An international delegation investigating labour rights abuses in Swaziland today called on the government there to take immediate action. The delegation, organised by the ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) travelled to the country last week to investigate allegations of anti-trade union actions – and has decided that its government has a serious case to answer.
The investigative mission was made up of: Stuart Howard, ITF assistant general secretary; Joe Katende, ITF Africa regional secretary; and Abner Tabudi Ramakgolo, ITF regional chair and an official of SATAWU (the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union). During meetings with government bodies and ministries, they highlighted a number of major concerns, including repressive legislation such as: the Public Order Act (POA), which gives the authorities almost unlimited power to ban or limit public gatherings; the King’s Proclamation of 1973, which criminalised political dissent and banned political parties; and the Suppression of Terrorism Act 2008. All are being used to restrict the ability of trade unions to organise.
One priority of the mission was to visit Basil Thwala, the jailed legal advisor of the ITF-affiliated Swaziland Transport and Allied Workers Union (STAWU), who was unjustly sentenced under the POA to two years imprisonment for trade union activities. Despite the presence of guards writing down everything he said he was able to tell them about his mistreatment at the hands of the police, and that although he had appealed against his conviction over a year ago there was still no sign of it being taken forward.
In repeated meeting they also challenged the government over moves by the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority to classify almost all airport operations as ‘essential services’ in revenge for industrial action in December.
The delegation also exposed the harassment by police of union leaders, who are being subjected to fines, arrest and imprisonment. Several STAWU leaders currently have charges hanging over them following the airport action. The mission members went on to put the government on notice over its failure to register the national union organisation, TUCOSWA .
Stuart Howard reported: “Our mission was met with no real willingness to listen. It’s clear that only strong action is likely to bring about change in Swaziland. Such action will include the ITF joining with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in calling for the trade privileges from which Swaziland benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Agreement (AGOA) to be withdrawn, unless it radically reforms its position. AGOA comes up for review on 15 May.”
He continued: “We are already in contact with US unions, who first pushed for labour standards to be included in AGOA. We shall also be looking at trade relations with the European Union and will raise the constant harassment of STAWU with the International Labour Organization (ILO).”
Joe Katende added: “Our unions organise along the transport corridors on which Swaziland depends. For example, just last week SIMPOCAF, the rail and port union in the port of Maputo, where many of landlocked Swaziland’s exports are loaded for international markets, passed a motion calling for solidarity action.”
Tabudi Abner Ramakgolo will be taking a similar call for solidarity back to SATAWU. “South Africa is the other major transport route for Swazi exports,” he said. “I believe when our unions learn the full extent of union repression of transport workers in Swaziland they will not stand idly by.”