The African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa), is poised to end the horrendous and disheartening stories of dreadful conditions many migrant workers experience in the course of seeking better living wage. Comrade Odigie Akhato Joel, the Deputy General Secretary of ITUC-Africa and an Activist, in this interview with CHRISTIAN APPOLOS; said unfair labour practice is a menace that should not have a place in any human society. He added that his organisation is working tirelessly to change the narrative.
What is the nature of the work ITUC-Africa do?
ITUC-African is the African regional umbrella body of the International Trade Union Confederation, with its headquarters is in Lome, Togo. It is made up of 56 national trade union federations from 45 countries, and representing a total of 15 million workers.
ITUC Africa undertake work on migration and similar other work. We are very active on our struggle for social protection for all in Africa, including for migrant workers. At the moment, we are joining the global trade union movement in a very strong call for a social protection fund. ITUC Africa is also very active in the issue of protecting human and trade union rights. So as a trade union organization, protecting rights, human labor rights is the essence of our work.
ITUC Africa is also very active in the issue of women and youths empowerment. We are very passionate about issue around equality. Our continent is filled with youths, so we think it is necessary to begin to engage governments and State actors in Africa and draw their attention on the need to develop robust policies and programs that will address the issues in a very productive manner.
We are seriously involved in the issue of climate change. Our voice is very strong and our position is very clear. We are involved in the issue of trade and tax justice. That is why on the issue of Tax Justice, we are speaking very loud because if we stop the illicit flow of money from Africa to the western world, Africa will have enough to fund social protection programs. We are also involved in the issue of occupational health and safety. COVID-19 has taught us that this is an area of work will need to give serious attention.
Presently we pay serious attention to the issue of migration governance. For a long time, this issue has been on the national and international arena. Sometimes some opportunist politicians just want to ride on the interest of it to power. We’ve seen that before nationally and internationally. Let me clearly state that migration has never, and will never be a crisis, rather the crisis you see is in governance. There is a governance deficit on migration, and on labour migration.
As trade union organization, we know there are roles to play because first; migration issues are very important to us. It is a human survival issue. The people who move, majority of them do so for survival. Then secondly, statistics have shown that may people who move are workers who want to live a fulfilled life. So for the fact that they are workers, makes them our person, they are our potential members and of course, we must be involved.
Therefore, the issue of migration has become one that our interest is; we do not want to see forced migration. Force migration in the sense that people have no choice but to leave on the basis of hunger, extreme poverty. Situations were people are working but their wage cannot take them home. Stereotypes that are disadvantaging a huge number of women. Cultural practices that have brought women down and so you find them living in penury and in a very unequal high miserable situation. Situations where political persecution has been elevated to another level where you cannot speak your mind. All these factors and many others force people to move.
So our engagement on migration is that we want to make it a zero sum game. In other words, moving must be a choice. I want to move because I want; not because I am pushed or pressured. That is what we are saying. We are saying that migration is not the crisis of those who are moving. Migrants are no criminals. Historically, migrants have always contributed to societies; to development wherever they go. Euro after the First and Second World War was reconstructed by migrants.
And I think it is sufficient to say that migrants contribution is not something you can gloss over. In Africa, migrants contribution to the sustainability of the society through remittance now surpasses oversea development assistance. It is tripling foreign direct investment in big ways. It means these monies that are coming are more useful. The beauty of these monies is that they are not those ones that you need some State supervision because they go directly to the people that need them; indigent families. They are money for food, money for shelter, to pay school fees, money targeted at critical needs of families. And in some cases, we have seen where these monies have also been dedicated to starting small, micro medium sized enterprise.
How will yours campaign contribute to a better fair recruitment practices , and in dealing with the issue of human trafficking that is largely associated with labour migration?
Labour migration on the continent of Africa gained some kind of visibility and even notoriety on the basis of infractions on the rights of African migrants, notably in the Middle East. But in other parts of the continents; you don’t hear, you don’t see this. But in the Midfle East, it has become a big one largely on the account of the Kafala system, that is the sponsorship system the people adapts.
And against this Kafala system, iAfrica is not speaking alone, especially the trade unions in Africa. We have undertaken a recalibration that has helped us to identify the need to talk to friends, brothers, sisters, comrades, allies, from outside our continent. We are speaking with trade unions in Asia, and instead of speaking in silos can we speaking synergies.
As a result of our efforts in collaborations, our campaign has led to a situation where in Qatar, the Kafala system has been completely reformed in a very progressive manner (exist permit has been removed). Before, if you live and working in the Middle East, and somebody sponsors you, immediately you arrived; the person takes you passport and keeps it. That person can detect who you work with, how you work, how long you work and how you are paid. That is why we have said that the Kafala system replicates a modern day slavery.
Today in Qatar, you can no longer confiscate someone’s passport. You can no longer decide for a person when and when not to leave the country. You can no longer choose an employer for a worker. Workers now have rights owing to the reforms outcomes carried out by Qatar. So this reform is a product of the work of ITUC at the global level and ITUC Africa at our continental level. And we commend the Qatar government. We commend them because their reforms have gone to the extent that they have brought forth a brilliant system that the entire GCC States can copy. That is what we have achieved with our campaign.
