God Dey, No Condition Is Permanent

Over the past ten years there have been major changes in the workplace for many African workers as foreign corporations have set up industries within African economies. In the mining, oil and gas, insurance, banking and financial services sectors there has been a dramatic adaptation to the forces of globalisation. The ownership of the workplace has passed from state control, in many cases, to a developing private sector. This has greatly increased the revenue flow into the national coffers and budgets but it has lagged far behind in the recompense and benefits to the workers in these industries.alt

One of the key reasons for this dislocation between privatisation and the recompense of those who work in these industries has been the antiquated labour laws and practices which have not fully adapted to the new conditions. The trades union movement in Africa developed despite the legacy of colonialism and the frequent interruption of normal economic relations in post-independence Africa by the suspension of constitutions and protections as the result of military coups and military rule as well as civil wars.

The history of African labour is long and intimately involved in the political as well as the economic evolution of their countries. The first recorded industrial action in Africa was in Freetown in 1793, when Nova Scotian miners struck against the Sierra Leone Company for higher wages. The earliest unions in Africa were formed by European workers who brought their traditions and institutions of worker self-help with them. In 1881 the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers set up a recognised union in South Africa; in 1885 the French national union set up a union branch in Algeria. The earliest record of non-European unionism was strike of canoemen in the Cape Colony in 1896 followed by a strike by carriers and porters in 1898. The first, substantive, African union was created in Lagos in 1905 when indigenous civil servants banded together to form a recognised union.

The colonial regimes which took over the political and economic control of Africa from the turn of the century were largely inimical to trades unions. The Spanish and Portuguese repressed unions in Spain and Portugal so it was very unlikely that they would tolerate them in Africa; and they didn’t. The French, while caught up in left-wing unionism in France, were hesitant in allowing them to grow in French Africa. It wasn’t until 1932, in Tunisia, that the French allowed unions to form among those who could pass a literacy test in French and had an elementary school diploma. This gradually spread around French Africa but the restrictions on literacy in French and educational certificates were not lifted until 1944.

Although unions of white workers were allowed in Belgian colonies after 1921, it wasn’t until 1946 that unions of indigenes were permitted to form. The Belgian socialist national union centre formed a subsidiary union in the Congo in 1951 but it soon broke up in the struggle for independence. The Germans made it clear that their imperial colonial practices did not include unions.

The British, on the other hand, allowed unions to form after 1929 with the rise of the Labour Party to office. Under their Colonial Development Act that year the British Government insisted that fair labour standards be observed in their colonies and appointed Sidney Webb (Lord Passfield) as the Colonial Secretary. As he was the leading light in the Fabian Society he informed the members of the Foreign Office that they should allow local unions to form and that the British Government was making available funds to help promote unionism. Webb sent out labour specialists to supervise this, the first Labour Attaches; mainly composed of Trades Union Congress (TUC) officers. This led to the formation of unions throughout the British Empire, including Africa.

Despite this encouragement by the Labour Party colonial authorities were less keen in practice to encourage unionism. With the formation of the Labour Trade Union of East Africa in 1937 (banned by the authorities in 1939) and its successor the East African Trades Union Congress formed in 1949 and banned by the colonial authorities after the general strike in Nairobi in 1950 the British colonial support for unionism diminished greatly. Across Africa the unions became caught up in the anti-colonial struggle. This became true as well in some parts of French Africa (Guinea, Cameroon, Algeria and Tunisia) where the unionists were among the most militant anti-colonialists.

The reason for this pollicisation was easy to see. As the people who joined unions in Africa were almost entirely civil servants, not counting South Africa, there was no private sector. Virtually all employment was government employment. The people who joined the African labour movements were invariably those who were urban, less attached to their ethnic roots and who spoke the colonial language. They were the elite of the national workforce. They were dependent on the government of the day, initially colonial and then post-colonial for their employment, remuneration, allowances and benefits. They were underpaid and often exploited but they were a necessary cog in the wheel of governance.

The nationalists who opposed colonial rule were more expendable. They were jailed, sent into exile or killed by the colonial authorities, leaving the overt continuity of the anti-colonial struggle to the leadership of the labour movements. It is no accident that African labour leaders (Sekou Toure, Joshua Nkomo. Rashidi Kawawa, Tom Mboya, Alioune Cisse, Milla Marcous, Arthur Ochwada, Ferhat Hached. to name but a few) took over the control of the anti-colonial movements. [i]

While the politics of the anti-colonial struggle and the competing pressures of the Cold War are interesting they are not crucial to understanding the development of a collective bargaining pattern among African unions. Nigeria was among the first to have a growing private sector with the discovery and exploitation of its oil and gas reserves. Other nations in Africa are now going through a massive privatisation of their oil, gas and mining industries (Ghana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritania, Zambia Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Mozambique, among others). The changes which are required by the unions there to adapt themselves to this private sector will soon be almost universal. There are very few programs preparing them for this and fewer preparing their governments.

There are several key features which differentiate African labour movements from those in North America and Western Europe. Appreciating these differences is very important to understanding the role of these unions in the political and economic lives of their countries.

