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African trade unions seek to protect workers from the ill effects of globalisation

ICFTU ONLINE..., 077/980331/LD, 31 March 1998

Brussels, March 31 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): Trade union leaders from 42 African countries have denounced the ill effects of globalisation on the continent and called for measures to promote basic labour rights in the process of globalisation and international trade. Meeting in Nairobi for a three-day conference (March 30—April 1) organised by the ICFTU’s African Regional Organisation (AFRO), delegates attacked governments in certain African countries for their disregard of workers’ legitimate rights to form trade unions, greedy multinationals for exploiting their workforce and ill-conceived structural adjustment programmes that lack a badly-needed social dimension.

Unless the global market is reoriented, economic development will continue to benefit just a few multinationals, said AFRO general secretary Andrew Kailembo. The multinational corporations will increase their trade and investments in developing countries, but the ordinary people and the countries in which they operate will get next to nothing, he added.

The Conference is expected to come up with a strong call in favour of the inclusion of a workers’ rights clause in international trade agreements, including the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Those countries that stick to the bad habit of ignoring established labour standards should not be allowed to sign the agreements, and therefore should be denied access to international trade, an AFRO statement stresses.

Included in the workers’ rights clause are such core labour standards as the right for workers to form and join trade unions and the right for trade unions to engage in collective bargaining with employers to determine working conditions. The clause would also provide for a ban on child labour and forced labour and for non-discrimination in employment.

Addressing delegates, ICFTU general secretary Bill Jordan drew attention to the growing challenge posed to trade unions by the mushrooming of export processing zones which have now been established in some 25 African countries. The zones are union-free zones where employers are free to exploit a young and generally female workforce as a source of cheap labour, Bill Jordan said. Countries where rights abuses and child labour are tolerated should be excluded from the world trade system, he added.

According to conference speakers, the number of child labourers between 5 and 14 years of age in Africa is around 80 million and the figure will rise with at least one million new child workers annually in the next 10 to 15 years.

The conference was opened on Monday by Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi who said that the globalisation of the world economy had reduced the autonomy of the developing countries in determining their macro-economic policies. Joseph Mugalla, general secretary of the host organisation the Central Organisation of Trade Unions in Kenya (Cotu) stressed that globalisation is producing wealth and riches for the minority and poverty and insecurity for the majority, adding that the gap between the poor and the rich is widening within African countries.

Much of the debates at today’s and tomorrow’s session will concentrate on the African development challenges with special reference to structural adjustment programmes and equal opportunity for women and men. The conference, which comes on the eve of the May ministerial meeting of the WTO in Geneva will serve as a basis for a joint approach by Africa’s labour to meet these challenges.

Today, there is a general awareness that basic workers’ rights are a decisive factor in the globalisation process, noted Kari Tapiola, deputy director general of the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) who was among the guest at the AFRO conference.