Rebuilding Trade Union Capacity in Sierra Leone
A success story
The horrors of the civil war in Sierra Leone had long been in the news. Few, however, had the slightest idea of the toll the war took of workers' rights and entitlements in one of the poorest countries in the world. By 2007, trade union membership had dropped to 42,000 from a peak of some 150,000 in the pre-war period. The Sierra Leone Labour Congress (SLLC) and its affiliates had an uphill task in defending workers' rights and rebuilding the movement due to the lack of expertise and resources. The Rebuilding Trade Union Capacity in Sierra Leone Project launched in 2007 with financial support from the Department for International Development has given a tremendous boost to trade union institutions, structures and networks.
The Sierra Leone Labour Congress was supported to fulfil its role and discharge its functions more effectively in four key ways; rebuilding its capacity and that of its affiliates to organise, recruit, represent and negotiate on behalf of its members on pay and other conditions of employment in the formal and informal sectors; raising awareness of workers' rights; addressing cross-cutting themes such as youth and gender equality within trade union organisations and in society at large; and engaging with the Government of Sierra Leone (GOSL) in the development of laws and policies that support effective enforcement of employment rights and in good governance. The attainment of project objectives has been underpinned by the implementation of a comprehensive education and training programme and through lobbying and advocacy campaigns.
The Project has striven to achieve its objectives in a context of increased stability in governance and re-emerging civil society and its institutions, but within the constraints of an under-developed economy with widespread unemployment and underemployment.
The total membership of SLLC affiliates rose by about 10% from 45,024 in 2008 to nearly 49,600 in 2009. The SLLC is well on target to achieve a 20% increase in membership relative to the baseline data (42,000 in 2007) by the end of 2010. It has developed an innovative and effective campaigning strategy through the use of the radio. The series of radio programmes broadcast in Freetown and retransmitted in regional centres such as Makeni and Bo has facilitated the recruitment drive.
Some 15,400 civil servants received a 20% pay rise in 2010. Organising and leadership skills developed under the Project have enabled five of SLLC affiliates to put in place effective organising strategies. SLLC affiliates succeeded in signing seven collective bargaining agreements, covering 45,000 workers in 2009. The number of unions affiliated to the SLLC rose from 21 in 2007 to 25 in 2009.
The SLLC has demonstrated its capacity to support the formation and the registration of new unions in the formal and informal sectors. The Reporters' Union, having gone through the process, has now been gazetted. This is an achievement of symbolic importance in terms of organising 'freelance' work in the informal sector and in establishing a useful link with the media. The increased awareness of workers' rights and entitlements has led to the development of closer links between health service workers and the SLLC.
The support and advice from the SLLC has enabled the newly formed Bike Riders' Association, also in the informal sector, to start the construction of an office building in the Southern Region. On-going discussions with the civil service have contributed to developing the potential for the recognition of the civil service trade union which has a growing membership.
The technical advice and expertise provided through the Project has strengthened the SLLC position on the Technical Committee on the Labour Law Review. The SLLC continues its engagement with the GOSL on good governance and related themes. Child labour has been dealt with in part through legislation on child rights, trafficking and primary education. In addition, SLLC and CSO pressure on the GOSL has resulted in the establishment of a 'child labour desk' at the Ministry of Employment & Social Security. The SLLC is engaged in discussion with the GOSL on its development and potential areas of intervention.
39% (161) of participants in project activities were women in 2009, reflecting a slight increase from 31% in 2008. Work on gender equality has continued with the reviews of union constitutions with a view to accommodating more women in union structures. The establishment of women's committees in the regions will enable women members to raise their concerns with the union leadership. The focus on HIV/AIDS under health and safety made it possible to address some issues of particular importance to women. Occupational Health and safety training included dissemination of information on HIV/AIDS and distribution of condoms. The national women's committee remains vibrant and plans to hold a national conference.
Leadership training workshops for youth have made it possible for young people to play an active role in unions. 75 young trade unionists, following their training in leadership skills, are playing a leading role in the recruitment drive.
Rights and entitlements
The awareness of health rights including sexual and reproductive health rights raised in relation to HIV/AIDS has been followed through workplace programmes on contraception and condom use. 66 men and 32 women trained in occupational health and safety are informing and educating members on their rights in this regard.
The documentation prepared by the SLLC in collaboration with Thompsons Solicitors on employment law reform will be submitted to the GOSL while the SLLC continues to work with a local barrister to build its capacity. A paper on the country's record of compliance with the ILO standards produced for the SLLC has stood the SLLC in good stead in the Labour Law Review, underpinning its representations. The circulation by the SLLC of the recently reformed labour laws in Rwanda has also strengthened its call for good practice. The SLLC participation in the Labour Law reforms highlighted in radio programmes has helped to sustain interest in union membership among the general public.
Recalcitrant employers in the private sector remain a significant challenge. In addition, the public sector has been rather lax in implementing agreements. Decentralisation, despite being a step in the right direction in good governance, has caused some problems. It has resulted in unions having to establish new relationships, as, for example, between the Sierra Leone Teachers' Union (SLTU) and the City Council of Freetown. The development of capacity in organising has also highlighted the difficulties of engaging with geographically dispersed workforces. For example, the security sector provides good opportunities for recruitment, but its workers are dispersed widely. The ILO Conventions on child labour have not been ratified, although new initiatives are underway in this regard. The organisation of events in the provinces proved to be challenging mainly due to the poor infrastructure and communications facilities, causing delay in the holding of some workshops.
The success in organizing workers is key to the long-term sustainability of improvements made through the Project .This will hinge on the judicious use of the skills, knowledge and expertise in a variety of areas developed under the Project. The links between the SLLC and affiliates strengthened through project activities needs to be further consolidated while the SLLC needs to maintain its current enhanced profile as the voice of organized labour vis-à-vis employers and the GOSL
Issued: 13 September, 2010