African trade unions, once a powerful force in the continent's political and social landscape, have been sidelined and shunted into the background over the past decade or so. Now, as Neil Ford reports, unions are flexing their muscles all across Africa.
The strike by thousands of miners in the Katanga province of Democratic Republic of Congo has highlighted the role of trade unions in Africa. Protesting against the withholding of wages, the causes of the strike will be familiar to trade unionists elsewhere in the world. But the secrecy surrounding the mines and many other economic enterprises in the country makes it an unlikely location for militant trade unionism.
The miners say that the state-run company Gecamines owns the mines where they are employed but so little is really known about the country's mining sector - and so much is rumoured - that it is difficult to seperate fact from fiction.
What is certain is that the proud tradition of African trade unionism during the colonial period, which has been somewhat suppressed in recent years, appears to be making a comeback.
Whether this is because of workers demanding better conditions, or in some cases, because other business interests are manipulating them, is difficult to say.
The one thousand protesting Gecamines miners had not been paid for five months and so took to the streets of Lubumbashi to air their grievances.
Catalyst for their protest
The catalyst for their protest was a visit to the town by the Minister for Human Rights. Sensing the opportunity to appeal directly to a central government Minister, the miners flowed into the state governor's office where the Minister was in a meeting. As elsewhere in Africa, the workers rightly believed that their best opportunity to force payment was by appealing directly to the 'big men'.
In much of Africa, there are generally no effective mechanisms for airing grievances and often the only outlet for workers' frustration to take to the streets.
The president of the Gecamines Trade Union Association, Prospere Kahoba, said that joint ventures with foreign mining companies disadvantage Congolese workers and Congolese interests. He cited the deal between Gecamines and Zimbabwean company Tramalt to mine cobalt in Likasi, whereby the Congolese state-run company received a mere 20% of the profits. Because of the shady nature of Congolese politics and industry, it has been rumoured that competing industrial concerns are encouraging the miners in their protest.
Kahoba said that Gecamines has been totally mismanaged over the past decade, through lack of investment, widespread corruption and general incompetence. He also blamed directors of the company for the arrest of a member of the board who merely tried to repay some of the company's debts.
Not only can trade unions, knowingly or unwittingly, come to act for other business interests, but pressure against trade union activity appears to be growing.
According to Bill Jordan, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), "nearly all the indicators of rights violations have doubled in Africa".
He bases his assessment on the 2001 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights, which is based on research in 40 African states.
The indicators that he refers to include the number of people injured as a result of trade union involvement.
The number of cases of harassment or dismissal is even more shocking, with a 1000% increase on the 2000 figures. Much of the rise could be due to better reporting of incidents but there can be no doubt that anti-trade union activity is increasing.
Cases range from the assassination of two trade unionists in Sierra Leone to notices in western-style shops banning trade union members from working there. Whether this has come about because of increased union …