Roundtable on Trade unions and Labour Issues in Africa

Growth from the labour perspective
In the light of Africa’s booming economies and, according to IMF figures, with six out of ten of the world’s fastest growing economies being in Africa in 2011, it has become increasingly urgent to consider such growth from a labour perspective. Although the Decent Work agenda is gaining importance, questions about the extent to which labour can benefit from the current economic boom in Africa remain largely unanswered.

Research Collaborative
Against this background the African Studies Centre created a research collaborative on ‘Labour Issues and Trade Unions in Africa Today’ in January 2013. It currently consists of ASC staff members and researchers connected to the Institute for Work and Society (HIVA) at the University of Leuven and should be seen as a research hub which brings together African, Dutch and international experts in the field in order to exchange and discuss current trends and dynamics. Additionally, by incorporating African and Western stakeholders and practitioners we hope to support evidence-based research with high policy relevance.

The research collaborative aims to fill the gap in current knowledge by creating and supporting a labour oriented research agenda. The first step in this endeavour was the organisation of a roundtable on Trade Unions and Labour Issues in Africa at the African Studies Centre in Leiden on 25 September 2013. The roundtable brought together thirty participants. Twenty researchers from various Dutch, Belgian and English institutions were present and we were very lucky to have six African scholars amongst us representing institutions in Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Egypt. In addition representatives from trade unions in The Netherlands and Belgium were present as well as an expert in workers relations at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. Freek Schiphorst (ISS), Naome Chakanya (LEDRIZ) and William Baah Boateng (University of Ghana), each held an introductory  pitch on ‘Recent developments in African labour markets’, ‘Trade unions from a civil- society perspective’ and ‘The international labour movement agenda and African realities’, respectively. This spurred interesting debates amongst the diverse group of experts and practitioners in which the following key issues were raised:

  • The remarkable continuity in many African labour markets (large informal sector, dependency on primary resources, the precarity of workers as well as the limited engagement of governments) despite the current economic growth;
  • The struggles (and in some cases reluctance) of trade unions in organizing precarious and informal workers, especially the self-employed;
  • The questionable relevance of the Decent Work Agenda for Africa: a good objective but not that effective as a means?
  • The impact of new global powers, such as China and India, on African labour markets and labour conditions;
  • The changing roles of trade unions on the continent and the challenges they face ‘post structural adjustment ’ of finding a well-defined  ideology and identity;
  • The articulation of social dialogue and collective bargaining processes in Africa and the influence of (colonial) history on these processes;
  • The dynamics in international solidarity mechanisms, and the nature of the relationship between trade unions and civil society organisations that may strongly differ across countries

The roundtable closed with a commitment to create a research hub in order to support a labour oriented research agenda, as well as strong connections between academics and practitioners in order to foster policy relevant outputs.

In addition, on 26 September, a writers’ workshop in which most of the researchers present at the roundtable participated, scrutinised the issues that were raised the previous day and drew the outlines of an edited volume on ‘Labour Issues and Trade Unions in Africa Today’ (working title) that will be co-edited by Mayke Kaag and André Leliveld.
Zjos Vlaminck