September 22, 2003

Trade Unions Constrained By Lack of Resources

Pan-African trade unionism is being constrained by a lack of resources, revealed the continent's largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) after its two-yearly workers assembly which ended at the weekend, Sept 21. COSATU painted a dismal picture of cross-border labour organisations, pointing out that cash-strapped regional organisations made effective work difficult and made African unions dependent on the opinions and agendas of the northern-based union centres.

The Organisation of African Trade Union Unity is not self-sufficient and relies on grants, making it difficult to have organisational activities, said COSATU general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. He also called for urgent reforms of the International Confederation of Free Trade Union's Africa Regional Organisation, alleging that the Africa region lacked teeth. Its most recent Congress had been stage-managed, rather than providing a democratic forum for discussing policy, said Vavi. African trade unions are unhappy with the ICFTU's narrow approach (at the World Social Forum held every February) which focuses heavily on workplace issues and interactions with unions.

While the Southern African Trade Unions Congress (SATUCC) had worked more effectively, it is also hampered by federations' which are unable to pay their way. SATUCC (also) depends on donors to run its activities and meetings. Most affiliates cannot afford to pay their affiliation fees and this hampers organisation work, said COSATU in its report on international affairs.

COSATU said that SATUCC had succeeded in the past two years in lobbying for a Charter of Fundamental Rights in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. This charter enshrines basic labour standards, but it now needs to be implemented, said Vavi. An affiliate union, the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union, claimed employers were avoiding South Africa's labour standards (high by global standards) by investing in neighbouring Swaziland and Lesotho instead. A charter that cut across borders in Southern Africa would make it more difficult for foreign investors to race to the bottom of the labour standards barometer, said unionists at the meeting. In fact, trade union leader Ebrahim Patel of the clothing worker affiliate which has felt the brunt of cheap imports secured a resolution calling on the South African government to freeze the current tariff phase-down programme. The existing tariffs should be raised at least to the level of the WTO binding rate: if that is impossible, safeguard tariffs should be introduced for appropriate years.

But COSATU's ability to engage, research and lobby is itself being constrained. For the first time in its almost 20 year history, the union federation is losing members. It now has 1.7-million members, down from 1.8-million two years ago. Until now, COSATU has been able to buck the global trend of lower membership, but with job losses and with younger workers increasingly disinterested in joining unions, the federation has to look both inward to internal affairs and outward to global affairs. (IPS)

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