Resilience of Liberia trade unions: Attacks on workers, right to organise

Resilience of Liberia trade unions: Attacks on workers, right to organise

Saturday, April 8, 2017 8:37 am

By Akhator Joel Odigie

Liberia was a settlers’ colony established by the America Colonisation Society (ACS) through series of processes from 1821 that came to a ‘successful’ end in 1847 as a response to the opposition to the demands for the abolition of slavery1 in America. By 2017, Liberia will be 170 years old as a nation-state. But the formation of the first trade union was in 1959, precisely after 112 years of the founding of Liberia, with the creation of the Mechanic Workers’ Unions of Liberia.

The Liberian trade unions’development entered into another epoch with the creation of the Liberian Federation of Labour Unions (LFLU) as a result of the merger between the Liberia Federation of Trade Unions and United Workers’ Congress. The fluid yet dynamic nature of trade union development further led to a second merger, which took place in May 2008 between the Liberian Federation of Labour Unions (LFLU) and the Congress of Industrial Trade Unions of Liberia (CONATUL) resulting in the formation of the present Liberia Labour Congress (LLC). At as 2015, trade union organisations in Liberia stand at roughly seventy-five (LLC figures), mostly private sector unions.

The workforce is estimated at 2 million with more than 70% of this figure constituting workers in the informal and own-account holders’ sector. The Ebola Virus Disease wiped off a sizeable number of jobs, especially in the Public Sector; most have not been restored till date. Thus unemployment and underemployment stands at around 45% (LLC figures).

The presentation of these brief historical and political facts is to allude to the fact that the struggles for workers’ rights is still young (but growing) compared to the years of existence of the country and establishment of one of the oldest and still operating big companies in Liberia – Fire Stone Company that opened shop in Liberia since 1926!Importantly, the figures help to analyse and appreciate the recent decisions and approaches the trade unions have had to adopt in their quest to improve their chances and capabilities to defend and protect workers’ rights that are under ceaseless attacks.

The name Liberia was coined from the word “Liberty” a reflection of the aspiration of the liberated returnee slaves from the Americas. Sadly, Liberian workers, especially those in the Public sector are yet to enjoy full and unhindered liberty. Interestingly, the country is Africa’s oldest member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since 1919. She has ratified Conventions 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise) and 98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining). The National Constitution eloquently provides for the right of workers to form and join trade unions of their choosing. In late 2015, the Decent Work Act, a seemingly progressive piece of industrial relations legislation was signed into law by the President of the Republic.In essence, the legal framework regulating the labour market is fairly well developed and protective of workers. However, there seems to be deliberate attempt to enforce a practice alien to these pieces of legislation. Before elucidating further on this, a quick detour to spotlight attacks on workers’ rights, especially as they are linked to the right to organise will help.

The President of the National Health Workers of Liberia (NAHWAL) Joseph Tamba and the Secretary General George Poe have since 18th February 2014 been dismissed by their Employer – The Liberia Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. The offences labeled against them (as copied copiously from their dismissal letters) include: Gross insubordination; obstruction of government functions by public servants; purposely promoting, facilitating and inciting strike or agreeing with one or more persons engage in or cause the performance of conducts constituting strike against the government of Liberia; discourteous treatment to the public, patients and fellow employees. A thorough and careful investigation has since shown that these charges are all veiled disdain to the freedom of workers to organise and to engage in collective bargaining.It is equally an attempt to criminalise the use of strike as a legitimate tool of achieving collective bargaining and for enforcing collective agreements. Besides, it was found that the bulk of the public sector health workersconsider comrades Tamba and Poe as their legitimate leaders. As proof of this, workers continue to turn out enmass every 18th of the month2 in solidarity with the affected trade union leaders, and to demand for their reinstatement.

On 1st April 2014, the management of Roberts International Airport (RIA) Monrovia fired MellishWeh President of the Roberts International Airport Workers’ Union (RAIWU) citing absence from work as reason for the termination. Four months after, the Secretary General of the same union, MadamSiah Joseph was also dismissed. She was fired on the allegation that she hosted and concealed one Mr. Joshua Moore who was an Ebola patient. Preliminary investigation revealed that these trade union leaders were fired for their trade union activities. Unlike the case of the Public Health Workerswho are barred from forming a trade union (largely as a whimsical act), the RIAWU (a recognised union) had a valid Collective Agreement that the management of RIA moved to quickly repudiate. This action further points to the (real) motive behind their dismissal – to cripple and eclipse the house union there and to destroy an existing collective bargaining agreement. The strategy in the two cases seems the same: attack and undermine the head (leaders) and the body (members) will scamper. So far, not quite!

