The East African Trade Union Federation (EATUC)—representing national trade union centers in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda—is conducting a regionwide campaign for passage of a social security portability bill through the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). Passage of the bill into law will benefit citizens crossing borders within six member countries of the East African Community (EAC) for employment, by allowing them to carry their social security benefits with them.
“This bill can benefit millions,” said Caroline Mugalla, head of EATUC.
Many workers, including those laboring in the informal economy, are migrating across borders within the EAC for new job opportunities under the EAC Free Movement of Persons Protocol.
Most citizens of the region, 80 percent of whom labor in the informal economy for low wages, are not covered by pension schemes, but by creating a legal framework for regional cooperation on pensions, the EATUC-sponsored bill makes possible a harmonized system that can eventually cover all the region’s citizens, says Mugalla.
Free movement of labor benefits the employer through access to a larger labor pool, but can hurt workers economically when they leave benefits behind or must pay into the social security fund of the country to which they have moved (where they may not retire) and, a second time, into the fund of the country from which they emigrated if they wish to maintain eligibility.
EATUC—with assistance from national trade union centers in member countries—has built support for passage of the bill from employers in the region, as well as from some EALA legislators.
During the coming months, EATUC will reach out to union members, citizens of the region, community groups and others to build popular support for passage of the social security portability bill through EALA later this year.
“We will succeed,” said Mugalla. “The bill is supported by 2.8 million union members and more than 800 employers in East Africa (in the East African Employers Organization).”
Passage of the bill—which will create a legislative framework for portable social security benefits within the region—will potentially impact millions of working people because legislation passed by EALA is binding on all member countries.
Up to 80 percent of workers across the region labor in the informal economy, many as domestic workers, street vendors and taxi drivers.
Members of the EAC include Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and, with the addition of South Sudan this month, has a population of 162 million people.
In Burundi’s deepening political and human rights crisis, the government’s violent clampdown on civil society has left hundreds of people dead, jailed or disappeared, crushed free speech and independent media, and created a climate of fear where human and worker rights defenders have been forced into silence or exile.
Trade union members are among the hardest hit by the ongoing repression, which came to a head when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced a run for a third term in office last April. Leaders of the General Federation of Burundian Unions (COSYBU) currently living in Rwanda report that more than 700 union members have followed them into exile in the country. Many others are in jail or in hiding in Burundi. Still others have fled to other neighboring countries, leaving them largely out of touch with their organizations. Meanwhile, the Burundi government has closed the bank accounts of unions, hindering their ability to advocate for worker rights or support their members.
At a recent meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, the Solidarity Center met with dozens of exiled union members and leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations who told stories of fear and threats, economic intimidation and a long-term campaign to quiet dissent that preceded the protests of last spring.
“Teachers in Burundi have been one of the most oppressed categories of workers,” said a *member of the union for secondary school teachers, National Council of Personnel in Secondary Education (CONAPES), at the meeting. He said teachers had taken to the streets to protest unequal salaries among government workers prior to the announcement of the third term. However, “once you raised your voice for teachers’ rights, you were branded as against the government, arrested and put in jail.”
Most of the union’s leaders, he said, have been “chased out of their jobs and have had to flee the country.” He added, “Today, our union is dead. People are forced to keep silent.”
Market vendors relate similar tales. Members of the Merchants General Union (SYGECO) say they were systematically targeted with economic pressure, including usurious interest rates when they sought loans for their businesses, confiscation of their goods and onerous and sometimes arbitrary taxes. They, too, had organized protests against such discriminatory practices prior to the political unrest of 2015, including demands that the central market, which burned under mysterious circumstances in 2013, be rebuilt.
“One of the most depressing experiences was the burning of the market. It was our life,” said a SYGECO member who had sold fabric from her stall. “We tried to rebuild, but the government chased us everywhere we went,” adding that some 15 suburban markets where vendors tried to relocate also burned.
Now living without an income with her family in Rwanda and burdened with loans she cannot repay, the SYGECO member says the bank is going to sell her house in Burundi.
Refugees interviewed by the Solidarity Center are focused on trying to earn a living in their country of exile so they can take care of their families. Many living in Kigali are in apartments or shared quarters, though some expressed a resignation that they would move to refugee camps to save funds. They all maintain hope that they can return to a peaceful Burundi some day.
* Interviewees requested anonymity for fear of reprisals against family and friends still in Burundi.
Alexandre Niyungeko did not flee Burundi last April when a source told him the police were planning to kill a few journalists and civil society leaders—as a warning to protesters and critics of the government—and his name was on the list.
And when anonymous callers told him his days were numbered, Niyungeko, president of the Burundi Union of Journalists (BUJ), persisted in Bujumbura, the capital, though he did go into hiding. “It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to intimidate me,” he says, explaining that, as head of the union representing 400 journalists, he often raised complaints about infringements on freedom of the press.
The threats escalated in the days after police shuttered independent radio stations and surrounded the Press House, where union and independent journalist organizations—among them the Burundian broadcasters, women journalists and a media monitoring organization—had offices, and summarily shut it down. “It’s the first time in the history of Burundi that the press was closed by police without explanation,” he says, adding that when he asked authorities who had amassed outside the building to see the order for closure, he was told: “If you continue to ask questions, you’ll be in trouble.”
