Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center


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 worksays the International Labor Organization (ILO). The four pillars of the ILO Decent Work Agendaemployment 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.

West Africa’s Health Workers Sound Alarm, Unions Propose Solutions

West Africa’s Health Workers Sound Alarm, Unions Propose Solutions

A new survey of 700 health workers in six West African countries—Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo—provides a window into health-sector shortcomings that are compounding the region’s ability to respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis. The survey, conducted by the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA) together with national trade union centers and healthcare unions, was released last week together with a raft of union recommendations for ensuring the protection of health worker rights and effective, accessible healthcare for all.

“The results of OTUWA’s health care worker survey are very important for the decision-makers in this region, especially in the midst of a pandemic,” said OTUWA President and National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Senegal (UNSAS) General Secretary Mademba Sock.

The survey found that most health workers are being subjected to increased workload without additional compensation and feel unsafe at work due to shortages of personal protective equipment and inadequate access to COVID-19 tests. Respondents indicated insufficient health facilities, shortage of medical personnel and unaffordable medical care as their most pressing issues.

OTUWA, which represents trade union national centers in the 15 West African countries comprising the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), will promote the survey’s findings and policy recommendations within regional organizations such as ECOWAS and the West African Health Organization (WAHO). OTUWA will also support affiliates as they engage their own governments on issues that negatively affect healthcare workers and prevent universal access to good health care.

“The survey findings underscore the fact that workers and unions must be involved in all discussions and decisions about health care systems in our region, so they properly serve everyone’s needs,” said OTUWA Secretary General John Odah, who is urging governments in the region to prioritize and increase budgetary spending on health facilities and supplies.

The survey report was released during an OTUWA-led virtual presentation on October 8, during which Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-Africa general secretary, and David Dorkenoo, International Labor Organization (ILO) Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV) specialist for Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, underlined the survey’s importance for policymakers. Other participating organizations in the event included the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU); Benin, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal national union centers; and several healthcare unions.

“We are brothers and sisters across these countries, and we have learned a lot from the pandemic,” said West Africa Health Sector Unions’ Network (WAHSUN) Chair Perpetual Ofori-Ampofo, during the event.

At Ofori-Ampofo’s suggestion, event participants agreed that union representatives discussing healthcare issues with their governments should emphasize the urgency of ratifying International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 190. C190 is the world’s first treaty requiring governments to address gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work, which Ofori-Ampofo said is commonly reported by health workers in the region.

The survey is an activity of OTUWA’s new “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign. Launched in Abuja in March, the campaign unites OTUWA affiliates in a fight for equal and fair healthcare access for all who live within the ECOWAS region.

The survey report is also available in French.

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