Meeting in Togo for the annual African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum this month, nearly 20 leaders from key African trade unions joined forces to advance the creation of good jobs and safe workplaces through fair trade.
The forum “is a venue for workers to have their voices heard by officials and politicians all over the world,” says Eliamane Diouf, secretary-general of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Senegal (CSA), who attended the conference.
It offers unions the opportunity to “make sure companies comply with international standards of labor by complying with the rights of workers,” he says.
“Fair trade is where everybody wins” —Georges Koanda, USTB general secretary Credit: Solidarity Center Emily Williams
Also at the August 7–10 conference, Georges Koanda, general secretary of the Workers Trade Union of Burkina Faso (USTB), says unions seek to “make sure that all the businesses and small- and medium-sized enterprises that work with AGOA create decent work.
“To me, fair trade is where everybody wins—the worker wins, the employer wins, the government wins and the public around the world wins,” Koanda says. “But to achieve this, the government has to put up a lot of measures and procedures so as to comply with the norms in their trade with the United States.”
The CSA and USTB were among nine Solidarity Center partners at the event, where union leaders released a statement outlining how AGOA should best achieve fair trade for workers and their communities. The first goal is “strict adherence to international labor standards, respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” as “integral performance benchmarks without exception to all AGOA investments and business practice.”
Signed into law in 2000, AGOA was originally an eight-year trade preferences pact providing sub-Saharan African countries that met certain criteria with access to the U.S. market for goods such as clothing, agricultural products and auto components. It has since been extended to 2025. AGOA’s goals involve encouraging economic growth and development as well as regional and global integration of sub-Saharan Africa.
AGOA Provisions for Worker Rights Hold Countries Accountable
Crucially, the pact includes key worker and human rights protections that countries must meet to enjoy AGOA benefits. In 2014, the United States suspended Swaziland from AGOA for failing to allow worker and civil society groups to freely associate and assemble. The Swazi government’s attacks against workers and their unions have since decreased, says Muzikayise Mhlanga, Deputy Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).
“Even though we are not where we want to be in terms of rights, human rights, political rights … I think in terms of the labor component, we are improving. Through the suspension of AGOA, our labor laws have been amended, the suppression of terrorism act also has been amended, the public order act … also has been amended,” all for the better.
The action shows governments “if you don’t adhere to the benchmarks you’re going to lose AGOA,” says Mhlanga.
Nearly 20 leaders from key Africa trade unions, all Solidarity Center partners, took part in AGOA 2017 in Togo.
In fact, everyone along the supply chain benefits when workers have decent wages and working conditions and the freedom to form unions and associations, says Koanda.
“When we look at the number of Africans in the supply chain, we realize that these workers and their rights are not respected because they can’t make a living in this value chain. In this case, AGOA is very, very important because AGOA has requirements that our countries have to comply with.”
The unions roundly support AGOA, saying in their statement that it “offers an opportunity for African countries to address the decent work deficit, especially for women, youth and migrant workers as well as reduce poverty and inequalities.”
But the key, says Mhlanga, is decent work—employment that provides living wages in workplaces that are safe and healthy, with fairness on the job and social protections for workers when they are sick, injured or retire.
“We should not compromise the conditions of service just for the sake of getting jobs,” he says. “They should be decent jobs.”
Emily Williams, Solidarity Center senior program officer for Africa, conducted interviews for this report.
As the Senate takes up reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), passed in 2000, the bill should include provisions strengthening worker rights, human rights and mandating resource transparency, says Cathy Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO International Department.
Testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy last week, Feingold said that the AFL-CIO “strongly supports reauthorization of AGOA,” but it must be strengthened by including provisions to abolish the worst forms of child labor. AGOA also should include a democracy clause that allows trade benefits be limited, suspended or withdrawn when violated, she said, “because “workers are unlikely to freely exercise their rights under a government that fails to respect their political rights.”
(Read Feingold’s full testimony.)
During the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the AFL-CIO hosted a delegation of 38 union leaders and worker rights advocates from sub-Saharan Africa who support AGOA’s reauthorization but argued for improving it.
As the report by the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center points out, in the 15 years AGOA has been in effect, it has increased exports from sub-Saharan Africa but has not spurred broader development or fostered a robust and equitable economic system.
Following the Summit, the AFL-CIO and the International Trade Union Confederation’s Africa Regional Office issued a joint partnership statement focused on inclusive economic growth, stating that workers must benefit from job creation and access to financial stability, education, health care and social protection.
Accusing workers of discussing democracy, Swazi police broke up a national union meeting over the weekend in Manzini, according to Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) Secretary-General Vincent Ncongwane.
“The police said they would crush our meeting if we do not remove any discussion on multiparty democracy because according to the police, and their supervisors, that is not a workers’ agenda,” Ncongwane told Radio France Internationale. “And we said we are not going to remove that.”
Ncongwane said more than 100 police were at the site, and they erected roadblocks to prevent TUCOSWA members from entering the building. When union leaders cited the country’s constitution as allowing freedom of assembly, the police “said to us we are not going to be bothered about us quoting sections of the law,” Ncongwane recounted. “They are going to be interested in applying their discretion.”
The police action is the latest move against worker and human rights in Swaziland. Swaziland authorities continue their nearly three-year refusal to grant legal registration to TUCOSWA, despite the federation making another application in December 2014 under the country’s recently amended Industrial Relations Act. In August 2014, some in the Swazi government falsely accused Ncongwane and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze of taking a stand against trade benefits for Swaziland when they were in Washington, D.C., to attend the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit Civil Society Forum.
