 52 African countries.

Citing ”grave concerns” about borrowing governments’ lack of transparency in securing, using and managing loans, ITUC-Africa is calling for official and private creditors to restructure Africa’s debt to protect citizens’ access to vital social protection services such as education, health, pensions, infrastructure, sanitation and water.

Social protection is a key driver in the achievement of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Vision 2050, which includes among its five pillars sustainable development and social inclusion. Indeed, the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA) is spearheading a subregional “Health Care Is A Human Right” campaign.

To further protect the continent’s citizens against resource grab, illicit financial flows—which include multinational tax dodging, government corruption and other criminal activity—must be curbed, say unions. Doing so could cut by almost half the $200 billion annual financing gap for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, reports the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

An estimated $88.6 billion, equivalent to 3.7 percent of Africa’s GDP, is leaving the continent as illicit capital flight annually, according to UNCTAD’s Economic Development in Africa Report 2020.





When workers can “speak up, articulate and manifest collective agency that ultimately improves the terms and conditions of their employment and their livelihoods,” they also have a role in shaping their societies and “contributing to democratic participation beyond the workplace,” says a new report released today by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB).

Worker Voice: What it is, What it is Not, and Why it Matters,” was produced by Penn State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights (CGWR).

“The term ‘worker voice’ is used for lots of scenarios where workers have some sort of participation but not necessarily a say in issues that affect their lives and livelihoods,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “If you care about democracy and worker rights, this is the seminal report.”

For example, corporate social responsibility programs that interview workers on site, under the helpful gaze of management, may provide a public relations boost to the company but do not capture worker voice; indeed, they often contribute to wage suppression and gloss over lax safety standards. Likewise, workplace suggestion boxes, which require zero response from management, neither provide workers with a voice nor help them ensure dignity and equity on the job.    

“The most effective forms of worker voice are institutions and mechanisms that enhance workers’ ability to elect, represent, protect, include, enable and empower workers and their organizations,” according to the report, which highlighted democratic trade unions and collective bargaining as key.

Legitimate and effective channels for worker voice exist and include enforceable brand agreements (EBAs), such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which identified and remediated 97,235 high-risk fire, structural and electrical safety violations following the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza. In Lesotho, where brand-led, voluntary codes of conduct failed to address rampant gender-based violence and harassment, binding and enforceable agreements among unions, civil society, international clothing brands and worker rights organizations (including the Solidarity Center) and Nien Hsing, a garment manufacturer, are changing attitudes, protecting workers and helping to end violence and harassment on the job.

In addition, the report cites the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism, under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which has provided expedited enforcement of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights at factories in Mexico for more than 30,000 workers. Other channels include organizing along migration corridors and among domestic and farm workers; and freedom of association protocols. 

The report describes six components that are crucial for effective worker voice: election of representatives; representation of members; diversity in leadership, on committees and throughout organizations; protection of workers from anti-union discrimination, harassment, threats and violence; the enabling of worker organizations to carry out functions by ensuring members have time, space, information and training; empowerment of workers and their organizations to engage in protected trade union activities, including collective bargaining and strikes, by leveraging state and private mechanisms that have sanction power on employers.

The report’s case studies include many countries and sectors where the Solidarity Center has long-term partnerships with unions that provide effective worker voice, among them, Bangladesh, Honduras, Lesotho, Mexico and Myanmar.

Recognizing the importance of democratic freedoms in securing effective worker voice, the Solidarity Center has long partnered with unions fighting for their right to democratic freedoms, including freedom of association and of assembly. These efforts include the historic 2023 Zambia Summit for Democracy, where participating unions and governments shared strategies on how unions can advance democracy through one of its most essential components—worker rights—and Solidarity Center support for union partners fighting for their rights in Bahrain, the Philippines, Swaziland and Tunisia.



Dozens of union leaders from around the world who are working to advance democracy in communities and workplaces convened last week in Washington, D.C., to discuss the essential role of unions in leading social change and addressing multiple global crises, including strengthening democracy through the exercise and advancement of worker rights. 

As part of the Global Labor Leadership Initiative (GLLI), a Solidarity Center partnership with the Worker Institute at Cornell, 22 union leaders and allies from 17 countries spent two days discussing movement building, the platform economy and strategies to tackle in-country and mutual challenges affecting working people, often in the face of brutal conditions. They then joined more than 70 U.S. and Canadian labor and social justice leaders for a two-day event, “Meeting the Moment: How Can Unions Maximize Impact and Power in a Time of Increasing Polarization and Change?” where they shared strategies on how unions can step up efforts to defend and promote worker rights.

