“In June 2014 the U.S. government 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,” reported the Solidarity Center.
As a migrant mine worker from Swaziland, Mduduzi Thabethe says he has fewer workplace rights than his South African co-workers. Although all mine workers pay the same amount into the health fund, migrant workers get inferior care and pensions are rare.
“If you are a citizen of South Africa, you see you are building your country and you have something, but we have nothing.”
Although media and policymakers focus on African migrants to Europe, some 80 percent of African migrant workers remain on the continent.
Thabethe’s union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, is among those working to improve conditions for migrant workers.
Over the past year, Swazi workers have not been deterred from taking part in union meetings even though the gatherings were repeatedly broken up by police. They turned out in large numbers for the annual May Day rally, although they were threatened with arrest if they did so. And they took all these actions in an environment in which unions were banned and free speech squelched.
For their bravery in standing up for their rights, Swazi workers and their union, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), last night received the AFL-CIO’s 2015 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, which recognized “the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights,” the AFL-CIO said in a statement announcing the award.
More than 200 union allies and supporters, including participants of the Global Labor University conference, packed the AFL-CIO lobby in Washington, D.C., for the honors ceremony, with TUCOSWA Secretary General Vincent Ncongwane and TUCOSWA Treasurer General Patrick Mamba accepting the award on behalf of the union and Swazi workers.
“Labor never quits,” Ncongwane said, accepting the award. “We never give up the fight, no matter how tough the odds, no matter how long it takes,” he said, quoting former AFL-CIO President George Meany.
“You’re truly global leaders for the struggle for justice,” said AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre as he presented the award.
Speaking at the event, Jos Williams, president of the AFL-CIO Metropolitan Washington Labor Council, described his experience as part an International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) fact-finding delegation to Swaziland in May. Members of the delegation were moved to tears during their meeting with families of imprisoned human rights leaders, Williams said.
“I saw tough freedom fighters with tears in their eyes once they heard from their families.”
TUCOSWA was formed in 2012 with the merger of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions and the Swaziland Federation of Labor. Both were joined by the Swaziland National Association of Teachers. TUCOSWA only received official recognition this past May, after the U.S. government suspended trade benefits with the country last year and made worker rights a key component of restoring its trade eligibility.
Since the U.S. government suspended Swaziland’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the country also has freed imprisoned human rights advocates but it has not yet repealed anti-terrorism laws that enable it to imprison union leaders and others who call for human rights and democracy.
At a briefing on working conditions in Swaziland at the Solidarity Center, Ncongwane noted that the loss of trade benefits has impacted thousands of workers, especially in the textile sector, who have been laid off.
Speaking last night, Ncongwane said “we are working tirelessly to press for reforms that will put our country on a more secure footing to restore these jobs and to restore job opportunities. The greatest threat to jobs and growth in Swaziland does not come from unions, but from our government’s lack of foresight, lack of vision and mismanaged policy decisions.”
Ncongwane emphasized the positive impact of global labor solidarity which, in publicizing the government’s actions, has enabled the union to operate with some measure of freedom.
“We will utilize our institutional strength to impact and press for change but we need our international partners in the global labor movement to maintain support for workers’ rights and for greater democracy in Swaziland, especially now when we are as close as we’ve ever been to real reform in years,” he said.
The annual Meany-Kirkland award, created in 1980 and named for the first two presidents of the AFL-CIO, recognizes outstanding examples of the international struggle for human rights through trade unions.
Last year, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) and its affiliates received the award and the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) received it in 2013. In 2012, the award went to the Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT) and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GBFTU)—two unions whose struggles were emblematic of labor’s role in the uprisings that year.
Representatives of Swaziland’s trade union federation, TUCOSWA—who are in Washington, D.C., to receive a human rights award from the AFL-CIO in recognition of the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights—say an alarming number of people are losing their jobs because of the country’s unwillingness to improve its poor human rights record.
Swaziland lost preferential access to the U.S. market under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), on January 1, for violations of worker rights eligibility criteria, including laws that restrict freedom of association and speech. As a result, thousands of workers, especially in the textile sector, face layoffs, said Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) Vincent Ncongwane, at a briefing on working conditions in Swaziland at the Solidarity Center yesterday. Some employers are closing factories while others are moving production to subsidiary plants outside the country.
TUCOSWA has strongly criticized the Swazi government’s actions leading to AGOA suspension and has said trade benefits can be restored when the government chooses to meet benchmarks to become compliant under the Act’s eligibility requirements. In return, the federation’s activities have been disrupted, it was long denied (and only recently received) official registration, and many workers are afraid to get involved for fear of retribution, said Ncongwane.
However, international solidarity with Swazi workers and TUCOSWA has helped the labor movement remain a vibrant voice for workers, he said. The federation represents more than 36,000 workers, who do not have to see their jobs disappear.
“All that is necessary is the political will,” said Ncongwane.
This evening, Ncongwane and Patrick Mamba, TUCOSWA treasurer general, will accept the 2015 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Swazi workers at a 6 p.m. ceremony at the AFL-CIO.
Imprisoned Swazi human rights leader Mario Masuku and student activist Maxwell Dlamini were granted bail today by the Supreme Court of Swaziland, according to the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA). The two were charged with terrorism and jailed in May 2014 for slogans they allegedly shouted at a May Day rally.
Masuku and Dlamini were awaiting trial, and if found guilty, each could have faced up to 15 years of hard labor. Masuku, who became seriously ill in prison, was twice denied bail and prison officials would not allow his doctor to see him. In a statement, TUCOSWA praised the release of the two men, noting, “these are but a few steps, which though appreciated, must tell all of us not to lessen our resolve for change in Swaziland.”
The action follows the acquittal and release early this month of Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu. Maseko, a human rights lawyer, and Makhubu, a newspaper editor, were arrested in March 2014 for writing about government corruption and judicial independence and were serving two-year prison terms.
TUCOSWA continues to be a consistent leader in support of union leaders, journalists and human rights activists who have been threatened with violence, arrest, prosecution for their human rights advocacy. Swazi police have harassed members of TUCOSWA, a Solidarity Center ally, breaking up their union meetings and banning rallies.
In May, an international delegation of union leaders traveled to Swaziland, calling on the government to guarantee the rights of workers to freely form unions and exercise freedom of speech and assembly. Led by Wellington Chibebe, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) deputy general secretary, and joined by Jos Williams from the AFL-CIO Metropolitan Washington Labor Council and Richard Hall from the Solidarity Center, the fact-finding group found that repressive legislation used by police against union activities had not been addressed by Parliament, even as the government continues to imprison human rights activists for exercising their right to freedom of speech.
Just days before the delegation arrived on May 14, the Swaziland government announced it had registered TUCOSWA after a three-year delay since the federation’s founding.