Earlier in June 2014 the U.S. took the rare step of suspending African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade benefits for Swaziland, citing the Swazi government’s systematic violations of fundamental worker rights, including refusal to legally recognize TUCOSWA. Swaziland’s trade unions support AGOA, but maintain that the country must meet benchmarks of the agreement, which include respecting human rights and labor rights.
The 2014 U.S. State Department human rights report cited serious human rights violations in Swaziland, including arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents; severely restricted freedom of assembly, including violence against protestors; jailing of trade union leaders; the deregistration of TUCOSWA and the banning of strikes.
AGOA had been on the union’s meeting agenda. Garment workers, 90 percent of whom are women, have been especially hard hit. Ncongwane noted that the loss of AGOA has cost many jobs, with 2,000 garment workers already laid off. “We think that there’s going to be a flood of workers that are going to lose jobs just because of the loss of AGOA.”
In addition to non-registration of TUCOSWA and AGOA, trade union leaders also had planned to discuss the increasing casualization of labor, in which more and more workers getting hired on three month-contracts that provide no job stability or living wages. Ncongwane said these issues will be on the agenda for the union’s next meeting, March 14, a date that coincides with the TUCOSWA’s creation in 2012.
Up to 80 percent of workers across Africa labor in the informal economy, many as street vendors, taxi drivers and domestic workers. With few legal rights, most informal-sector workers make low wages and have no health care or other social protections.
Because women comprise the vast majority of workers in the informal economy, they are integral to improving wages and working conditions for all informal workers. Indeed, says Caroline Mugalla, executive secretary of the East Africa Trade Union Confederation (EATUC): “The key to development in Africa is empowering women.”
Mugalla traveled to Washington, D.C., in August, where she and nearly 40 African trade union leaders met to ensure participants in the high-level U.S.-Africa Summit included “decent work” on their agenda. Although “Africa rising” has become a popular catchphrase for the continent’s economic momentum, only the top 1 percent are benefiting. Most Africans are unable to secure decent work—which includes good wages, safe working conditions and the freedom to form unions and collectively bargain.
For many unions, the first step to empowering women workers is addressing their own power structures, a process Mugalla led for several years within the EATUC, a regional confederation that includes labor federations in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zanzibar. EATUC’s constitution was “silent on the issue of gender,” Mugalla said, so in 2009, she and others began drafting language to ensure gender equality became a key part of it.
Over the next three years, union leaders hosted regional committee meetings with women to hear their concerns and develop recommendations for the EATUC governing body. The International Labor Organization (ILO) and Solidarity Center held leadership trainings for women and assisted union leaders in crafting new language for the constitution. The union women also held the all-male general secretaries accountable for approving it, says Mugalla.
Now with passage of the new constitution, Mugalla says “women need to be trained at the shop floor so they can become leaders—stewards, regional officers, national officers.”
In reaching out to workers in the informal economy, unions in East Africa provide an opportunity for women to share in the region’s prosperity. Tanzania unions have organized female street vendors who sell beads, sandals, wood carvings and other crafts, providing them with valuable information on the market price for their goods. “Women make up the majority in East Africa, make up the majority of people living below the poverty line,” says Mugalla. “A woman who is economically empowered can made decisions on her own.”
As a collective trade union voice in East Africa, EATUC is pressing for strong worker protections in trade agreements such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). AGOA, which gives eligible sub-Saharan countries duty-free access to the U.S. market for a variety of products, is up for re-authorization in 2015. In the 15 years AGOA has been in effect, it has increased exports from sub-Saharan Africa, but by focusing mostly on tariff reductions, it has not spurred broader development or fostered a robust and equitable economic system, Mugalla says.
AGOA covers products made in the textile sector, which is nearly entirely composed of women workers. The EATUC is working to ensure AGOA and other such agreements do not increase the number of low-skilled jobs but provide women and young workers “employment that gives them the opportunity to access social services, job security,” says Mugalla.
Empowering women economically, fundamental to advancing progress across Africa, can only happen when gender equality is recognized across the board. Or as Mugalla says:
“The day that gender becomes a man’s issue is the day we have made a lot of progress.”
Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, ITUC-Africa general-secretary, highlighted the need for jobs and worker rights this week in Washington, D.C. Credit: RadioLabour
During this week’s U.S.-Africa Summit with heads of state in Washington, D.C., more than 40 African trade union leaders took part in parallel meetings to call on U.S. and African leaders to adopt a decent work agenda for trade and economic growth.
In interview with RadioLabour, Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, general-secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation-Africa, discussed the focus on decent work
“Decent work … refers to the need for employment, but when people are employed, they have to have rights,” Adu-Amankwah said.
“Employment is one pillar of decent work, and the existence of worker rights also is another pillar,” Adu-Amankwah said, citing social protection as the third part of a decent work agenda.
“Then there is a question of social dialogue—when people are at work, they must have rights to speak out. So they must be able to organize and to bargain collectively.”
Adu-Anamkwah also spoke at the official Africa Summit civil-society side event, “Promoting Decent Work: Priorities for U.S. and African Leaders, Civil Society and Private-Sector Shareholders.”
Listen to the full interview.