The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was sold with the promise to “promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socioeconomic development, gender equality and structural transformation.” However, many governments’ failure to engage civil society partners, including the labor movement, as they begin to develop national strategies and plans for implementation of the agreement means that the rights of working people are not being effectively represented or protected, and their access to decent work is therefore imperiled.
“Unions in my country are not fully aware of the AfCFTA,” says Sierra Leone Labor Congress (SLLC) Secretary General Max Conteh.
Similarly, trade unions in Mali are yet to familiarize themselves with the agreement and its provisions, says Union Nationale des Travailleurs de Mali (UNTM) General Secretary Seydou Diarra.
In Burkina Faso, “[W]e were not consulted,” says Confédération Nationale des Travailleurs de Burkina (CNTB) Secretary General Augustin Blaise Hien—adding that the AfCFTA is not well synchronized with the country’s existing national plans. AfCFTA creates the largest free trade area in the world measured by the number of countries participating, connecting 1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) valued at $3.4 trillion. The agreement, which was ratified by the required number of countries in 2019 and came into force last year, is designed to increase intra-African commerce through trade liberalization and enhanced regulatory harmonization and coordination across African states—including a process that will gradually eliminate tariffs on 90 percent of goods.
AfCFTA has potential to raise all boats, including through harmonization of member countries’ labor provisions with international standards. However, unions say that without their participation as advocates for workers’ interests as implementation moves forward, worker rights protections and the shared prosperity promised by agreement proponents—including business and governments—are far from assured.
For example, worker rights and safety improvements cannot be realized under provisions of the AfCFTA until the region’s governments improve current labor laws—or their enforcement systems—say unions. Niger’s current mechanism for applying labor rights, such as labor inspections, does not yet present enough guarantees, says Union Syndicale des Travailleurs du Niger (USTN) Secretary General Alain Adikan. And, in Ghana, lack of resources detracts from the ability of various government agencies to promote and protect the rights of workers and their unions, says Ghana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) Labor Research and Policy Institute Deputy Director Prince Asafu-Adjaye.
And say some West African unions, tighter rules are needed to protect African markets. Countries that import more than they export, like Niger, are potentially disadvantaged under certain provisions of the AfCFTA agreement, says Adikan.
“[It] could lead to enormous losses for a country like ours due to the removal of customs barriers… and can have dire consequences on the purchasing power of workers,” he says.
Inclusive socioeconomic development requires decent work, says the International Labor Organization (ILO). The four pillars of the ILO Decent Work Agenda—employment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue—are therefore integral elements of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
With Solidarity Center support, the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA) is developing and sharing a regional position paper on how to address worker rights and promote a decent work agenda within the continental agreement—with participation of the Federation of African Journalists—to educate the public on what is at stake. With its members, OTUWA is focused on mobilizing civil society organizations to better protect consumers’ and working people’s interests as implementation proceeds.
This month eight countries—Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tanzania and Tunisia—launched the Guided Trade Initiative. The first products to be traded under AfCFTA include ceramic tiles, coffee, corn starch, processed meat products, sugar and tea.