Four Global Labor Leadership Initiative (GLLI) participants clasp hands at AFL-CIO Washington, D.C., headquarters. Photo: Kaveh Sardari

Global Labor Leadership Initiative (GLLI) participants Mauroof Zakir, Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) General Secretary and Maldives Trade Union Council President; Nazma Akter, Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) President and founder (Bangladesh); Sonia George, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) General Secretary; and Intan Indria Dewi, SPN (garment and textile trade union federation) Banten Provincial Chairperson (Indonesia). Photo: Kaveh Sardari

“Democracy exists [only] where workers can be heard,” said Maicon Michel Vasconcelos da Silva, who spoke at the panel event and who serves as secretary of international relations of the Brazil National Confederation of Metalworkers (CNM).

Overwhelming evidence shows that democracy begins at work—in particular, where independent unions provide individuals with the opportunity to elect and be leaders, and join in common cause for better wages, benefits and working hours. Organized labor also holds politicians accountable. In recent years, labor lawyers pushed for justice following Brazil’s deadliest—and entirely preventable—mining disaster. An aviation union in Ukraine exposed rampant corruption in the terminal. And in Colombia, the labor movement shut down the country’s largest port to reach a landmark agreement from the government to live up to its promises to invest in a long-neglected and majority Black city.

Meanwhile, democracy enables workers and their unions to flourish and, as it is increasingly threatened around the world, democracy also depends on working people and their organizations to keep it resilient, said panel speakers and participants, emphasizing unions’ unique role and capacity to push back on unjust and undemocratic forces.

“Unionism and unionizing should really put all of its energy behind democracy,” said Sergio Guerrero in a separate interview. Guerrero, a platform worker in Mexico and general secretary of the National Union of Workers by Application (UNTA), added: “We can’t have a democratic society without unionized workers.”

Yet across every region of the world, “the global cost-of living crisis has been met with a crackdown on the rights of working people,” according to the 2023 International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index.”

“Organizing on issues of democracy, of human rights, of preservation of democratic procedure is something I think is essential for us as a union,” said Čedanka Andrić, president of the Serbia Trade Union Confederation Nezavisnost (Independence), who spoke to the Solidarity Center between sessions.

A key takeaway, said many participants, is that democracy cannot be taken for granted.

"No one is insulated from dictatorship. No one is safe," said Peter Mutasa, who had to flee for his life following a violent crackdown on Zimbabwe unions.

“No one is insulated from dictatorship. No one is safe,” said Peter Mutasa, who had to flee for his life following a violent crackdown on Zimbabwe unions. Photo: Kaveh Sardari

“We learned that the rights won by those who fought before us are transient,” warned Peter Mutasa, chair of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. Mutasa, former president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), had to flee for his life in 2020 following a violent crackdown on Zimbabwe unions and their leaders that began in 2018

“No one is insulated from dictatorship. No one is safe,” he said.

The panel event concluded the 2024 GLLI convening. Organized by the Solidarity Center in coordination with Cornell’s ILR Worker Institute, GLLI provides participants with solidarity and skills-building opportunities so they can help build a dynamic, powerful and inclusive labor movement that can transform society and the economy so that it works for workers.



For their courage and persistence in the face of escalating threats to their own lives, seven delegates representing the Philippine labor movement received the 2023 AFL-CIO George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., this week. The award is given annually in recognition of dedication to and effectiveness in highlighting the widespread denial of fundamental human rights at work and in society.

“This award is in recognition of the Philippines labor movement’s resilience, persistence and courage in the face of extreme violence and repression,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler at the event.

More than 70 union members have been killed since 2016, and many more are victims of red-tagging (branding and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being terrorists), illegal firing of union activists and anti-terrorism laws directed at stifling freedom to form unions and bargain.

“The killings are precisely designed to sow fear among workers,” United and Progressive Workers Center (SENTRO) Secretary General Josua Mata told the Solidarity Center.

Persecution has not stopped despite recent changes to the government’s top leadership. Union leader Jude Thaddeus Fernandez, 67, was killed September 29 after a division of the Philippine National Police reportedly entered Fernandez’s home and shot him dead. The murder of Alex Dolorosa—whose role as a union organizer and a paralegal was funded by the Communications Workers of America (CWA)—in April remains uninvestigated like every other extrajudicial killing of a trade unionist in the country.

