African unions at UNI World Congress target inequality, unemployment, and poverty

Lebogang Keabetswe, General Secretary of the Botswana Bank Employees Union

Lebogang Keabetswe, General Secretary of the Botswana Bank Employees Union

Unions from 108 countries have pledged transnational co-operation to face down intense attacks on job security and employment levels.

At the UNI World Congress in Cape Town 2,000 trade unionists have gathered to collaborate around some of the most serious issues facing working people. The conference, the largest of its kind ever held in Africa, has also highlighted the work of unions across the continent.

Three big challenges trade unions in Africa have pledged to work together on are inequality, unemployment, and poverty.

Keith Jacobs, Campaigns and Organising Director for UNI Global Union Africa, said: “We have big problems with precarious rates of work and what we call ‘labour broking’ or outsourced temporary contracts.

“Employers are also taking short cuts on occupational health and safety issues, they don’t take precautions and they cut costs at the expense of the workers. Employers know the unemployment rates are so high and they say ‘if you don’t want to work under these circumstances then tough luck.”

One country where working people are fighting desperate circumstances is Zimbabwe. Caught in the grip of a severe financial crisis, workers are going for months on end without being paid.

Caught in the grip of a severe financial crisis, workers are going for months on end without being paid

Peter Gift Mutasa, General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Banks & Allied Workers Union (ZIBAWU), said: “The deficit is high and the economy has become a huge ‘supermarket,’ we no longer produce any goods and we are a net importer,.

“Unemployment is officially 11% but labour sources and other independent sources put it at 85% on formal jobs. We are heading to a serious destination as far as our economy is concerned.”

Members of ZIBAWU – bank clerks, loan officers, tellers and secretaries – face very low wages and severe wage delays often lasting up to 11 months. Others are never paid at all. It is a situation Mutasa describes as “unsustainable”.

The current goal for the ZIBAWU and other trade unions is to try and ease a peaceful transition out of the crisis. They aim to form a tripartite forum between Labour, business, and government to better shape Zimbabwe’s economic future.

In a bid to prevent finance company Barclays from imposing varying levels of pay and conditions in different countries, UNI Global unions have formed the Barclays Alliance to cover Ghana, Uganda, Botswana, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe.,

A key campaigner in the Alliance is Lebogang Keabetswe, General Secretary of the Botswana Bank Employees Union. Elected age 29, she is the youngest General Secretary in Botswana’s history.

She said: “Barclays recently combined its African businesses to create Barclays Africa Ltd. If the bank can channel all its resources into one group why can’t we also fight as one voice? The campaign is working to get everybody to have the same collective bargaining agreements, to have the same working conditions and negotiating tools. We want to speak as one voice to the employer.”

Activists at the congress are have also met with their European counterparts – UNI’s Barclays Europe – to coordinate a response to job losses in the sector.

Elise Buckle, Policy Coordinator UNI Finance, said: “We want to fight income inequality. The CEO of Barclays earns $37,000 per day, the Barclays Africa CEO makes $10,000 per day, whereas someone starting in Barclays in Zimbabwe earns just $600 per month. Plus there are so many people now on short term contracts who are not covered by collective agreements.”

With multinational corporations eroding pay and conditions, precarious short term contracts being used to undermine unions, and high levels of unemployment and economic crisis, unions believe global alliances amongst labour are more important than ever.

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Tansy Hoskins

Tansy Hoskins is a London-based freelance journalist, and author of Stitched Up - The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

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