Trade unions demand solutions as African countries struggle with mounting debt burden

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*Caution govts against mortgaging future of Africa

By Michael Oche

Trade Unions in Africa have said they will no longer lament about the state of affairs within the continent, especially the unnecessary borrowing by African governments, but will build capacity of their members to proffer solutions and monitor how such funds are spent.

The workers said they will offer checks on policies by political leaders to ensure that the future of the continents and her citizens are not mortgaged with huge borrowing.

This formed part of discussions by trade union leaders within the African continent led by the African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) under the leadership of Comrade Martha Molema, President and Comrade Akhator Joel Odigie, General Secretary.

Many African governments are having to slash spending on public services like healthcare and education in reaction to mounting debt burden. A UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) report says 18 countries in Africa recorded a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 70 per cent in 2023, with many of them facing debt distress.

However, Union leaders who spoke at the opening of the ITUC-Africa New Year School holding in Lusaka, Zambia said the huge debt of countries in Africa has further weakened the development of the continent, exacerbating job losses, poverty and hunger.

In his welcome address, President of the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions, Comrade Blake Malala, said while workers will support governments, they will offer checks on policies by political leaders to ensure that the future of the continents and her citizens are not mortgaged.

“Workers and the citizens at large are being suffocated by the dire consequences of the loans and the huge debt, this is because they don’t utilize it well,” he said.

High interest rates make refinancing debt prohibitively expensive for most African countries and have weakened their currencies against the U.S. dollar.

But Comrade Malala said trade unions in Africa are not going to spend their time lamenting.

“Rather we will begin to carry out checks and balances on our governments. We will not leave the politicians alone to handle the affairs of our continent anymore. It is time for African leaders to govern to make Africa prosperous and developed to prevent young ones from dying in the Mediterranean Sea all the time,” he said.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has consistently urged sub-Saharan African policymakers to cut subsidies on fuel and raise more in taxes, measures that may be hard to implement as governments grapple with tough spending choices amid high debt.

Trade unions have often resisted such suggestions by the IMF.

Malala said, “We are not a body of opposition against the government but we will provide checks and balances in the interest of good governance and a better Africa for all. We will support the government but we will check its policies and ensure it doesn’t suffocate or mortgage our countries and the lives of our children. And this is the message we are sending across Africa to our governments.

“We will not vote in careless leaders that will further put Africa and its citizens into a sinking boat anymore. The debt issue is big. It has affected African governments’ bargaining process and power. Governments across Africa borrow money but how they use the money we don’t know. Time has come for trade unions in Africa to start asking questions on how our governments utilize the monies they borrow. Time has come for labour unions in Africa to play a rich role when our governments engage in this issue of borrowing, because the debt crisis is affecting the whole continent.

“We urge the media to help us in lauding our voice on this issue of our governments borrowing. Because of this borrowing and its consequences, many multinational companies in Africa don’t respect our labour laws. They treat our workers and people unfairly in the name of employment. This is a challenge that affects many workers specifically in the private sector across Africa. We call on those who support fair labour treatment across the world to join us in this crusade against indecent work practices in the African continent.”

Also speaking, General Secretary of the ITUC-Africa, Comrade Akhator Joel Odigie on his part said it is imperative that workers take decisive action to address the issue of debt burden and chart a path toward a more equitable and sustainable future for all Africans.

Our correspondent reports that last November, ITUC-Africa launched a debt campaign to reverse Africa’s debt burden and promote transparency, accountability in debt management.

Odigie said, “I am acutely aware of the profound impact of that the debt crisis has had on the lives of millions of workers and citizens across our continent, including workers in Zambia. From wages freezes to dwindling social protections, the ramifications of unsustainable debt are far-reaching and deeply troubling.”

ITUC-Africa is placing education at the heart of its campaign to reverse Africa’s debt burden.

Odigie added; “Education for action lies at the heart of our approach to tackling the debt crisis. Through flagship initiatives such as the Trade Union Leadership Development Academy (TULDA) and the New Year School NYS), we are empowering our members and African workers with the knowledge and skills they need to advocate for change and mobilize their communities. By fostering trade union renewal and promoting education for mobilization. We are laying the groundwork for a grassroots movement that will push for meaningful reforms and policy interventions.

“Our rationale for launching the upcoming debt campaign in Lusaka is clear: African countries cannot continue to be shackled by the chains of debt bondage imposed by external creditors. We have seen first-hand the devastating consequences of austerity measures and structural adjustment programs, which have only served to exacerbate inequality and deepen poverty . It is time for us to reclaim our sovereignty and demand accountability from those responsible for perpetuating this cycle of debt dependency.”

In her address, ITUC-Africa President, Comrade Martha Molema, said; “At the heart of our mission lies the recognition that trade unions must not be mere voices of lamentation and complaint but be voices for pragmatic solutions through education.”