Workers who are organizing and conducting other union business in the Philippines seek only to build a decent society and life for their families, Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) Vice President Luis Corral told the Solidarity Center.

“We are not the enemy,” he said.

In addition to Corral and Mata, the delegation receiving the award for include Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) Secretary General Raymond Basilio; Business Process Outsourcing Industry Employees Network (BIEN) President Mylene Cabalona; Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK) President Annie Enriquez Geron; Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) Chairman Elmer Labog; and Federation of Free Workers (FFW) President Sonny Matula. The Solidarity Center has a 25-year partnership with the Philippine labor movement, including current support for an organizing campaign for low wage, app-based food delivery workers. 

“This recognition fortifies our resolve and validates our efforts under the most challenging of circumstances,” said TUCP President and Philippine Congress House Deputy Speaker Raymond Mendoza when accepting the award, “on behalf of all workers in the Philippines, especially those who gave their lives for labor.”

Previous award recipients include United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai and the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), which also won a shared Nobel Peace Prize for its role in brokering Tunisia’s path to democracy during the Arab uprisings.

African Union Leaders Join Forces in Historic Democracy Summit

African Union Leaders Join Forces in Historic Democracy Summit

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
African Union Leaders Join Forces in Historic Democracy Summit


Dozens of union leaders from across Africa took part in the first-ever Summit for Democracy event on the continent March 30, where they discussed the essential role of unions in strengthening democracy and shared strategies on how unions can step up efforts to advance democracy through one of its most essential components—worker rights. Co-hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER) and the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the day-long conference included interactive sessions focused on strengthening democracy and opening rapidly closing civic space in Africa.

“Amplifying the Voices of Workers to Safeguard Democracy in Africa” was an official side event of the second Summit for Democracy, a global democracy initiative co-hosted by Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United States and Zambia March 28–30, 2023. The second Summit showcased progress made by Summit partners on their commitments in the first year of the global initiative—M-POWER is one of the largest commitments made by Summit partners.

Said Joy Beene, secretary general of the Zambia Confederation of Trade Unions: “There’s no democracy without workers.”

See conference highlights in this photo essay.

Summit for Democracy: No Democracy Without Unions

Summit for Democracy: No Democracy Without Unions

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Summit for Democracy: No Democracy Without Unions


On the eve of the Summit for Democracy, high-level U.S. government officials and domestic and international labor activists highlighted the fundamental role of trade unions to reinforce, expand and protect democracy around the world at an official summit side event.

The event Tuesday, March 28, “No Democracy Without Unions: Labor Movements as Defenders of Democratic Rights,” featured Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity; Fred Redmond, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, president of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas and a Solidarity Center board member; Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association; Kelly Fay Rodriguez, State Department special representative for labor affairs; and video messages from Maung Maung, president of the Confederation of Trade Unions-Myanmar, and Lizaveta Merliak, leader of Salidarnast, an association of exiled Belarus labor unionists. The event was co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development.

State Department Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Uzra Zeya opened the event by underscoring “unions’ unique and critical contributions to democratic societies.” She emphasized the dangers faced by labor activists fighting for basic rights, including Chhim Sithar, a Cambodian union leader imprisoned for her organizing work, and the Belarussian union leaders recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association and assembly.  “These cases are emblematic of closing space for civil society champions writ large around the world,” she said.

Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor Thea Lee, event moderator, concurred. “Governments that cannot tolerate democracy, cannot tolerate criticism are the most vicious in silencing worker movements,” she said.

“The fact the authoritarian regimes have tried to silence activists like Maung Maung and Lizaveta only underscores their leadership as champions of democracy and democratic values,” Lee added. “Democratic, grassroots workers movements threaten dictatorship.”

Indeed, worker movements have brought down dictatorships. Fred Redmond cited the example of Brazil, where labor led a mass civil society movement—including key strikes in the 1970s—and helped return democracy to the country and where, at the beginning of this century, the administrations of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and President Dilma Rousseff—both former labor leaders—helped lift 40 million Brazilians out of poverty.

 “The survival of democracy anywhere depends on working people defending it,” said Redmond.

The entire session can be viewed here. Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau spoke at a separate Summit for Democracy side event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which can be viewed here.



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