Not long after, his neighbors warned him that strangers were asking about him and his routine at home.
“I was being hunted,” he says. “And that day I realized my family could be hunted, too.”
Indeed, his worst fears became reality when someone threw a grenade into his apartment when his wife and children, ages 3, 6 and 8, were home. Fortunately no one was injured. But Niyungeko knew that the only way to protect them all was to leave. In May 2015, he waited until his family had safely entered the airport transit area with tickets to fly out of Bujumbura before he set off on a separate journey. He made the dangerous overland trip, avoiding half a dozen checkpoints along the way, and met them in Rwanda.
More than 230,000 Burundians have fled their country to escape the violent crackdown that has raged since last April, when people took to the streets to protest President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would run for a third term. Some 72,000 refugees—among them hundreds of union leaders and their members, including at least 250 teachers—have sought shelter in neighboring Rwanda.
The government’s efforts to intimidate and control the press has forced at least 100 journalists into exile, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, and many others have been arrested and jailed, says Niyungeko. In addition, two Western journalists were arrested and briefly held last week.
Niyungeko says it is difficult for the journalists’ union to continue activities, with many leaders and members in exile, though they managed to organize a workshop for 30 Journalists in Kigali, 20 exiled and 10 from Bujumbura. Meanwhile, they continue to monitor the situation at home.
Hundreds of union leaders and members, including at least 250 teachers, have fled Burundi while dozens more have been jailed, as the east African country roils in widespread violence. In October, a journalist and his family were shot dead at their home by security forces, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Broadcast media workers also were attacked with heavy weapons in May.
“I was part of a teacher’s union and because I was helping teachers fight for their rights, I was seen as an opponent,” according to one teacher, now in internal exile in the country’s Makamba Province. “A friend in the police told me that I was on the ‘list’ to be arrested so I had to flee.”
The refugee’s story is among those collected in a Refugee International report which found that Burundians were threatened by police due to their membership in civil society organizations perceived not to be supportive of the government, such as human rights organizations and unions.
Unions and their members also are being targeted in other ways. For instance, the Syndicat des Travailleurs de l’Enseignement du Burundi (STEB), which represents teachers, reports that its bank account was ordered closed last week.
Over the weekend, 87 people were killed. Since April, some 220,000 people have fled Burundi and 15,000 people have been displaced within the country. The violence stems from protests that began after President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term.
The United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution yesterday calling for the quick deployment of experts to Burundi to look into abuses amid the growing violence. The UN high commissioner for human rights has called on Burundi’s leaders to disarm pro-government militias, halt torture and resume political dialogue, saying that sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans should be imposed on those responsible for abuses.
Workers in Bahrain, Burundi, Morocco, Swaziland and Turkey are standing strong in the face of economic and political threats this May Day.
May 1 is generally a time when workers around the world celebrate the dignity of work and working people’s social and economic achievements. But this year, governments in some countries have banned May Day celebrations, while elsewhere, workers are forced to protest lack of progress in attaining their share of economic prosperity.
Working women and men are undaunted by intimidation and, in some cases, risking their lives to exercise their freedom to gather in the public space and stand up for their rights. This year more than ever, May Day stands as a beacon for internationally recognized human and labor rights. Here’s a roundup.
Bahrain: The government on April 30 banned all May 1 rallies, forcing the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) to abruptly cancel its weekend celebrations. The federation had planned a rally, medical camps, family outings and award ceremonies focusing on the rights of women and migrant workers in the workplace. Thousands were expected to attend the rally, including members of more than 45 GFBTU-affiliated trade unions.
Morocco: The Moroccan union movement is boycotting May 1 celebrations and instead turning May into a month of protest. The Moroccan Labor Union (Union Marocaine de Travail), the Democratic Confederation for Labor (Confédération Démocratique du Travail) and the Democratic Federation for Labor (Fédération Démocratique du Travail) and others will protest the lack of movement in improving civil servants’ salaries, increasing the minimum wage and boosting minimum pension, per an agreement with the government in April 2011.
Swaziland: Despite a ban on May Day rallies, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) is encouraging members to turn out and “celebrate their day and not be prevented by actions that are at best unlawful.” Police announced that only “recognized unions” will be allowed to mark May Day. The authorities have refused to recognize TUCOSWA, and police have repeatedly broken up TUCOSWA meetings this year, injuring at least one union leader. “Our members are geared for their celebrations and will not be prevented by threats from the police,” says TUCOSWA Secretary-General Vincent Ncongwane.
Some Swazi pro-democracy activists and trade unionists have been imprisoned. Sign a LaborStart petition demanding their release. If you Tweet, use the hashtag #SwaziJustice.
Turkey: After hundreds of workers defied a ban on May Day rallies in Istanbul, riot police fired tear gas and water cannon on protestors in the city’s central Taksim Square. Unions had called on the government to lift its ban on “illegal demonstrations,” in Taksim. Much of Istanbul’s public transport is shut down and police helicopters are circling over the city.
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