Rising debt: Don’t mortgage our future, trade unions caution African govts

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By Michael Oche

Trade Unions in Africa have cautioned governments across the continent against mortgaging the future of workers and citizens with ‘irresponsible 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, and Comrade Akhator Joel Odigie, as president and General Secretary respectively.

The union leaders 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.

Many African governments have 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.

“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, “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.”