By Allison Richina, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
The discussion “Ivory Coast at a Crossroads? The Role of Workers’ Organizations in Reconstruction and Democracy Building,” held at the AFL-CIO headquarters, included a set of vibrant and scholastic set of speakers. Speakers included Marc Bayard, Regional Program Director, Africa, Solidarity Center; Kabe Clement Nabo, Former General Secretary, National Printing House Employees’ Trade Union, Cote d’Ivoire; and Emira Woods, Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. The panel of speakers discussed the complex history of the Ivory Coast and the ongoing battles of the country and its people. The future of the workers was also discussed, along with different policies and solutions that would further assist unions in becoming independent as well as training tactics and awareness of workers rights.
The ongoing social, political and military conflict in the Ivory Coast has additionally shifted to political, ethnic and religious unrest. The Republic of Cote d’Ivoire has experienced two coups d’état and one civil war since it gained its independence in 1960 from France. Following the 2002-03 civil war, the West African country was spilt between the north and south. In 2000, Laurent Gbagbo, leader of the Ivorian Popular Front, replaced Guei as president. In 2003, Gbagbo and rebel leaders signed accords creating a “government of national unity,” although clashes between the two sides still continue. Since 2003, the country has fallen into a no-war-no peace stalemate. The presidential elections that should have been held in 2007 were postponed until 2010. On December 3, 2010, preliminary results announced by the country’s electoral commission, showed a loss for Gbagbo in favor of his rival Alassane Ouattara, who reaped 54 per cent of the vote. However, Gbagbo refused to recognize the election results. The former president has now been removed from power, but the reconciliation of the country and its people is still very much needed. There is a need to strengthen the role of workers organizations in order to achieve stability, democracy and peace in Ivory Coast.
Now that most of the elections controversy has passed, workers are much more liberated; they fought for a ballot and are expressing themselves. The hope is that with less conflict, workers may actually benefit from the fruit of their labor. However, unions are still unable to realize their rights and could use additional training to accomplish benefits. Workers need to know what they are doing and what their rights are before they can move forward. Since 2000, the country has been very troubled, unions would often defend their political party rather than their member’s rights. Not only with good governance, but also with good management can workers actually reap the benefits from their work. Bayard stressed the need to build union capacity to create jobs and protect “post conflicts” when foreign companies come into the country without regulated labor policies. In a country that is divided by religion, region, and origin, unions can serve as a unifying force, helping those who previously struggled to relate to one another, to see each other as equals. And when that takes place the steps to building a true democracy will begin.
Nabo continued Bayard’s argument on the focus of reconstruction of Cote d’Ivoire, especially reconciliation between individuals. Workers need to understand their rights and the actions that must be taken to move forward. However in the past, workers have been concerned about whether they would receive their paycheck to keep a living, rather than defending their rights in the workplace. For more than ten years, workers have been receiving the same level of pay despite inflation.
Not only are workers not educated on their rights as workers, unions have ended up defending their affiliate political party, again ignoring their roles as workers. Nabo pointed out three main labor unions that are represented in Cote d’Ivoire. Among these unions there has been a large political presence, in some cases switching their focus to supporting specific political leadership rather than defending workers’ rights. This unfortunately silences the necessity of discussion on worker rights and ultimately furthers the discussion on political parties. The ultimate goal discussed in this briefing were the increasing demand in training for the workers of Cote d’Ivoire. Government should also be open to negotiate labor laws and conditions with workers and maintain open relations that allow for a better working environment for workers. Current President Ouattara is an open-minded leader, setting an optimistic ground for future dialogue on labor issues as well as possibly allowing workers to negotiate labor concerns. However, Woods highlighted Ouattara’s background work at IMF, which may lead to him having a neo-liberal economic view that may overlook the labor rights aspect of creating dialogue among workers and government. Workers need to begin to sit with the new government and companies that are moving in and create a dialogue to discuss workers rights. We must begin to level the playing field and bring in experts on issues pertaining gender, workers, etc.
Woods also noted a triple crisis that has plagued Cote d’Ivoire. First, food prices have affected families in their ability to provide food supply for their family; second, economic recession has caused a loss of jobs and poor wages; and lastly an environmental crisis has produced soil erosion, as well as climate change. Among these recent conflicts a change in government has occurred. In order to produce a productive working class there is a need for stronger and more transparent unions. Union leaders need to be trained to fight for worker rights, and not function in alignment with the motives of a particular political party. Union members need to believe that their unions operate democratically and in their best interest.
Ultimately organizations in the US and in Europe must offer union alliances, union training and capacity building in order to begin a transition for unions in Cote d’Ivoire. We also must continue to pressure major corporations, who benefit from raw materials from the Ivory Coast, to respect workers’ rights. Unions in the Ivory Coast must begin to use their power and recognize their rights that better their standings in the workplace and in society.
The International Labor Rights Forum is dedicated to the child laborers of Cote d’Ivoire who are robbed of their freedom and forced into labor. The ILRF is committed to combating the scourge of forced child labor in the cocoa industry through public education and corporate campaigns. Currently, our cocoa campaign is focusing on the Hershey Corporation. You can support ILRF’s efforts to defeat child labor by sending an e-mail to Hershey or reading our report on Hershey. Together with the international community and stronger unions in the Ivory Coast, efforts to tackle current conflict can only begin to move forward with the fight to stop unjust labor violations and educate those workers on their rights and freedoms.