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Africa: Trade Union Perspectives

AfricaFocus Bulletin
July 7, 2014 (140707)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Almost all interviewees who responded to the Solidarity Center survey, when asked about the general economic situation, noted some economic growth. But they also were emphatic that the growth was not accompanied by good jobs and did not trickle down or benefit the majority of the population. ... The message that quantitative macroeconomic growth is not sufficient to lift people out of poverty or improve lives has [also] been a prominent theme in reports by multilateral agencies in recent years." - Solidarity Center report, April 2014

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains brief excerpts from a Solidarity Center report just released, entitled "African Trade Unions and Africa's Future: Strategic Choices in a Changing World." Based on interviews by Solidarity Center field staff in 2013, the report, on which I served as the principal consultant and report author, provides a summary of views and excerpted comments from interviews with 63 trade unionists and others related to the trade union sector in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries represented in the interviews included Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Despite the variety of country experiences and perspectives, there was significant convergence of views on many issues.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the economy and development, visit

Of particular relevance to this Bulletin:

Africa: Investor Perspectives

Africa: Whose "Africa Rising?"

South Africa: The Marikana Syndrome

Africa: Youth, "Waithood," and Protest

South Africa: The Marikana Era?

Additional note and request to readers:

There have been highly significant developments in the trade union scene in South Africa this year, namely the just-ended strike in the platinum industry and the current strike by the metalworkers union (NUMSA). For brief news summaries of the platinum strike see:,, and For updates on the NUMSA strike, visit the NUMSA website:

If AfricaFocus readers are aware of any particularly helpful on-line analyses of these recent developments, please do let me know about them by writing to

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

African Trade Unions and Africa's Future: Strategic Choices in a Changing World

Summary report based on surveys and other research by Solidarity Center staff and consultants, March 1 - October 10, 2013

Solidarity Center, April 2014 / direct URL:

To gain a better understanding of the challenges facing trade unions with which the Solidarity Center works, Solidarity Center staff and consultants conducted interviews between July and October 2013 with 63 trade unionists and other individuals associated with the trade union sector in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries of focus were predominantly English-speaking and included Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The majority of people interviewed (50) held office in a union or trade union federation, five were working at the shop-floor level and eight were affiliated with union-related organizations as researchers or program officers. The interviews were supplemented with desk research, primarily sources accessed on the Web.

It should be noted that there are important differences in the situation, challenges and capacity of trade unions across the countries where interviews were conducted. ...

Unions have also come under pressure to adopt government perspectives on economic policy. Governments and large companies court union leaders who they hope will be responsive to management views. The argument advanced, and sometimes accepted, is that economic growth will be good for everyone and that workers should accept sacrifices so that the country can attract investment and promote growth. While many union leaders are strongly critical of such views, as reflected in these interviews, others buy into the argument or are wary of challenging the dominant perspective, at least in public debate.

In spite of this varied landscape, several broad conclusions stand out based on a relative degree of consensus among interviewees and other sources.

Key Findings

Unions function in a highly unfavorable economic environment

Today's economic and policy environment poses difficulties for trade unions in several respects. Governments prioritize macroeconomic growth over inclusive, sustainable growth that favors job creation and human development. Globalization and economic competition in their present form promote casualization of work and widen the informal economy. Capital flows, both licit and illicit, drain African countries of the resources they need for investment in public goods and for sustainable development. These realities are global. In Africa, their effects are magnified by the subordinate position of African countries in the global economy.

While it is too early to speak of a new consensus, more and more international organizations and economists working on African development argue that the state must take a central role in ensuring that growth includes structural transformation of African economies. They call for measures to promote job creation, secure worker rights, invest in social and physical infrastructure and enable African countries to move up the ladder of global value chains. There is also wide agreement on the imperative to address gender equity as essential for development as well as for its intrinsic value as a primary component of universal human rights. However, these perspectives are not yet adequately reflected in the de facto programs and policies of most governments or of key multilateral agencies such as the World Bank.

