African union leader sees similarities with U.S. South

WASHINGTON – Terrible wages and working conditions for non-union workers in the U.S. South are eerily similar to those in their home nations in sub-Saharan Africa, one African union leader says.

In a “South-South Connection” discussion sponsored by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center on Dec. 9, the six African union leaders described working conditions in North Carolina, South Carolina and especially Mississippi that they found appalling, and familiar.

One, Isaac Grant of the Liberia Labour Congress, painted the similar picture between sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S. South.

After the leaders discussed their visits, Grant cited human rights abuses in Africa – workers toiling 16-18 hours daily then not getting paid and use of child labor – and then made the connections.

“We saw very appalling conditions. People are living as slaves and children are used as laborers” in the U.S. South, “and we feel that is wrong,” he declared.

“The U.S. is preaching” in sub-Saharan Africa “against child labor and for human rights. But we see this here and the labor movement and the American people need to do something about it. Workers deserve better,” Grant said.

But while Grant criticized conditions in the U.S. South – the anti-union anti-worker, least-unionized section of the U.S. – all six also described their own union movements’ struggles and, in South Africa and Liberia, disarray.

In South Africa, said Edward DeKlerk of the United National Trade Union, the dominant Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) recently split into warring camps on tribal and geographic lines. That harms labor’s defense against multinationals’ worker exploitation, he explained. DeKlerk was the most outspoken of the group against those firms.

“We have to join together to fight this capitalist scourge that is killing the labor movement, and the governments that are supporting them” in Africa and the U.S., he declared. “We’ve got a double war on our hands.”

And the Liberian labor movement “broke apart on political lines” during that nation’s recently concluded “15 year-to-16-year civil war,” said David Sackoh of the Liberian group.

The six – South Africa’s DeKlerk, Grant and Sackoh of the Liberia Labour Congress, Bonface Kavuvi of the Kenya Union of Allied Food and Commercial Workers, Philip Kwoba Alfred of the Central Organization of Trade Unions in, Nairobi, Kenya, and Nasir Muhammed, of the Nigeria Union of Teachers in the northern city of Abuja – followed their 10-day tour of the U.S. South with meetings in D.C. with the Solidarity Center, at the U.S. State Department, with the Congressional Black Caucus and at the White House.

In Africa, external conditions, ranging from multinationals’ exploitation in Liberia and South Africa to lack of enforcement of pro-worker provisions of the Kenyan constitution, to kidnappings of schoolchildren and destruction of schools by Boko Haram jihadists in northern Nigeria, all affect workers, the six said.

DeKlerk was the most outspoken about the multinationals. But multinationals aren’t the only problem African workers and unions faced. In the official economy, youth unemployment is 40 percent or more in a continent where the majority of people are under age 35. And the official economy is often a small share of the total economy in Africa, they added.

Kavuvi’s tale was typical. “We changed our constitution in 2010 to include labor laws – the right to strike, the right to collective bargaining and the right to organize – in it,” he said.

“But, like in the U.S. South, there are rampant violations,” said Kavuvi, who is also General Secretary (president) of Kenya’s union federation. Things got so bad for Kenyan Sunday school teachers, part of the nation’s teachers union, that the entire union had to strike last month, Kavuvi said. Freedom of association and of the press are violated, too, he added.

Sackoh, the Liberian Labour Congress Secretary-General, said that, delayed by the war, Liberia has only recently adopted international labor standards as its basic labor law. And with current elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf retiring, enforcement is up in the air. “Sirleaf said that will be the most difficult thing to do,” he added.

And in Liberian gold and platinum mining, children are trafficked, held seven to 10 years to work, not sent to school and “if they die, they just bury them in the forest,” he admitted.

But the leaders said there have been some hopeful signs in sub-Saharan Africa:

  • The Kenyan federation “made a strategic decision” to organize domestic workers – home workers, gardeners and the like – starting in Nairobi, the capital, Kwoba Alfred said. Most have joined. Many now earn less than the country’s basic minimum wage, “so the union is taking their cases to court” to raise their pay. That’s even though dues raised from those workers are very low.
  • The biggest rubber plantation owner in Liberia, Firestone, under pressure from the International Labor Rights Forum, the Solidarity Center – and, though Sackoh did not say so, the Steelworkers – abolished child labor on the plantation and bettered pay and working conditions. Firestone Tire workers are USW members and Liberian rubber is in those tires. “But we have seven other big (rubber) plantations to deal with,” Sackoh admitted.
  • Nigeria’s new government is building temporary schools for students rescued from Boko Haram and has undertaken a huge campaign against the jihadists, Muhammed said.

Photo: A child exploited for labor in West Africa.  |  Harmony Project


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. TambiƩn es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).