  • African unions are primarily unions in the public sector. Throughout their history the unions which have developed have represented workers in the public sector. In major industries and sectors there have been relatively few private employers. Those that did exist were usually in some form of partnership with a state agency or department and functioned through that department in its relations with workers and their unions.
  • Because these unions must operate within the public sector it is the government, federal or state, which is the employer. This has had several important consequences:
  • The unions have to seek improvements for their members from ministries or political figures. The budgets from which they have to derive their wages and benefits are determined, for the most part, by legislatures and political leaders. Wage and manpower costs tend to be one line item in a budget which covers all aspects of the industry and is rarely a high priority item.
  • This is especially true in the oil and gas industry where questions of joint-venture costs, production sharing agreements, exploration costs, marketing and transport are dealt with by the government agencies in addition to the human relations costs. The actual contracts of employment may be with private companies but the terms and conditions are largely determined on an industry and regional basis.
  • So, when seeking higher wages or improved working conditions and job security the unions turn to political interaction with politicians, legislatures and regional bodies to make their case. There is a distinction made between what might be available from the private company who is technically the employer and that which might be available from the government or agency.
  • The legislation which circumscribes their ability to function tends to cover everyone in their particular labour sector irrespective of the employer. The grievance procedures, industrial courts, arbitrators and review bodies tend to be identical throughout the energy and mining industries. Such distinctions which are made are between white-collar and blue-collar employees.

For a variety of reasons these organisations have never been as strong as they hoped. For a trades union organisation to flourish it needs three basic requirements.

  • A primary requirement is some elemental feeling of solidarity among the workers; the development of a sense of group affinity or coalition behaviour. This is relatively easy to achieve on a small scale but is progressively harder to achieve on a wider or national scale. In most countries, although the unionists were effectively deraciné in the workplace, they were still ethnically less integrated in other aspects of their lives. This has militated against a broad feeling of solidarity, especially as the politicians in resource-rich areas demand jobs and special advantages from the private companies for those who come from their areas.
  • A second requirement is the continuity of the leadership in creating and maintaining union policies. It is a traditional source of weakness in African unions that the leaders of these unions often do not stay very long in their union posts Since the requirements of union office at any middle or upper level required basic literacy, numeracy, fluency in a language understood widely in the nation these union positions tended to be filled by educated, urban men. This is the same pool from which the political leadership has been drawn and many who had their start in union work soon found a faster route to the top in political party work and/or stepping on to the ministerial ladder. Others were just jailed for political activity. This has made continuity in union office a relatively unusual occurrence.
  • The third requirement for success is the acquisition and management of the resources to allow the union to function on a national basis. Although there is dues check-off operating within some labour movements, the costs of operating in a large country with such a geographically spread out membership is very burdensome for the meagre resources available to the union. Most of the unions have local branches but the main activity takes place at the national headquarters. This is particularly onerous as the main work with the oil and mining facilities takes place in the remote regions while the necessary interaction by the unions with the government is in the political capital. It is often very expensive for the union to operate in the capital. The communications costs and the costs of operating from the capital often leave very little available for training programs, workshops, occupational safety and health work or, indeed, arbitration. Most unions are operating very close to their financial margins.
  • In addition many, if not most, if these national unions are not unique in their sectoral exclusivity. There are often competing national union organisations, affiliated with competing political parties and movements; each seeking to represent workers in the same industrial sector. They are identified as part of a national political party structure and are less powerful when seeking improvements from a government formed by their political or regional opponents.
  • That has meant that a great deal of the political and economic discussions among the governments and the unions are not between the unions who actually have working people as members, but with ‘national unions’ which are political organisations formed by the sectoral unions of a similar political persuasion. As long as the government is the sole employer this works. However, the government is no longer the sole employer and that is why changes are necessary.

The essence of modern labour representation revolves around the collective bargaining contract. It both establishes the wages, working conditions and benefits of those who are covered by the agreement as well as a grievance procedure within the agreement which ‘polices’ the administration of the contract and presents a method of controversy settlement which doesn’t disrupt the flow of work. It is advantageous to both employer and employee. Within the private sector the scope of the agreement largely conforms to the financial circumstances of the contracting company. If the company is making a great deal of money it will be asked for a larger share of that profit for the workers who helped produce it. If there are constrained financial circumstances it is not likely that such an increase is possible. In short, remuneration is related to productivity. There is a link between what the company does and earns and what it can afford to pay to those who are employed by the company.

In a system which prevails over much of Africa the linkage between productivity and remuneration is missing. National and regional wage scales administered by a government bureaucracy (especially in bureaucracies which have a stake in keeping wages low so as to maximise their department’s share) are woefully inefficient to both management and labour. Independent collective bargaining between private sector unions and private sector employment is the future for Africa. Continuing to allow public employers to set wage scales and to control grievances and arbitration is a recipe for disaster when dealing with the giant global companies. There are too many variables at work and the workers tend to have the lowest priority. This has meant that the strike, labour’s ultimate weapon, is too frequently the only means of redress for solvable problems which do not involve governments or politicians.

So, as the economies of Africa are dominated by giant international corporations it is time that the labour movement breaks free of its government shackles and confronts these global giants on a national and international scale. There are several large international global union federations, like the recently formed IndustriAll Global Union which has joined up the International Metalworkers, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions and the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation into a fifty million member organisation which represents unions with working people as its members. It has developed global framework agreements for a number of major global companies; including many who work in Africa. It has the resources and the knowledge to assist the African unions in their quest for social justice and opportunity. What is required is that the dead hand of the state be removed from African collective bargaining and allow these international labour movements to assist the Africans in their efforts to meet the challenges of the global corporations and to improve the general welfare of the countries in which they operate.

This is likely to produce a very positive outcome for all the citizens of their countries, not only the unionists and will permit and foster the type of combined activity which Pan-Africanism has always promised.


[i] For a detailed analysis of the politics of the African labour movements see: Gary Busch

The Political Role of International Trades Unions, St.Martins' Press 1983 (U.S.) and Macmillan 1983

Political Currents In The International Trade Union Movement, vol. II: The Third World, Economist Intelligence Unit 1980

The Transnational Relations of African Trade Unions, Africa Today, Spring 1972

Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Trade Union Movements, Univ. Michigan 1969