Protections for workers are not enforced

At both the international and national levels, there is a significant body of conventions and laws that protect worker rights. But interviewees stressed that more often than not, governments do not enforce these legal requirements, lacking both political will and enforcement capacity. Some governments are overtly hostile to worker rights. Trade unions, meanwhile, often lack capacity to negotiate effectively for the implementation and enforcement of laws and conventions. This holds true despite the wide variation in relationships among trade unions and governments in the countries included in the survey.

Unions lack sufficient resources

Unions differ widely in their capacity to defend workers' interests and meet their expectations, and these contrasts were noted even among unions within the same country. However, interviewees in all countries frequently said that a dearth of resources, both financial and human, hinders union effectiveness. Unions are hard-pressed to sustain adequate financing through dues or other sources. They also find it difficult to maintain staffing with adequately trained personnel who can manage union affairs and negotiate with employers and government.

Growth of the informal economy challenges unions

Trade unions have traditionally had their strongest base in the formal economy. Their membership and resource base are being eroded by the diminishing formal sector, the trend toward casualization and the outsourcing of a wide range of jobs. Downsizing in the public sector, often associated with privatization, is an important factor in some countries. The effect of these changes is to diminish the bargaining power of unions and depress wages.

Trade unionists widely recognize the need to find new ways to organize in the informal and formal economies to maximize the capacity of unions to strengthen social protections, improve livelihoods and expand worker voices. While there are a few positive examples of small-scale successes, the difficulties of organizing workers in the informal economy remain formidable. Challenges include the diverse patterns of work organization, the physical dispersion of the informal workforce and the lack of sustainable financing for such organizing.

Women's participation in unions and union leadership is increasing but still limited

Interviewees broadly agreed that in recent years, international pressure and the initiative of women have helped raise the issue of women's roles in trade unionism. Women and their advocates have achieved some concrete gains in terms of increasing women's participation in unions and union leadership. However, survey respondents noted that the commitment to gender issues is, in many cases, more talk than action. Women in trade union leadership are often confined to positions dealing specifically with gender issues rather than serving in the highest-ranking positions, which limits their impact within unions and the capacity of unions to represent workers.

Women in the informal sector are vulnerable

Interviewees agreed on the importance of organizing in sectors of the informal economy dominated by women workers, such as domestic work. But while some efforts under way are promising, such as those in South Africa, Kenya and Mozambique, they are limited in scope. Most successful initiatives have involved small numbers of people or focused on specific issues, such as ensuring coverage of domestic workers by social security programs. Much remains to be done to address the vulnerability of women working in the informal sector in terms of their pay, working conditions and job security. In practice, it continues to be very difficult to achieve sustainable organization of large numbers of workers dispersed in individual households.


This general survey does not lend itself to detailed recommendations tailored to specific national situations. Nor are there any easy solutions to the obstacles for trade unions identified in the interviews. However, the results do have broad implications for the tasks trade unions must undertake to be successful in defending the interests of workers and the broader society. Several of the most important points are noted below.

African trade unions must find new ways of organizing unorganized workers, particularly in the informal economy

The primary base for most trade unions remains the formal economy, including employment in government, manufacturing and the service sector. Continued strength in these sectors provides the foundation for the survival and expansion of unions and formal-sector workers must not be neglected. However, national and global economic trends suggest that the proportion of workers in formal employment will likely continue to decrease. Some unions have begun organizing within the informal economy, but it is clear that these efforts must move much higher on the agenda. Both unions and international agencies supporting unions need to share experiences and invest more resources in finding effective ways to organize among workers in the informal economy.

African trade unions must play an active role in public life

Unions need to actively influence the economic and political environment in their countries, especially in regard to public policies that affect workers' interests directly. In Africa, historically, unions played key roles in decolonization and national liberation struggles and in promoting democratic institutions after the formal achievement of political rights. Except for Swaziland, all the countries in this survey have formal democratic institutions in place. But worker rights and other democratic rights are at risk in all countries, regardless of the spectrum of formal relationships among trade unions and ruling parties. The active and independent role of trade unions in the public sphere is essential both for the preservation of democracy and for advancing worker rights and inclusive economic growth.

African trade unions must speak out on national and international economic policies

The prospects for trade unions depend in large part on economic policies adopted by national governments and international agencies. As the importance of job creation, sustainable development and supportive social policies gains broader recognition, trade unions have both an opportunity and an obligation to represent workers in economic policy debates. This implies active participation in research and policy advocacy in collaboration with allies in civil society, government agencies and intergovernmental organizations.

