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.”
When the Nigerian government sought to raise taxes on basic goods and decrease subsidies on key items like fuel as millions of workers struggled without jobs or wages during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 4 million members of the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC) successfully stood up against these assaults. NLC President Ayuba Wabba says the union first tried negotiating with the government. When that effort did not work, workers were set to strike, he said on the latest episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast.
“Many Nigerians are in very difficult situations right now because of the challenge of COVID-19. Most of their income have been disrupted and their survival is so difficult. So that is why we have to respond, to actually draw the attention of government. And such an approach is very, very necessary. We thought that governance should be about the interest of justice,” Wabba told podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.
A New Social Contract
In a wide-ranging conversation, Wabba, who is president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), describes efforts at the global level to build a post-COVID world where all workers are covered by social protections such as paid sick leave, access to protective safety equipment, health care and good wages.
“COVID-19 has exposed the inadequacies in the entire social protection system,” he says. “We are also trying to make sure that COVID-19 is one of the diseases that is also covered by occupational health and safety for all workers, including casual workers, including migrant workers, including workers working in the precarious sector because this is very important. If not, the inequality gap between the rich and the poor will continue to be widened.”
As a global union leader, Wabba is at the forefront of the international campaign to ensure the future of work ensures good jobs as well as green jobs to address the ongoing challenges of climate change. “You don’t need to contaminate the environment for you to be able to retain jobs. Jobs can be produced using greener forms of energy.”
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The Solidarity Center Podcast, “Billions of Us, One Just Future,” highlights conversations with workers (and other smart people) worldwide shaping the workplace for the better.
This podcast was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under Cooperative Agreement No.AID-OAA-L-16-00001 and the opinions expressed herein are those of the participant(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID/USG.
The number of countries that exclude workers from the right to form or join unions increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019, and 80 percent of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining rights, according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index 2019 released today.
“Democracy is in crisis, as governments continue to roll back workers fundamental rights,” ITUC General Secretary Burrow said at a press conference releasing the report today in Geneva. “But our solidarity and defense of workers is also unprecedented.”
The report documents escalating repressive actions against workers worldwide as part of a global environment in which democracy is being increasingly restricted.
In addition, the report finds:
Union members and leaders were murdered in 10 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
85 percent of countries have violated the right to strike.
Workers had no or restricted access to justice in 72 percent of countries.
Authorities impeded the registration of unions in 59 percent of countries.
The number of countries where workers are arrested and detained increased from 59 in 2018 to 64 in 2019.
“The three global trends for workers’ rights identified in the 2019 Global Rights Index show that democracy is in crisis, governments are attempting to silence the age of anger through brutal repression, but legislative successes for workers’ rights are still being won,” the report states.
‘We Will Claim Our Rights!’
Speaking at the press conference, Bernice Coronacion, senior leader of the union federation SENTRO in the Philippines, choked up as she recounted the violent escalation against union members there, including the murder of a union leader.
“Trade union work very dangerous in the country,” she said. “We don’t just need good rights on paper for workers, we need them to be actualized. And we will claim these rights!”
The Philippines is among the 10 worst countries for workers’ rights in 2019, according to the report. The others are Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
But the report makes clear that worker rights are endangered across the spectrum: The greatest increase in the number of countries excluding workers from the right to form unions occurred in Europe, where 50 percent of countries now exclude groups of workers from the law, up from 20 percent in 2018.
Also speaking at the press conference, Vagner Freitas, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT) in Brazil, said although the rights of women workers are being rolled back, “women have been at the forefront of the struggle against these anti-democratic actions against women workers and women in our country. We will restore democracy in Brazil.”
The ITUC Global Rights Index 2019 ranks 145 countries against 97 internationally recognized indicators to assess where workers’ rights are best protected in law and in practice. The ITUC has been collecting data on violations of workers’ rights to trade union membership and collective bargaining around the world for more than 30 years.
Kwasi Adu Amankwah, general secretary of the African Regional Organization of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa), was forcibly taken from his hotel at 2 a.m. today in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he had just arrived.
Amankwah was set to meet with leaders of the Zimbabwe Trade Union Confederation (ZCTU) when state security agents took him to Robert Mugabe International Airport, where he has been held for hours.
Officials refused to allow a lawyer from ZCTU to see Amankwah at the airport, according to ZCTU.
“It’s a sad development,” ZCTU President Peter Mutasa told the media. “We are in trouble as human rights defenders and trade unionists.”
Other ITUC representatives from Brussels who sought to travel to Zimbabwe with Amankwah were denied visas.
In addition to the solidarity visit to ZCTU, Amankwah was scheduled to meet with the Zimbabwe Ministry of Labor and representatives of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and employers’ federation. Amankwah has not been charged nor informed of the reason for his detention, according to ZCTU.
“It is not clear why such a senior trade union leader was detained at his hotel in the early morning hours and whisked away to the airport without his belongings—and even denied food brought to him by his lawyer and trade union colleagues as he was detained at the airport,” says Solidarity Center Africa Region Director Hanad Mohamud. “This after lawfully entering Zimbabwe. Why is Kwasi being targeted like this?”
The January crackdown on worker rights’ activists follows the arrest and release of Moyo, Mutasa and 33 other union leaders in October, as government officials attempted to end a nationwide protest against a financial tax increase and rising prices. Some union activists were beaten, ZCTU Harare offices were cordoned off by more than 100 police, and ZCTU leaders not already in jail were forced into hiding.
In a letter to Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa, ITUC-Africa asks for Amankwah’s release and “an unreserved apology for this action” from the Zimbabwe Department of Immigration.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is among unions around the world decrying Amankwah’s detention and likely deportation, condemning the move “in the strongest terms” and demanding his immediate release and freedom to meet with ZCTU and others.
Some 65 percent of countries now exclude entire categories of workers from labor law protections, while 81 percent of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining, as democratic space for workers closes around the world, according to a new report.
Released today, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index 2018 reports that over the past year, trade unionists were murdered in nine countries—Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Guinea, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria and Tanzania—as the number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased by 10 percent, from 59 to 65. In Colombia alone, 19 trade unionists were murdered last year—nearly double the 11 murders of the previous year.
The number of countries where workers are arbitrarily arrested and detained increased from 44 in 2016 to 59 in 2017. Some 87 percent of countries violated the right to strike. Of 142 countries surveyed, 54 deny or constrain free speech and freedom of assembly.
The 10 worst countries for overall worker rights violations are Algeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“Democracy is under attack in countries that fail to guarantee people’s right to organize, speak out and take action,” says ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.
The Middle East and North Africa was again the worst region for treatment of workers, with the kafala system in the Gulf still enslaving millions of people. “The absolute denial of basic workers’ rights remained in place in Saudi Arabia,” according to the ITUC.
Haiti, Kenya, Macedonia, Mauritania and Spain have all seen their rankings worsen in 2018, with a rise in attacks on worker rights in law and practice.
The 2018 ITUC Global Rights Index rates 142 countries from one to five according to 97 internationally recognized indicators to assess where worker rights are best protected in law and in practice. The Index assigns an overall score placing countries in rankings of one to five.
1 Sporadic violations of rights: 13 countries, including Ireland and Denmark
2 Repeated violations of rights: 23 countries, including France and Estonia
3 Regular violations of rights: 26 countries, including Spain and Macedonia
4 Systematic violations of rights: 38 countries, including Haiti and Kenya
5 No guarantee of rights: 32 countries including, Honduras and Nigeria
5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 10 countries
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