African workers’ voice stronger and united

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After five years of efforts to bring together the different organisations in the three main African banana exporting countries, the trade unions came together last week in Abidjan affirming that the voice of African workers is increasingly strong and united. Whilst significant progress for workers has been made, there is still much to do.
The International Union of Food workers (IUF), with the support of Banana Link, successfully facilitated the launch of the African Network of Women and Men Banana Workers in 2013 at Limbé in Cameroon. With valuable support from the German Friedrick Ebert Foundation, the fifth annual workshop brought together representatives from sixteen trade unions workng in eight companies across Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Ghana, bridging the francophone-anglophone linguistic divide.
The theme of building good industrial relations and improving working conditions was central to the meeting, with reports from union leaders and women’s committees on advances made in all three countries, particularly in building unitary trade union platforms where several unions operate within a single company.
The first ever participation of an African workers’ delegation at a global conference of the World Banana Forum was hailed as a historic step forward, with important interventions on a wide range of subjects from the delegates to the conference in late 2017 in Geneva. The Network decided to propose to host the fourth global conference on the African continent.
A multi-stakeholder round table saw representatives of two major banana companies from Côte d’Ivoire and of the Ministries of Labour and Agriculture contribute to the debate over how to continue building social dialogue and collective bargaining in the African industry. The topic of the minimum agricultural wage in Côte d’Ivoire, which is barely one third of the level of the national minimum wage for all other sectors, provided a hot subject of debate. Participants agreed that this outdated dual-track remuneration system needs urgent attention, particularly in an industry which can afford to – and many cases does – pay well above the agricultural minimum.
However, wages in both the Ivorian and Cameroonian industries, especially for field workers in some companies, remain obstinately low, as testimonies from participants revealed. Housing allowances in Cameroon are far from covering the cost of renting decent accommodation, for example, whilst very low take-home wages in some companies in the fast-growing industry in Côte d’Ivoire have provoked industrial unrest in recent weeks,
Calls for living wage benchmarks for the two countries were made, as a basis on which to build national strategies for implementation. In Ghana, where a living wage benchmark was set last year, trade unions will meet with Fairtrade and World Banana Forum representatives to discuss strategies for closing the gap between the lowest actual wage levels and the living wage level established for the banana industry in that country.
Reports from the women’s committee representatives revealed that, although the unions have developed their capacity in this area, there is still a deficit in some companies, where much more support is needed to make a difference on issues which have not been addressed adequately in the past.
The unions also agreed to express their collective concern about the serious political crisis in South West Cameroon. An urgent call was made to IUF to try and help secure dialogue between the government and separatist forces and avert a human and employment catastrophe. In recent weeks eleven plantations belonging to state-owned company Cameronn Development Corporation (CDC) have had to close because of insecurity in the region, and two packhouses have been burned down in the last fortnight.
Up to ten thousand jobs are under imminent threat of being sacrificed in a situation that appears to be spiralling out of control. Workers have been laid off without pay, threatening a serious humanitarian crisis to add to the security crisis that has developed over the last two years.
Read more on the situation in Cameroon