African trade unions must help shape policy decisions affecting workers

In addition, trade unions must take advantage of opportunities to participate in organized structures for social dialogue involving government, business and worker representatives. In some countries unions have a formal role in the administration of public benefits, such as social security and health insurance. These tasks require specialized and knowledgeable personnel. Unions can also mobilize their members and the public on policy issues of particular interest to workers, such as minimum wage legislation and social safety nets. The examples of effective participation in the survey countries point to the considerable potential for productive exchange of experiences between unions across sub-Saharan Africa.

African trade unions must step up their efforts to advance women's rights within unions, in the workplace and wider society

As noted in the findings section above, trade unions have taken encouraging steps to achieve more equitable inclusion of women in union structures and to focus on issues disproportionately affecting women in the workplace. These efforts must continue and intensify. However, they will not be successful without parallel efforts to confront the obstacles to equal rights and equal participation for women that are built into current economic structures and societal practices. This implies opening up economic sectors and occupations that are still largely closed to women, as well as advancing education for women, equity within the household and social support for family obligations now primarily met by women. In short, trade unions need to be and to be seen as leaders in the struggle for comprehensive women's rights.

African trade unions must intensify dialogue and collaboration across national boundaries, including with unions in other African countries and with regional and global trade union allies

Economic globalization and the power of multilateral agencies at all levels mean that trade unions cannot ignore the international context. International solidarity, particularly in terms of mutual support for trade unions facing particular crises, such as attacks on established rights, has long been a fundamental premise of the trade union movement. The African Regional Organization of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa), among other regional and global trade union groups, is actively promoting exchange of experiences and collaboration among unions in different African countries. However, the scale of this collaboration falls far short of what is needed. Trade unions and agencies supporting them should expand these efforts, both by increasing the opportunities for dialogue and by building additional transnational links into current bilateral cooperation initiatives. This should include expanded communication using new information technologies and opportunities for in-person, in-depth dialogue among trade unionists from different countries. Such programs allow the sharing of lessons learned and provide trade unionists with wider frames of reference and sources of support beyond those available in their local context.

Chapter 1

Africa Is Rising -- But Good Jobs Lag Behind

The Africa Progress Report 2012 headlined its section on economic growth "Moving to the Premier League." From Al Jazeera to the Economist, world media have trumpeted an "Africa rising." The African Development Bank (ADB) heralded the emergence of a new African middle class, while investment counselors pitch Africa as the new global economic frontier. The Economist noted in December 2011: "Over the past decade six of the world's ten fastest-growing countries were African. In eight of the past ten years, Africa has grown faster than East Asia, including Japan. Even allowing for the knock-on effect of the northern hemisphere's slowdown, the IMF expects Africa to grow by 6% this year and nearly 6% in 2012, about the same as Asia."

Some of the hype can be dismissed. The ADB's threshold for becoming "middle class" is set at the extraordinarily low income level of $2 per day. And economist Morten Jerven has warned that most African development statistics are based on such thin data and changing criteria that "growth" in some cases represents nothing more than a decision by statisticians to estimate the informal economy using a different methodology.

But there is no doubt that economic growth is real, though it varies widely from country to country and within each country. Economic dynamism is evident in new extractive industry developments and construction sites, as well as in the inflow of investment from new partners such as China and the Gulf States. The proliferation of mobile phone technology, visible in the streets as well as in the statistics, is an additional reflection of this dynamism.

Moreover, multilateral agencies concur in predicting that rapid growth will continue. The World Bank's newsletter Africa's Pulse for April 2013 noted that about a quarter of sub-Saharan African countries had growth rates of 7 percent or higher in 2012, with a regional average of nearly 5 percent. The African Economic Outlook 2013, jointly prepared by the ADB, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Center, the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, cites an annual growth rate for the entire continent (excluding Libya) of 4.2 percent. The Outlook projected that growth would increase to 4.8 percent in 2013 and 5.3 percent in 2014.


