On May Day, what is there to celebrate in Africa?

On International Workers’ Day, we provide a sweeping assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and potential of African trade unions.

Occupy political rally. Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota, Lagos, Nigeria 2012. Image credit Temi Kogbe via Flickr.

Yes. They do have trade unions in Africa. In every country, including Western Sahara and Eritrea. Mostly declining in numbers and under economic pressure from economic liberalization (its results include casualization and informalization of work) and/or state repression, African unions are nevertheless admired and feared for their actual and potential power. What is clear is that it is not the size of a union that matters, but how the workforce is positioned in relation to political and economic elites’ interests.

Frequently, African states are both unwilling and unable to protect their workers, and workers’ rights are repeatedly or systematically violated across the continent. It doesn’t help that ministries of labor, inspectorates and labor courts are most often under resourced, understaffed and have low status. In fact, in many cases, governments actively work to hinder trade unions. Nevertheless, governments fear the potential power of unions.

Let’s look at numbers.

Most African trade unions are affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the umbrella body for 300 national trade union centers from 163 countries. The ITUC  represents almost 200 million workers. The ITUC may be the world’s largest labor confederation, but the Chinese ACFTU, a national federation, is larger than the ITUC, boasting 210 million members.  ITUC refuses to allow ACFTU to join its confederation  due to ACFTU being controlled by the Chinese state.  (There’s a reason we mention the ACFTU as will become clear later.) Most other unionized workers are represented by the WFTU, the inheritor of the communist trade unions, which represent 92 million workers in 120 countries. There is, however, an overlap in membership between WFTU unions and the ITUC.

ITUC is dominated by key Western countries, but two of its top six leaders are from African states: Angola (Deputy President Maria Fernanda Carvalho Francisco) and Senegal (Deputy General Secretary Mamadou Diallo). However, it is unclear how much power either of them have in steering the business and direction of the ITUC.

Assessing the numeral strength of African unions is tricky, especially outside South Africa. Most unions keep poor statistics, may inflate or deflate numbers for political reasons and, crucially, membership is fluctuating in unstable labour markets. For example, when enquiring from staff of the Nigerian oil workers union, NUPENG, about membership numbers and strike frequency, I was referred to piles of papers about unregistered strikes, followed by a sigh, explaining how their total number of perhaps 15,000 members may shift overnight when 3,000 members may lose their jobs at the end of a project. Workers who do not pay dues may still consider themselves members. Nevertheless, the regional body ITUC-Africa, with headquarters in Lomé, Togo, includes 101 affiliated trade union centers from 51 countries, representing 16 million declared members.

The Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), based in Accra, Ghana, has fewer members, and is less active than ITUC-Africa, but holds a political significance as a “home-grown” organization, that sprang out of the then Organization of African Unity (OAU). In the past, OATUU has largely relied on funding from Libya and Nigeria for organizational expenses.

The South African (COSATU), Nigerian (Nigerian Labour Congress) and Ghanaian (Ghana TUC) national labor federations are the strongest on the continent, with COTU-Kenya right behind. COSATU’s historical achievements are well known and well documented. So are its troubles adjusting to post-apartheid conditions, its tenuous relationship (as part of an official ruling alliance) with the ruling ANC party, as well as its recent splits. On the latter, COSATU has to contend not only with more conservative unions FEDUSA (they have historically organized white and professional workers), but also with more left-wing union federations like the breakaway South African Federation of Trade Unions or SAFTU (which includes South Africa’s second largest trade union, NUMSA, the metalworkers union, and which organized a national strike over minimum wages last week.)

In Nigeria, trade unions have been at the forefront of political struggles in the last two decades or so. According to one assessment, labor-led coalitions have shown “remarkable returns” on their activism. They have forced dictators to step down in 1993 and 1994, cushioned labor laws in 2005, and have resisted deregulation of the downstream oil industry. Crucially, they have hindered the government’s continued attempts to remove Nigeria’s fuel subsidy.

