April 22, 2004

New labour legislation passed

The introduction of revised labour legislation is expected to improve workers' rights and boost investor confidence in the tiny mountain kingdom. The Senate passed the amended Industrial Relations Act (IRA) this week, despite the royal government's ongoing suspicion that workers' unions are bent on undermining sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy. The previous IRA was a revision of 2000 legislation that had been amended by the royal council, causing a temporary suspension of trade privileges with the United States. The 2000 Act had been formulated with the input of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the Federation of Swaziland Employers and the government.

Before King Mswati agreed to the 2000 legislation, he had permitted the Swazi National Council Standing Committee - a body of royal advisors - to insert clauses criminalising some union activity and making strikes virtually impossible. Other amendments held union officials liable for company losses incurred during strikes, even when work stoppages were legally sanctioned by the Industrial Court. After Mswati signed the amended law in 2000, the US labour federation called for economic sanctions against the kingdom. Concerned that Swaziland faced the collapse of its export-driven manufacturing sector, largely fuelled by Asian-owned garment factories taking advantage of the country's US trade benefits, government withdrew the law for further revision. Authorities stressed that the new revised labour law was aimed at honouring trade treaty obligations to provide statutory guarantees of workers' rights, and should not be seen as a victory for the trade unions.

In recent years there has been friction between the Swazi authorities and the unions over perceived opposition to the monarchy by workers' organisations, to the point where the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) threatened to bring charges against the royal government, of human rights and workers' rights violations, before the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO). The government has dismissed these allegations. "The Industrial Relations Act is up to international standards. We have no case to answer to before the ILO," Enterprise and Employment Minister Lutfo Dlamini told a press conference this week. (IRIN)

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