In another show of disdain and intolerance for trade union, activism and dissent, 13 teachers were summarily dismissed. In fact, it was the President of the Republic on her arrival from a trip abroad, right at the airport upon learning that pupils have taken to the streets to protest privatisation of primary education – ordered immediately that 13 teachers who government alleged incited and participated in the pupils’ protest action should be summarily dismissed.Findings show that the teachers never incited the pupils. Their union, the National Teachers Association of Liberia (NTAL) has severally and steadfastly called on the Government of Liberia to shun the plan to privatize primary education as it is a direct threat to the right of children; will exacerbate poverty; defeat the plan to increase children, especially girl-child enrolment and access to education; deepen generational poverty; compromise the quality of education and skills Liberia needs to advance her development aspirations; dilute and whittle down cultural relevance; will enrich private operators to the detriment of pupils, teachers and the parents. One would have thought these are patriotic gestures that should not be rewarded with a bad coin. As at press time, the affected teachers are yet to be reinstated.

Another dimension of the attack is aimed at the capacity of the trade unions, writ public sector unions to collective bargaining space and right. The situation is such that laws are applied halfheartedly and ingenious practices deployed in massive dose as if they can be sufficient to crowd out the spirits and letters of the various extant laws and legal mechanisms that Liberia has and is signatory to.Public sector workers are told that they cannot form and join trade unions, but can have association designed as mere members’ club without right to collective bargaining. Of course, the workers have continued to reject this circumvention of their rights. But what exactly does existing national laws, aside the known ILO Conventions 87 and 98, say?

The 1986 Constitution, at the first section on the basic fundamental rights, expressly provide for the right to association.The 2012 Standing Orders for the Civil Service that replaced the one issued by the military on 25 May 1983 is silent on the issue of the rights of civil servants to join trade unions. Interestingly however, the Standing Orders eloquently infer that Civil Servants can belong to political parties and contest elections. Specifically in Chapter 7.2.9 (page 31) on Political Campaign Leave, a Civil Servant can apply for and obtain leave/permission to go and contest elections. And if unsuccessful, the Civil Servant can return not later than 14 days after the election results are declared.One will not err to conclude that trade union rights for public servants are guaranteed against the provision forpolitical partisanship.

Strangely, the 2015 Decent Work Act, on page 10 (items C [i] and [ii]) in an inconsistent manner inserted provisos that exclude work within the scope of the Civil Service Agency Act and those employed in the maritime industry. The inconsistency is evident when one goes through the Decent Work Act itself because most of the provisions align with those contained in the ratified ILO Conventions, save that the latter neither stratified nor excluded workers the way the former has done. Besides, no reasons were given or adduced for this stratification and exclusion, which speak to another form of the inconsistency and irregularity of this “strange insertion” compared to the Constitution, ILO Conventions 87 and 98 and the Civil Service Stand Order for the Civil Service. The workers responses so far have been impressive.

Recognizing that building a strong trade union organisation and deepening unity amongst workers represent some of the ways to build and mount formidable counter responses to the attacks on workers’ right, the Liberia Labour Congress (LLC) at its 2015 May Day celebration announced and launched “the reorganizing the organising initiative”. This initiative is premised on: merging small unions along sectoral lines; organising/recruitment of workers, including affiliating public sector unions to the national centre; improved services to workers and trade union members; repositioning of the national centre for efficiency and as a pro-workers’ organisation; deeper and better engagement of women and youth in the unions, and better international trade union relations.

The implementation of this initiative has led to several mergers of many private sector unions to build big and viable sector unions. It is anticipated that at the end of the exercise, at most, 12 unions in the private sector will be formed. This can later be reviewed downward as the needs arise and consensus deepens. Also, the LLC has since commenced the affiliation of existing public sector associations and working with the associations to have them transformed into unions consistent with their enabling rights as workers. So far, the National Health Workers Association of Liberia (NAHWAL) and the National Teachers Association of Liberia (NTAL) have been affiliated to the LLC.

Importantly, the workers recognised that it is through organised agitation that they truly can enjoy these rights. For the cases cited above, the workers and their unions together with support from their Global Union Federations notably Public Services International (PSI), International Transport Federation (ITF), Education International (EI) and the African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) have continued to demand the respect of these rights. Supports from the Solidarity Center and the Pan African Education Programme (PANAF) have come in handy. For Liberian workers, the struggle continues!

Akhator Joel Odigie is Coordinator Human and Trade Union Rights at the African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa). He can be reached via: [email protected]; [email protected]

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One Comment

  • Vince Gonkate says:

    What is this? A lecture or a history lesson?

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