In 2010, COTU-Kenya lobbied hard that the right for the country’s workers to organize and strike be included in the country’s constitution. As a result, Kenya became only the second country on the continent – after South Africa – where police workers could organize themselves.

Unions in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Zambia (the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions) are largely financially independent. Others depend on state funding (like Mozambique’s OTM-CS) or international donors (like Ugandan NOTU and the Malawian MCTU). Generally, support to African unions declined dramatically with the end of the Cold War. But as Western funding for African union activity declined, the Chinese ACFTU has opened its doors and pockets to infrastructure support for African unions. These include a large training centre for OATUU, and Africa-China trade union summits to which they invite large delegations of African unionists. Not surprisingly, many African unions have also lobbied within ITUC and the International Labour Organization (ILO) for ACFTU to be granted membership to these international bodies.

Although most collective bargaining agreements hold clauses on “no-work-no-pay” – i.e. no salary during strikes – it is generally expected that striking workers are also paid during strikes. Over the last six months, for example, Nigeria has seen a series of conflicts over the state’s threat to effectuate the no-work-no-pay rule to public sector workers. In Ghana in 2014, after workers of oil and gas multinational Schlumberger reached a procedural agreement regarding a protracted wage and benefits dispute dating back to 2009, a new conflict arose when Schlumberger did not want to pay the workers for the strike days.

In most countries, teachers’ unions are the largest, and often most radical unions. In countries otherwise split by region, religion or ethnicities, public sector unions organize across these boundaries. With the long-term neglect of the public sector in many countries, the rights and working conditions of public sector workers, including educators, are generally poor. Currently, the Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU) in Kenya has been on strike for two months, only a few months after their previous strike. In Nigeria, teachers and academic staff are frequently on strike, disrupting students’ access to education. Most government elites don’t mind public sector strikes. They’re often less affected by public services. That’s not the case when a strike breaks out in the private sector. Private sector strikes are more likely to hurt finance flows to the state and its elites.

Since 2000, outside interest in extractive resources, has led to investments in these industries with related growth in infrastructure, telecoms and banking sectors. The extractive industries, even if not labor intensive, have historically been union strongholds. The Nigerian oil workers were key to the Nigerian democracy movement in the 1990s. So were the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM) in the struggles against apartheid in South Africa. These days, while extractive sectors are targets for investments, that investment comes with precarious labor conditions, rights abuses and repression, as we most tragically saw when police gunned down mine workers at Marikana in South Africa 2012. In addition, unions in these sectors are also key actors in the ongoing splits in the union movements. The fateful strike at Marikana was organized by a breakaway union, AMCU, which felt that NUM had become too close to the mining company and the state. Similarly, NUPENG has sadly played a central role in federation splits in Nigeria.

Since the economic liberalization and structural adjustments of the 1980s, we have seen a steady downward spiral in labor conditions. However, the 1980s labor crises were followed by radicalization, revitalization and waves of protests by unions and workers against austerity, as well as against repressive states. Particularly COSATU’s social movement unionism and alliance politics with the ANC (via the United Democratic Front as the ANC was banned) in the 1980s inspired workers across and beyond the continent.

Nevertheless, there is a media and scholarly blind spot on trade unions’ roles in more recent protest movements. Probably the most striking case study is that of the so-called Arab Spring. Protests were more powerful in countries where unions were involved. With all its problems, the fact that the Tunisian revolution has been more sustainable may be related to the strength and role of the national federation, the UGTT. By comparison, the Egyptian unions were either state controlled, or fragmented (though the protests of January 2011, were preceded by strikes; they also experienced a brief spring after the initial protests).

Elsewhere on the continent, unions brought continuity and organization to otherwise more loosely organized youths and other social protesters. Take Burkina Faso, for example. Furthermore, academic and media coverage of the 2012 #OccupyNigeria movement’s successful push for President Goodluck Jonathan to reinstate a fuel subsidy, tended to focus on the power of the street protests, and downplayed the role of trade unions in the process. In fact, trade unions were key to #OccupyNigeria’s brief momentum. Workers absent from jobs, closing down streets and air traffic in the enormous country. The Nigerian unions ability to organize socially, disrupt the economy through strike and engaging in negotiations with the state, were instrumental in that movement, as well as in a series of fuel subsidy protests that preceded it.

