Trade unions of indigenous African workers began existing in Africa during and after the Second World War. The colonial administrations both in British and French Africa put in place the legal requirements for the creation of local labor organizations. Although a few African nations were exempted from Tunisia, South Africa and the British colonies of Sierra Leone and Gambia. Four days until the end of 2017, First Bank of Nigeria invited it’s contract staff to a training/seminar and then went ahead to sack them all. African workers such as these have no laws or institutions protecting their rights. You see these sort of narratives continue to play out incessantly in the African workforce community.
Trade unions are essentially created to protect workers rights and further their interests. The workforce narratives that exist in the continent range from labour laws that are lacking to non-compliance by organizations to the same laws. Due to the non-existence of the manufacturing sector, the trade unions that came up in Africa were mainly in public sectors for workers such as teachers, railway, and port workers.The mining industry and the plantation economy mainly in East Africa also saw the establishment of Trade unions. The emergence of African unions took place with the support of the continent’s colonizers who saw it as a means of keeping social peace. African unions have always been dominated by civil servants, who represent the lower-class with a sprinkle in the middle and upper classes.
During the emergence of African trade unions, British and French trade unionists acted as growth workers, and introduced their respective models of trade unionism to their colonies.
As resistance against colonial rule started to come to bear, African trade unions quickly liberated from their European core. Being one of the most important mass organizations of that time, unions very often had a decisive stock in the national liberation struggle. The unions accelerated change via protests actions and political strikes, even though their actions were under the guise of national liberation movements. The attainment of National independence by some African countries usually brought about the loss of trade union independence. During the Nkrumah regime in Ghana, one that spawned a unification and political submission culture. Trade unions degenerated and were absorbed by the regime and ruling party. Governments ensured that the unions will toe the line by introducing minimum wage, extensive job security and created new jobs by bloating the public sector. The trade union leaders were politically imposed and also granted lucrative posts and opportunities in the party. Only a few trade unions like ZaCTU in Zambia, GTUC in Ghana or NLC in Nigeria were able to resist the influence of the government and the ruling party.
However, the close relationships between governments and labor unions began to erode. This was sparked by the debt crisis in combination with high inflation that forced many African governments to make structural adjustments. Resulting in expenditure and job cuts in public service and selling off of state-owned enterprises, thereby affecting the trade union constituency. With heavy membership losses, there was unrest in the ranks of unions. African trade unions are trapped between the tethers of the informal African economies and the consequences of neoliberalism. Liberalism can refer to political, economic, or even religious ideas. In Africa, trade unions are not living up to their old glory days. In the past trade unions were the driving force of the anti-colonial liberation struggle. But now they are usually part of the cogs of ruling political parties, giving up their fundamental freedoms to gain secure jobs for their members and privileges for their leaders. Currently, there’s a strong decline in union membership, due to high unemployment figures and the job losses that have ridden economies.This reflects the failure of the industrialization efforts in most African countries. Most of the labor laws in many African countries are to the disadvantage of workers, alongside the tax paid by these workers often end up in corrupt government officials pockets.
In some countries, trade unions played a fundamental role in the removal of autocratic regimes. Although their power to influence wages, working conditions and defend workers seems to have diminished significantly. Still, it would be misguided to write off trade unions. After a period of not seeing foreign investment in formal activities happen in Africa, things are beginning to take an upturn. There is significant foreign investment happening in Africa, thus creating new opportunities for trade unions. Trade unions are still a significant force in some African countries, as they are one of the very few societal organizations in Africa with a sizeable constituency, country-wide structures and the potential for mobilizing members on social or political matters.
The Trade unions strength have always been based on formal economies, but the growth of the informal economy have posed a challenge to the unions.
While African trade unions have played a significant part in the political and economic lives of their countries. They need to mobilize and coordinate more workers to assure daily collective interests and the continual struggle for changes in the current template of development.
Unions must reach more workers in the traditional formal sector to inform and reawaken their interest in unionism and in the struggle for the achievement of workers rights. At the same time, unions must rise to the challenge of organizing workers in the informal economy, enabling these workers to secure rights and social benefits as well as achieve self-help.
The trade union movement is in decline, in part a reflection of what’s happening globally. Unions have been unable to respond to this new environment, to negotiate a wage sufficient for families to survive in urban areas.
The trade unions must speak out on broad issues of public concern, particularly national economic strategy. The skills needed, including legal, lobbying, public advocacy, and analytical skills, may require more training for union officials and/or the hiring of specialized personnel. If Africa is to have a secure future, trade unions have a vital role to play in the crucial decisions leading up to it. The trade unions must assist in forming policy decisions affecting workers. They must leverage opportunities to participate in organized structures for social conversations involving government, business, and worker representatives. Unions must build their capacity not only to negotiate benefits in the work domain but also exercise political and policy influence on national development strategies. Everything possible needs to be done to rebuild trade unions in Africa to see to it that they make their due contribution toward saving the ravaged continent from the dark abyss it has plunged into.