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African trade unions call for checks and balances in foreign investment

ICFTU OnLine, 079/980402/LD, 2 April 1998

Brussels, April 2 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): Trade unions from 42 African countries yesterday called on the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) to establish a Workers’ rights charter applicable world-wide to protect labour from unbridled globalisation.

The move came at the end of a three-day African trade union conference organised in Nairobi by the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and its Nairobi-based African Regional Organisation.

In a statement adopted by the conference, trade unions expressed their concern at increased abuses of workers’ rights on the continent suggesting that the growing number of violations is linked to unbridled foreign investments and global trade. The intensification of competition has led certain governments to promote cheap labour and restrictions of trade union rights as a way of attracting foreign investors, the statement says. It adds that many governments are using structural adjustment programmes to curtail workers’ rights.

African trade unions are also cautious about the Growth and Opportunity Bill passed by the US Congress to boost American investment in Africa. William Gold, a senior US policy adviser on labour affairs told delegates at the Nairobi conference that the Bill offered increased trade preferences for African textile and other exports to the US market but it was linked to eligibility criteria such as cuts in corporate income tax, privatisation of public enterprises, control of government consumption, elimination of restrictions on foreign investment, etc. The Bill’s investment eligibility criteria did not include respect for basic workers’ rights or environmental sustainability, Mr Gold said.

Foreign investments are good if there are checks and balances. But if you have a situation where workers cannot form or join trade unions, where they cannot bargain on their conditions of employment and benefits, where young women are not allowed to become pregnant, or where children are doing odd jobs, then there is no way we can fail to question such arrangements, stressed Andrew Kailembo, general secretary of the ICFTU’s African Regional Organisation.

Export processing zones, now established in 25 African countries, came under heavy criticism during the trade union meeting which also condemned the increased resort to child labour on the continent and rampant discrimination against women workers too often considered as a sources of cheap labour.

The proposed workers’ rights charter is linked to efforts by trade union world-wide to promote inclusion of social clauses in international trade agreements, including the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The second ministerial conference of the WTO to take place in Geneva next month will be the target of a renewed effort by the ICFTU to obtain the establishment in the WTO of a working group to study the link between workers’ rights and trade.