Trade unions’ access to political power or governments, bring with them inherent tensions and pitfalls, particularly related to co-optation, corruption and neglect of the grassroots. As much as trade unions are in the forefront to fight corruption and inequalities – and bearing in mind that accusations of corruptions are part of political games to undermine unions’ legitimacies – they are not free of “big man” politics, patronage and corruption. In Tunisia, for example, the UGTT (it has 900,000 members) “made the revolution possible. But, after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, it has become more of a peacekeeper than an organizer.” Similar accusation of unions neglecting very basic organizing on the shop-floor resonates across the continent, most forcefully in the splits in COSATU, where its national leadership and some of its affiliates have been accused of being too cosy with the ANC and accepting worker-unfriendly liberal policies. South Africa’s new breakaway federation, SAFTU, defines itself as politically independent, workerist and more radical.

Leftists in South Africa as well as outside have embraced SAFTU, hoping it will revitalize workers’ struggles in South Africa, not least as they aim to organize the precariat (domestic and farm workers), migrant workers and the informal sector. But in the process, SAFTU is also using strikes and protests to demonstrate its power vis-a-vis COSATU. For example, COSATU did not join the strike against the suggested minimum wage and SAFTU has been locked out of the national negotiations at the country’s National Economic Development and Labor Council.

The South African union movement, and COSATU in particular, has failed to take lessons from similar developments in neighboring countries. There, unions stayed too close to newly independent governments, only to regret it later.  The case of Zimbabwe’s ZCTU come to mind. After two decades of being too close to the ruling ZANU-PF, they spearheaded the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Unfortunately, long time (now former) president Robert Mugabe outplayed them, and they are currently weaker than ever even with him gone.

With continued informalization of labor, unions must reach out to casual and migrant workers. Examples of organizing such workers are few, but important. The Ghanaian Agricultural Workers Unions (GAWU), organize cocoa workers, while Ugandan, Ghanaian and Rwandan unions organize informal taxi drivers, and the Tobacco and Allied Workers Union of Malawi (TOAWUM), organize poor tenant workers. TOAWUM recently received a labor rights award. In South Africa, the newly established Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), organizes migrant workers in the historically racist wine industry outside Cape Town. They received an international labour rights award in 2017. The South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), organizes one of the most difficult and fragmented work forces; domestic workers are often dispersed, inaccessible to organizers, and include many migrant workers without the historical and social link to unions.

Unionized workers are sometimes deemed as “privileged” given their positions relative to those who are unorganized or unemployed. However, the ILO reports “… that nearly two-thirds of workers in sub-Saharan Africa [..] live in extreme or moderate working poverty and progress in reducing such poverty is slowing.” In Nigeria, the NLC is now negotiating for a new minimum salary, demanding N52.200. The NLC claims Nigerian workers have the lowest minimum salary on the continent, last negotiated in 2011 to N18.000. Then, it was worth about $110; with inflation that is about $46 and far below the international poverty line. Additionally, minimum salary standards are systematically violated, especially in the public sector at state levels. It doesn’t help that the World Bank suggest “lower[ing] minimum wages and greater hiring and firing powers for employers as part of a wide-ranging deregulation of labour markets [is] necessary to prepare countries for the changing nature of work.

African trade unions are both over- and underestimated, but most of all, neglected by media, scholars and the left. From the right, unions are silenced, while from the left they are met with ideological expectations and wishful thinking not often grounded in political realities. To understand social, political and economic relations on the continent and to protect working people, we must understand the actual roles of unions, from the premises of the workplace and perspectives of workers, but without being naive.

Further Reading

How the Nigerian Left imploded

In the history of democratic transitions in Africa – whether from military, one-party, civilian or multi-party rule – Nigeria’s experience presents an interesting dimension. First, the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida handpicked the parties …