How Are Trade Unions responding to Africa’s contemporary challenges: A focus On ITUC-Africa New Year School

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By Michael Oche

The African continent finds itself at a critical crossroads. In recent years, the continent has been confronted by increasing debts, poverty, unemployment, the absence of social protection for citizens, and violent conflicts, among other challenges.

The African Union estimates that Africa loses an estimated $80 billion annually due to illicit financial flows, hampering the continent’s economic progress.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) stands as a catalyst for Africa’s economic transformation and has the potential to lift 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty and 68 million from moderate poverty by 2035. Yet, observers suggest that the take-off of the trade mechanism has been a conscious and slow one posing early doubts to the attainment of the projected gains.

The average debt ratio in sub-Saharan Africa doubled in just a decade—from 30 percent of GDP at the end of 2013 to 60 percent of GDP by end-2022. Repaying this debt has also become much costlier. Many African governments are having to slash spending on healthcare and education, as they struggle to repay the loans.

The adverse impacts of these challenges, whether economic or political matters can be felt throughout society, especially in the world of work.

At the heart of this crisis are workers who are further exposed to existing inequalities, slowish and stagnant wages in the faces of spiking inflation, heightened unemployment and underemployment, absence of social protection, amongst others.

How are workers and trade unions in Africa reacting to these crises?

Transforming Africa’s fragility may come down to the ability of Trade Unions to provide alternative solutions to the challenges. The continent is undergoing significant socio-economic shifts that require cohesive and strategic actions.

African Trade Unions say they are not here to lament, or just sing solidarity songs and demand wage increase. They are building capacities to respond to the crises.

“We have asked ourselves; ‘how do we frame our responses, recognising the issues, but providing solutions, pragmatic alternatives. And more importantly, demonstrating that these pragmatic alternatives work,” Akhator Joel Odigie, Secretary General of ITUC-Africa says.

The nature of work is evolving globally, including in Africa. New technologies, globalisation, and shifts in industries require labour leaders to have a deep understanding of these changes and the ability to advocate for workers in an ever-changing economic landscape.

Workers and trade unions are being strategic in their responses.

Giving Priority to Educating Unionists:

In response to these challenges, ITUC-Africa has designed the annual New Year School, an initiative that is reshaping the landscape and redefining the role of trade unions in the continent.

“What is at the heart of the New Year school is how to use education to respond to these contemporary issues and challenges. In a way, workers are not just pointing out the challenges that they are facing in the world of work. But more importantly, they can respond positively and can make tangible and positive contributions to addressing the challenges.

“What is at the heart of effective trade unions’ responses to the issues or crisis at the workplace and economy is lifelong learning,” Odigie adds.

The General Secretary explains that the ITUC-Africa New Year School is an initiative of the ITUC-AFRICA leadership to contribute to deepening workers’ knowledge. The workers are drawn from all categories, and all cadres and are brought together to deepen their knowledge of contemporary workplace and community issues.

In its 14th edition, the New Year School, among other education programs, has been the secret to building ideology for labour leaders within the continent.

With the Theme “Advancing Africa’s Transformation Agenda: Mobilizing for Tangible Trade Union Collective Action,” this year’s edition will attract at least 100 participants, from different cadres of trade unions across the continent, which will be staged in Lusaka, Zambia towards the end of the first quarter of this year.

The New Year School (NYS) aims at discussing and reflecting on contemporary social, economic, and political matters affecting Africa and has covered several thematic areas including African emancipation, regional integration, sustainable development, trade union renewal, and unity, among others.

Participants at the end of the school will gain insights into the complexities of illicit financial flows; and enhance their leadership skills in critical areas such as addressing sovereign debt crises, managing social protection financing, unifying trade unions, leveraging AfCFTA for industrialization, and advancing the African Trade Union organising campaign.

Odigie says: “What the new year school does and how it contributes to building future trade union leaders is that first, it helps them to have an ideological, contextual perspective to issues critical for analysing and building effective responses to the issues at the workplace, communities and economies.

“It provides them that capacity. And when they can do so, then they are in a much better place to construct their responses.”

Building Next Generation Of Labour Leaders

Importantly, amidst the various challenges in Africa, the leadership of ITUC-Africa over the years has used the school as well as other education programs to build the capacity of future trade union leaders.

Odigie says: there is a deliberate approach to target future leaders and the content of the school is focused on real-life issues. More importantly, we pride ourselves that the methodology that we utilise in the New Year school is tailored to get people to do critical thinking, to be problem solvers and solutions providers in collective and inclusive approaches”.

Indeed, investing in capacity building of future labour leaders in Africa is an investment in the resilience, adaptability, and effectiveness of trade unions. It enables them to address contemporary challenges, represent diverse groups of workers, and contribute to the broader goals of social and economic justice.

Odigie explains the reason for such strategy. He says, “ We also target young trade union leaders, as well as women. We target activists who we know have the potential to be trade union leaders. The trade union leaders themselves, some have come to leadership positions, they need to sharpen their skills. For those we see as potential leaders, we also invite them and mentor them to be able to be active in the process.