From the 20 – 21 November 2019, trade unions from across the African continent will gather in the Nigerian capital of Abuja for the 4th Ordinary Congress of the Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa). Held every four years, congresses are a defining moment for trade unions in general, and by extension, the environment in which they operate.
As one of the oldest civil society bodies on the African continent, trade unions played a critical role in shaping the evolution and developmental trajectory of modern Africa. For many years trade unions have represented the interests of workers, while in some cases serving as avenues through which leaders of public office receive training and are able to prepare for political office.
But as the world of work undergoes massive and continuous changes – most of which undermine the tenets of decent work – the trade union movement has to change its rules of engagement if it is to remain effective and relevant. Our remit is no longer limited to better working conditions and to engaging with employers and governments. African unions are now also calling into question and confronting the fundamental issues that foster income inequality, poverty and the neoliberal onslaught against workers’ rights.
It was in this context that ITUC-Africa passed a resolution to create the Africa Trade Union Development network (ATUDN) during the last ITUC-Africa Congress which was held in Dakar, Senegal in November 2015, with the aim of bringing the trade union perspective into the international development policy discourse, especially in relation to their role in implementing and monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The ATUDN’s approach to work is premised on four principles: reinforcing capacity for African trade unions in all matters development; strengthening the critical role of research and policy analysis in social dialogue; underlining the importance of evidence-based advocacy; and emphasising the cardinal role that partnerships play in advancing a common cause.
These four principles have been instrumental in advancing the network’s work streams that range from work on the aspirations of Africans as articulated in the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063, to ensuring that there is accountability in the involvement of the private sector in development, work on South-South cooperation and finally on development financing. But it is the SDGs that have been the biggest preoccupation of the network. As a global development framework, all the other work streams fall squarely under its tentacles.
The ATUDN has also established working relationships with various multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Union, the Southern Africa Development Cooperation, the East Africa Community and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to name but a few. Through these networks, spaces for meaningful policy dialogue have been established and policy perspectives from ITUC-Africa have been sought on several important issues pertaining to development.
Capacity building and research
For the last four years, the network has been reinforcing the capacity of African trade unions on several development-related subjects. In relation to Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063, our aim has been to make African workers appreciate their role in the implementation of both agendas, especially on holding their governments accountable for their commitments to decent work and lifting millions of Africans out of poverty.
The network believes that people must be able to organise themselves (freedom of association) through trade unions to negotiate a living wage and defend decent working conditions on an equal footing with their employer (collective bargaining). The network has held a number of thematic workshops geared to strengthening the work on these twin agendas, and as a result, African trade unions are mainstreaming the SDGs into their day-to-day priorities, are able to articulate their key ‘asks’, and can also ably produce SDGs shadow country reports – a trade union SDGs monitoring tool that complements the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) which are the official government reports on the progress of SDGs implementation.
More importantly, the network has identified various ways to advocate and communicate its priorities more effectively at national, regional and global levels. The network has also carried research on a number of pertinent issues, from development effectiveness to a yet-to-be-published nine-country study on the state of African Trade Unions to research on South-South and triangular cooperation.
While the year 2015 was pivotal in setting the global sustainable development agenda, it also occasioned the heightening of the reconfiguration of development financing in the context of the SDGs. The script goes like this: Agenda 2030 is an ambitious development framework which requires trillions of dollars to successfully finance its implementation and yet countries only have billions. In the context of this narrative, the 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA)committed nations to use public investment instruments and vehicles to leverage the unprecedented levels of private finance required to fund this agenda.
The UN strongly backs and promotes this approach, but for trade unions, the strong push to increase the involvement of the private sector in the development arena and to promote blended finance and its associated PPPsraises the question on how the motives of business (profit) can be reconciled with the desired development outcomes as stipulated in the Agenda 2030.
It is clear that unfettered business interests would jeopardise the spirit and outcomes envisaged in the development goals. The network has done a lot of work on these streams to enable trade unions in Africa to critique the current development financing architecture and how it has a huge potential to roll back the gains realised for African workers.
One of the most important platforms for advocacy on SDGs in Africa is the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development (ARFSD). This forum, which is jointly convened by the Africa Union and United Nations Commission for Africa (UNECA), offers stakeholders an opportunity to take stock of where the continent is in terms of implementing the SDGs. In all its engagements the ATUDN has promulgated key trade union messages on the pillars of decent work, just transition, labour rights and gender equality.
In the past four years, the network members have also represented the African Trade Unions at the United Nations High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development. At the HLPF, unions have used shadow SDGs country reports to bring to bear the trade unions position on the status of SDGs implementation in Africa. These shadow reports have proven to be powerful tools in holding governments accountable and have also facilitated the opening of doors for national union centres from Ghana to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Chad and Zimbabwe to be consulted by their governments on the implementation of the SDGs.
It is evident that a lot of work has been done and good progress has been registered in the past four years but moving forward, the ATUDN has its work cut out. From now on, the network ought to focus its energies at national level where the real work on making the SDGs a reality lies. A recent report from UNECA and the SDG Center for Africaconsistently flagged up the continued lack of clarity on accountability and enforcement mechanisms for SDGs at national level. Additionally, it has been intimated that only 40 per cent of the indicators in the global SDG data framework are accompanied by data in Africa. All these challenges are compounded, the report further argues, by the huge SDG financing gap for Africa which is estimated at between US$500 billion and U$1.2 trillion annually.
Thus, the strengthening of national affiliates to champion the decent work agenda in the context of social dialogue will go a long way to ensure that trade unions have a say on SDGs implementation at a national level. Since all African governments have committed to meeting these goals, unions have an excellent opportunity to demand accountability on their progress. To that effect, unions ought to intensify their efforts to create awareness and mobilise their members on the SDGs, while utilising the tripartite social dialogue mechanism to advance the cause of the working class.
Practical interventions like advocating for policy coherence at a national level, lobbying for the integration of the SDGs into the national plans and budget tracking to ensure that spending is in tandem with the goals, would go a long way towards meeting the SDGs targets.
Lastly, the African labour movement ought to rally behind the Time for 8campaign, which highlights the centrality of Goal 8 in achieving the SDGs and advocates that no one is left behind as the world transitions to more sustainable ways of living and working.
As the ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow pontificates: “The key to making sure that decent work becomes the rule and that millions of working families escape poverty and exploitation lies in giving working people the power to influence the decisions that shape their lives”.
It is true that the SDGs framework does not question the neoliberal development orthodoxy and therefore falls short of being a transformative agenda for the Africa labour movement. Nevertheless, the SDGs still offer the African labour movement a golden opportunity to meaningfully engage governments and development cooperation partners on trade union priorities such as decent work, social protection, labour rights, gender equality and the overarching struggle towards reducing inequalities and poverty in all its manifestations.