Workers in Africa commemorate May Day amidst rise in attacks on trade union rights

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    By Michael Oche

    As workers around the world mark the 2024 May Day, also known as Workers Day, this year’s celebration of the annual event is coming amidst a concerning trend: a rise in global attacks on trade union rights.

    From legislative measures to outright suppression, trade unions are facing mounting challenges in advocating for fair labour practices and workers’ rights.

    From Nigeria, to Benin, to Argentina to Eswatini, France and in numerous other countries, governments and corporations have been implementing policies and practices that undermine the ability of trade unions to operate effectively. This includes restrictive laws that limit the right to organize, collective bargaining, and the ability to strike.

    Additionally, there have been reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence targeting union leaders and members, further eroding the ability of workers to voice their concerns and negotiate for better working conditions.

    In Africa, the story remains the same. For more than 20 years, government interference in trade union activities and elections, forced dissolution of unions and detention of trade union leaders have continued unabated.

    ITUC Global Rights Index, which tracks the deteriorating situation, indicated that in 2023, violations of key measures reached new highs, with 95% of countries in Africa violated the right to strike, while 95% of countries in Africa excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union. Also, 93% of countries in Africa violated the right to collective bargaining while 84% of countries in Africa denied workers access to justice.

    The GRI index captured 74% of countries in Africa impeded the registration of unions, while 40% of countries in Africa arrested and detained workers. Workers experienced violence in 21% of countries in Africa, while some were murdered in Eswatini and Sierra Leone.

    These actions, have always been condemned by ILO bodies. But Governments and big corporations have continued their systematic suppression of the independent trade union movement across the Africa. The situation appears to have worsened in the past 5 years.

    This anti-democratic trend raises concerns about the sincerity of governments to engage workers in dialogue. Clearly, there is a link between workers’ rights being upheld and the strength of any democracy. The erosion of one amounts to the degradation of the other. The right to peaceful assembly, right to free speech, right to assemble are the bedrock of any democracy.

    But, importantly, the increasing attacks on workers rights gives more credence to the call that with democracy declining, unions must rise in defending workers’ rights and promoting fair conditions.

    This MayDay2024, the global trade union movement rallies under the theme Trade Unions #ForDemocracy.

    In March 2024, global trade unions rallied under the ITUC to launch the “For Democracy” campaign which aims to unify the power of working people towards a trade union vision for democracy.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, with some governments exploiting the crisis to introduce emergency measures that curtail labor rights under the guise of public health and economic recovery efforts. In numerous instances, workers have been left vulnerable to exploitation, with little recourse for recourse or protection.

    Despite these obstacles, workers and trade unions have shown resilience and determination in their fight for justice and dignity in the workplace.

    This May Day serves as a powerful reminder of the solidarity and collective strength of workers around the world. Through demonstrations, protests, and other forms of activism, workers continue to demand respect for their rights and fair treatment from employers and governments alike.

    As the global labour movement confronts these threats, it is essential for trade unions in Africa to act now to stop the alarming decline of democracy, and the simultaneous rise in attacks on workers’ rights.

    Trade unions play a crucial role in advocating for social and economic justice, and their ability to operate freely must be protected and upheld. Only through concerted action and solidarity can workers secure the rights and protections they deserve in the face of increasing challenges.

    Michael Oche is a journalist based in Abuja