The George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award in 2015 recognizes the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights in one of the world’s most autocratic countries.
Swaziland has in the past had in place a basic legal platform for worker rights advocacy, a labour relations system including a labour court, a mediation and conciliation body, and a system of tripartite dialogue between unions, employers, and government, existing alongside autocratic rule of the monarch. However in recent years Swaziland’s monarchical government has become increasingly repressive.
The Trade Union Confederation of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), formed in 2012 when the Swaziland Federation of Labour, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, and the Swaziland National Association for Teachers merged, was refused registration and legal standing for three years, during which time the political space for unions constricted. Tripartite dialogue was discontinued and freedom of association was curtailed by regular police actions against union meetings and protests.
Despite pressure from other countries and the International Labour Organization, Swaziland’s government refused to make promised policy reforms that would recognize freedom of assembly, speech, and organization and curtail the broad discretionary authority that police use to disrupt union activities and arrest civil society activists including union leaders, journalists, student leaders, and political dissidents.
“The Swaziland government’s aggressive stance consistently violates its international commitment to core labour standards and endangers the country’s economic development. Because of its open violation of the worker rights eligibility criteria in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), Swaziland lost preferential access to the U.S. market in 2015,” explains the AFL-CIO. “This resulted in the loss of thousands of garment sector jobs and risks thousands more over the course of the year. The government’s inconsistent decision-making remains the biggest hurdle to job creation and poverty reduction in the country.”
As legal and physical attacks on Swaziland workers and their allies became more frequent, TUCOSWA remained resolute in its support for worker rights, standing up for its right to exist, and to support human rights activists illegally harassed and imprisoned. TUCOSWA has stood for democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Through persistent efforts and support from unions worldwide, TUCOSWA won its recognition battle in May 2015, but continues to face hurdles in the way of making legal standing a reality.
“Swaziland will not be able to address its major economic needs without a strong TUCOSWA supporting worker efforts to organize, bargain, and advocate for their basic human rights;” says the AFL-CIO. “For its dedication to fighting for a more democratic country that recognizes and protects freedom of association and worker rights, the AFL-CIO is pleased to award TUCOSWA the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.”
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