Almost all interviewees who responded to the Solidarity Center survey, when asked about the general economic situation, noted some economic growth. But they also were emphatic that the growth was not accompanied by good jobs and did not trickle down or benefit the majority of the population. Two countries offered partial exceptions to this pattern. In Liberia, interviewees cited improvement, using conditions during the civil war as the basis for comparison. And in Zambia, interviewees noted higher wages in the formal sector following the entry into office of a new political party that had promised such increases.

The message that quantitative macroeconomic growth is not sufficient to lift people out of poverty or improve lives has been a prominent theme in reports by multilateral agencies in recent years. The Africa Progress Panel titled its 2012 report Jobs, Justice and Equity, while the World Bank's World Development Report 2013 featured a one-word subtitle: Jobs.


Jobs, the report argues, should be center stage in the development agenda. The issue of "jobless growth," particularly the lagging creation of good jobs in a growing economy, is fundamental both to the development agenda and to the environment confronting labor unions. While the causes are as complex as development itself, international agencies and critical scholars are increasingly in consensus on a number of key points, which are consistent with the factors cited in the interviews for this study.

Briefly summarized, these points are:

  • Structural adjustment programs, with their emphasis on fiscal balance and privatization, resulted in steep cuts to government budgets. This in turn diminished a major source of formal employment, weakened the institutions needed to ensure a well-educated and healthy workforce, and failed to allow for sufficient long-term investment in infrastructure for balanced development. Although the "Washington consensus" behind these programs has weakened, even among international financial institutions, the legacy of these policies and emphasis on macroeconomic stability above all still weigh heavily on the policy choices of African governments.
  • The recovery of African growth rates depends heavily on growth in oil and other extractive industries. These industries are capitalintensive, that is, they produce relatively few jobs for the capital invested, and they are highly dependent on sometimes volatile international commodity prices. In addition, the capacity of governments to negotiate mutually beneficial deals with large multinational corporations is severely limited.
  • Much of the capital entering Africa or generated there quickly leaves the continent through mechanisms such as transfer pricing, corruption, legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion. These assets are no longer available to be taxed by the public sector or for jobcreating domestic investment; the result is net losses for potential job creation in the public and private sectors.
  • The growth of the informal economy and the increasing use of casual or temporary workers in the formal sector has a significant and negative impact on the prospects for good jobs and decent work. It also affects the ability of unions to organize workers and influence policy. Informal and casual workers have little job security and few benefits and they often live in precarious conditions. In many cases, their families depend on income from the rural areas as well as an urban place of employment. In some cases, they may be systematically victimized by labor brokers or even traffickers.

While it is too early to speak of a "new consensus," many international financial agencies and economists working on African development now agree that it is essential for the state to take a central role in ensuring that growth goes beyond the macro level to propel structural transformation of African economies. This transformation must include job creation, investment in social and physical infrastructure, redistribution of resources to counter inequality and advancement up the ladder of international value chains. The role of the state shapes the economic environment that trade unions and workers face, as well as the state's relationship with workers and unions.

It is also clear that the fundamental economic and political structures will not change without the active engagement of trade unions at the national and continental levels In the words of Tetteh Hormeku, head of programs for the Third World Network secretariat in Ghana, in an interview with the Solidarity Center in March 2013:

"The demands on unions and the overall agenda facing them is of historic proportions. Because fundamentally, African countries need to transform their economies. As was the case in the struggles against colonialism and apartheid, unions have a critical role to play."

Trade unions are aware of this challenge, which is continental and global as well as specific to each country. As transnational corporations devise global and Africa-wide strategies, trade unions must further develop their capacity to act on this wider stage. In recent years the African Regional Organization of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) has taken the lead in continent-wide collaboration. International links have also been made through the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and through global union federations such as Public Services International, IndustriALL, UNI Global Union, International Transport Workers' Federation and International Federation of Journalists.


Encouraging examples of such collaboration do exist. Two notable cases are the solidarity shown by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) with unions in the Southern African region, particularly in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, and the support for the Firestone Agricultural Workers' Union of Liberia (FAWUL) provided by international partners, including the Solidarity Center. But there is still great potential, and even greater need, to expand the exchange of views and collaboration among unions across national borders, both within and beyond the African continent.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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