As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the international recognition of trade union rights, the repression meted out to trade union activists shows no sign of abating. Hundreds of trade unionists were killed in 1997, as the ICFTU’s latest Survey shows.
Export processing zones are now firmly established in 25 countries in Africa, and most of them are union-free zones, following the Latin American and Asian models.
Even in Mauritius, whose zones have long been cited as an example for
the region, many employers
victimise and intimidate workers wishing
to join trade unions notes the ICFTU Survey.
In Kenya, although labour legislation does apply to the zones in theory, many exemptions have been granted and, notes the ICFTU, many violations of trade union rights were reported in 1997. In Lesotho, police stations were set up at the entrance to the zones to prevent the access of trade union organisers. In Namibia, strikes are banned in the zones.
But Africa is also a continent of structural adjustment programmes
(SAPs) which many governments use to hide behind as they impose
austerity plans, raise taxes and. . .refuse to have any dialogue with
trade union organisations.
All too many countries in Africa
continue to look upon their trade union movement with suspicion and
hostility says the ICFTU annual
Survey, adding that this attitude is reflected in
repression and economic stagnation.
In Djibouti, the police opened fire on trade unionists who protested
at months of salary arrears while in Niger more than 20 trade union
leaders were imprisoned for taking strike action to demand the opening
of negotiations with the government. Here again, salary arrears in the
public service and structural adjustment were the reason for their
discontent. In many African countries democracy continues to be
trampled on, with trade union leaders firmly in the governments’
sights. In Swaziland, the monarchy has remained deaf to the appeals
for democratisation from the national trade union centre, the
SFTU. Deaf, but not inactive. In February 1997, four SFTU leaders were
sent to prison for calling a general strike. While they were in
prison, the police violently interrupted an SFTU meeting. 23 union
members were taken to the police station.
SFTU Treasurer Mxolisi
Mbata, a wheelchair user, was thrown from his chair and forced to
crawl to the police station recounts the ICFTU report, recalling
that the SFTU’s demands date back to 1993.
While the Nigerian dictatorship continued its efforts to bring the union movement under control, Ethiopia didn’t let up in its harassment of the teachers’ union (ETA) which remains severely critical of the regime. An ETA leader, Maru Assefa, was killed on May 8 1997 by the police. The ETA President, Taye Woldesmiate, is still in prison following his arrest in 1996 and the ICFTU estimates that some 70 trade unionists are imprisoned in the country. In Zimbabwe the leader of the national trade union centre, Morgan Tsvangirai was the target of an assassination attempt. Two days after the biggest protest strike ever organised in the country, seven armed men burst into his office, beat him severely and tried to force him to jump out of a window on the eighth floor. He narrowly escaped death.
Finally, the ICFTU report points an accusing finger at Tunisia where
the Minister of the Interior has repeatedly harassed trade
unionists. Several were arrested for
signing public appeals to
protest against growing restrictions on civil liberties notes the
ICFTU report. Accused, amongst other things, of
information likely to disrupt public order the trade unionists
were finally released following the intervention of the national trade
union centre, the UGTT.
Listing a total of 116 countries, the ICFTU report reveals that 299 trade unionists were killed in 1997. Cases of violence amounted to 1,681. Nearly 2,400 people were arrested and detained in 1997 for their trade union activities, and over 50,000 workers lost their jobs for the same reason.
290 trade unionists received death threats. More than 3,000 activists were placed under police surveillance and 450 strikes were fiercely repressed. Over 80 countries have placed legal obstacles in the way of the freedom of association, while in 79 countries the government interferes in trade union affairs.