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.

Milestone for Maldivian Workers: Industrial Relations and Occupational Safety and Health Bills Enacted

Milestone for Maldivian Workers: Industrial Relations and Occupational Safety and Health Bills Enacted

After a decade of relentless advocacy by the trade unions in the Maldives, President Mohamed Muizzu ratified on January 2 the Industrial Relations and Occupational Safety and Health bills passed by parliament with a super majority in mid December. Enactment of the law marks a monumental stride toward safeguarding worker rights and fostering industrial harmony in the Asian archipelago. 

The Industrial Relations Act solidifies a structured framework for consultation and social dialogue among government entities, workers and employers. This framework stands as a beacon for the protection of worker rights, paving the way for economic and social progress, unions say. At its core lies the establishment of the National Tripartite Labor Advisory Council, ensuring the protection of collective bargaining rights and robust mechanisms for resolving industrial disputes through mediation. The Act institutionalizes key worker rights, like the rights to freedom of association and assembly, and empowers both local and migrant workers to collectively negotiate for their interests and welfare.

Simultaneously, the Occupational Safety and Health bill underscores stringent obligations for employers, emphasizing workplace safety standards, compensation frameworks and penalties for non-compliance. This legislation reflects a firm commitment to international standards and fundamental human rights, ensuring a safer and healthier work environment for all.

Congratulating the trade union movement of the Maldives on this crucial victory, Mauroof Zakir, president of Maldives Trade Union Congress (MTUC), said the passage of both bills “represents a historic victory for the working class in the Maldives. It is indeed a great achievement to empower workers and contribute to strengthening the democratic principles of the nation.” 

On a similar note, Fathimath Zimna, MTUC general secretary, said, “Enactment of Industrial Relations Act and Occupational Safety and Health Act marks a significant milestone and victory that was achieved through a relentless campaign by Maldives unions. It is an important stride forward in achieving the decent work agenda in the Maldives. The journey of unions and workers will stand as a symbol of resilience and strength to working people of the world. It resembles what working people can achieve through collective voice. It is important for workers to organize into unions and raise their voices collectively to protect workers’ interests to fully entertain the rights given by the two acts.” She added that, “It is just the beginning for many more victories for the working people and their families. We would like to extend our appreciation and gratitude to all our partner organizations, including Solidarity Center and the global union federations for their support and solidarity.” 

Belarus: Regime Still Raiding, Jailing Labor and Democracy Activists

Belarus: Regime Still Raiding, Jailing Labor and Democracy Activists

Belarus has become “a conveyor belt of torture against political prisoners,” where worker and human rights activists face daily raids, arrests and lengthy prison terms for fighting for democracy and the right to freedom of association, said the wife of a leading dissident last week. 

Natallia Pinchuk, whose husband is Nobel laureate and human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, visited the Solidarity Center and spoke to staff about her husband’s imprisonment and the Belarus government’s repression of trade union activists. 

Known for his leadership of the Viasna Human Rights Center–which he founded in 1996 to support political prisoners and their families–Bialiatski is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence at a brutal penal colony in Horki for receiving international financial support for the organization. He was among a dozen activists the Belarus regime arrested in July 2021 during raids of activists’ homes and the offices of civil society organizations. 

“Ales represents the tragic situation of political prisoners in Belarus,” Pinchuk said. She added that the government imprisons 10 to 15 people every day, a considerable number for such a small country, and still conducts raids against and imprisons union activists.

Pinchuck said she has been unable to get information on Bialiatski’s condition since he was placed in solitary confinement in October. He is ill, requiring daily medication that Pinchuk cannot provide to him because political prisoners are prohibited from receiving outside materials. Compounding the situation, political prisoners face violence perpetrated by prison officials. 

“Political prisoners are beaten in showers. Other prisoners beat them regularly, and prison officials are instigating those beatings,” she said.

Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, has held power since 1994. In 1996, he changed the constitution to consolidate power in the office of the president, which sent thousands of Belarusians into the streets in protests that were violently suppressed. He later claimed a landslide victory in August 2020, sparking widespread claims of fraud and massive protests and strikes. Lukashenko’s regime responded to the 2020 protests with ruthless repression, leading to deaths, injuries and over 10,000 arrests. 

The International Trade Union Confederation has ranked Belarus among the 10 worst countries in the world for workers in its 2023 Global Rights Index, citing the forced dissolution of unions and targeted arrests and imprisonment of trade unionists. More than 30 trade union activists are imprisoned in Belarus because they fought for workers’ rights. Others, in danger and unable to work, live in exile abroad.

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