African trade unions and Africa’s future: strategic choices in a changing world

African trade unions and Africa’s future: strategic choices in a changing world

Economies and labour markets throughout Africa are undergoing radical and fast-paced change, with important implications for trade unions. To explore this dynamic, the Solidarity Center has produced this useful reflection on the the African labour market and trade union situation, based mainly on a survey conducted across nine countries. Five of the countries are in Southern Africa, namely, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe; three in West Africa, namely, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria; and one in East Africa, Kenya.


The report is structured into five thematic chapters, examining: the deficit of good jobs in a growing regional economy; the gap between governmental rhetoric and action in promoting and securing workers rights; internal challenges to the trade union movement; women and trade unions; and the changing policy environment unions face. Country overviews for all nine countries are included, together with an extensive annex including interviews, survey results, and additional resources.


The interviews and focus group results made clear that there is wide awareness in unions of the need to advance gender equality and that there has been significant progress in recent years. They also showed that the extent of progress is very mixed, and that the results still fall far short of full equality. With regard to the experiences reported by Nigerian women union members, several quotes are presented which together paint a picture of an improving situation with regard to women’s participation in trade unions in the country. The quotes refer to examples of greater inclusion of women within decision-making hierarchies, with one woman noting that in Bayelsa and Ondo states of Nigeria, women now hold the position of union chairperson, calling it “something that was unheard of before.” Other quotes speak about improving workplace rights, greater equality in the workplace, and examples of equal pay for equal work being implemented as a result of greater women’s participation in unions.


However, the key findings from the report places these improvements into perspective. Trade unions function in a highly unfavourable economic environment, where protection for workers are too often not enforced. The growth of the informal economy challenges unions, disempowers workers, and leaves women in particular highly vulnerable to exploitation and unmet rights. Furthermore, unions lack sufficient resources, and while it is true that women’s participation in unions and union leadership is increasing, it is still highly limited.


In light of the implications of such challenges, the authors suggest that African unions must: find new ways of organising unorganised workers, particularly in the informal economy; play an active role in public life; speak out on national and international economic policies; help shape policy decisions affecting workers; step up their efforts to advance women’s rights within unions, in the workplace, and in wider society; and intensify dialogue and collaboration across national boundaries, including with unions in other African countries and with regional and global trade union allies.

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