With our campaign; the African Trade Union Migration Network (ATUMNET) which a network we created to deal with labour migration issues. We have told ourselves, let’s us isolate the core labour migration objectives. As trade unions, let’s be big champions on those objectives and see how far we can go. So on the basis of that, we collected expertise reports on what trade unions have done to contribute to fair recruitment. You will be amazed by the result. As I speak to you today, the knowledge, awareness and capacity of African trade union members on labour migration is growing astronomically. It is an excellent job we have done.
Of course this result is not a result we can claim alone. In fact, we credit the achievements to the International Labour Organization (ILO). They have done marvelously well. They have been there all the way given their expertise, their capacity, their knowledge, and they are supporting us with finance. The same goes to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). It has also been offering it support and has done wonderfully well by us. I cannot also stop commending the African Union. On the work on migration issue, the African Union stood out and far among its peers on engagement on migration issue.
As we speak today on the base of our campaign, we have achieved ratification of labour migration related ILO conventions. Notably; conventions 97,143,181,189 and convention 190. These conventions are major labour related conventions.
On the continent of Africa in the last three years of our campaign, we have had over 8 ratifications. We started our campaign on 2018/2020 plan. We gave ourselves at least five ratification as a target within this period but amazingly we have ratified over 8, and we have gotten promise from Nigeria on ratification of a new convention that’s gonna come true.
One may ask; why do we do this? Why do we push ratification? The answer is because of standards. Standard are very important in protecting rights. If there are no legislations, it might be difficult. The ILO conventions are treaty status bound instrument. So when a country ratifies it, that country is bound to domesticate it, and much more equally bound to apply and to implement and enforce its provisions. Today, good number countries in Africa have ratified ILO conventions on labour migration while many are coming up.
At the moment, we are making ourselves a reference organization for potential migrants. Whoever want to travel; please we have information to help you so that you are not exploited. Should you need more information, we available to you.
On the base of our collaboration with our allies from all the sending countries and countries of destination. We have a resource centre we created in Jordan, Amman. This Centre provide assistance for people who needs support when they are stranded, or have crises in the Middle East? We are helping them.
I mentioned kafala system early. Kafala has modern slavery trafficking element that are attached to it. ITUC-Africa study in 2018, shows that even in the recruitment chain of the so called labour migrants recruiters, there are human traffickers who are posing and fronting themselves are recruiter. In our collaboration with the IOM, we are providing advocacy. We are speaking up and speaking out, and we are engaging relevant governments, organisations and individuals; aiming to mitigate cases of human trafficking especially through labour migration.
At the moment with the AU, we now have a bilateral legal migration guide. The guide is meant to aid fair recruitment. We also have a Declaration on the Rights of migrant workers. This is also meant to protect migrant workers, even against human trafficking and exploitation in the recruitment process. So our campaigns are on and we are providing education, we’re telling people how to watch and discover potential human traffickers and how not to fall for them. We have at the moment what we call the migration resource advisor. if you want to move, google migration resource advisor, it will provide information on what you can do to protecting yourself and how to avoid some exploitative recruiters.
You earlier said one of the focus of your campaign is to stop forced migration. What magic will your campaign do to achieve that?
What we are doing is to use inter-related approaches to achieve the objective. As trade unions in Africa , We are advocating strongly for build back better initiatives on our continent, which must contain implementing ways of job creation. Many are unemployed. So we are seriously harping on advancing social protection.
To stop forced migration, we’re already speaking more on right at work; that men and women have got right when they are working. Employers are bound by law to respect their rights, not to victimize, harass, or pressured them to runaway or abandon their rights.
Lastly is our advocacy on resilience. We we are advocating for Africa to build a huge capacity for resilience and resilience against civil unrest, resilience against fragility manifesting themselves in different forms in different societies. Building resilience then mean; the people must be able to improve on building institutions, and most importantly building the capacity of workers. With COVID-19 there is emphasis on re-skilling. A new kind of education that will take cognizance of science and technology; the digital world. These are areas we want presidents, governments and State actors to consider. So that we can lessen the crisis of forced migration.
Are you collaborating with trade unions in the Middle East especially in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other countries within the region. If yes, do we see a future where migrant workers will enjoy absolute fair labour rights?
Let me respond by saying; yes. Trade unions from Africa are reaching out to the unions in the Middle East. For a example, under the ILO Fairway Project Nigeria, the Nigeria Labour Congress has reached out to a number of unions Middle East. At the moment, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions has responded and say they want to work with the Nigeria Labour Congress.
So they currently talking to see how they can together improve the issue of the rights of labour migrants from Africa. At the moment, they are heading towards the development of a memorandum of understanding to improve their work. So for me, that is steady
progress that can further open more doors for bigger collaborations. So there is hope for bigger and effective collaborations that will support our campaigns and we are supporting them.