Cablegate: Sudanese Labor Unions: Theatrics or Real Progress?
DE RUEHKH #2059/01 3611611
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 271611Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY KHARTOUM
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9628
INFO RUCNIAD/IGAD COLLECTIVE
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHINGTON DC
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SUBJECT: SUDANESE LABOR UNIONS: THEATRICS OR REAL PROGRESS?
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Meetings with the Sudan Workers Trade Union
Federation (SWTUF) and an independent Sudanese labor and human
rights lawyer paint two different pictures of the Sudanese labor
environment. On the one hand, the SWTUF claims that unions operate
freely at the state and national levels and real progress has been
made over the last few years by labor unions in concert with the GNU
and employers to improve workers' living and working conditions. On
the other hand, an independent Sudanese labor expert claims that the
national labor federation acts only as an arm of the ruling National
Congress Party (NCP) and is no more than a political mouthpiece.
From this perspective, it pretends to lobby on behalf of its workers
to achieve gains, when in reality all labor-related change is
controlled by the GNU. END SUMMARY.
A CHECKERED PAST FOR THE SUDANESE LABOR MOVEMENT
2. (U) Sudanese political history has greatly restricted the
organization and activity of trade unions. It was only during the
brief period of democracy in the mid-80s that unions flourished and
the Sudanese labor movement gained traction. Strikes, first banned
by the government in May 1969, were legalized in 1985. The 1989
coup, however, brought a swift end to the labor movement. The
National Salvation Revolution Command Council (RCC), led by
President Al-Bashir, abolished labor unions and prohibited strikes
by decree on 30 June 1989. The right to organize and join a union
has since been restored under Al-Bashir's rule, but the Sudanese
government dominates the leadership of all unions and tightly
controls their activities.
IT MAY BE A MOUTHPIECE, BUT WITH REAL PROGRESS
3. (U) On 23 December, poloffs met with Ibrahim Ghandour, prominent
NCP member and President of the only labor federation in Sudan, the
SWTUF. Ghandour described the Sudanese federation as one of the
oldest Arab-African trade unions. The federation is headquartered
in Khartoum and consists of 25 state unions (one representing each
state) and 22 industry unions and represents approximately 1.5
million workers in the formal and informal sectors. The state
unions, according to Ghandour, are fully authorized to operate
within their states. The Sudanese government does not financially
support the federation; instead, each member pays USD 0.75 in union
dues annually. Ghandour said that the federation has a good
relationship with the GNU, especially at the level of the
Presidency. He indicated that when industrial disputes occur, the
office of the Presidency acts quickly to resolve them and generally
sides with the unionists.
4. (U) Ghandour claimed that SWTUF has made vast improvements in
workers' conditions over the past several years. The biggest
accomplishment to date has been in wages. In 1990, the minimum wage
was USD26 per month; in 2007 the minimum wage is USD60 per month.
The largest wage improvement by industry has been in general
education. Ghandour told poloffs that before 2004, teachers used to
look for education jobs outside of Sudan, particularly in Oman and
Yemen, because the pay was less than USD100 per month. In 2004,
there was an improvement of over 100% in general education wages and
many Sudanese educators returned to take up jobs in Sudan. In
addition, Ghandour said that the federation has improved access to
land for its workers. "Before 1994", stated Ghandour, "it was a
dream for a worker to own land." Now, 250,000 workers have acquired
land for housing through a jointly-negotiated plan between the state
governments and unions. Lastly, Ghandour pointed to improvements in
the labor laws, which he characterized as labor-friendly. Revised
labor laws have lavished new gains in social security and health
benefits on workers. As a result of a new amendment, workers will
receive 80 percent of their salary as pension, employer-funded.
Ghandour attributed these improvements to the strong support for the
SWTUF in the National Assembly (where many unionists sit) and at the
Office of the Presidency.
5. (U) Ghandour lamented that one of the biggest problems in the
workplace is occupational health and safety. The responsibility for
this falls under the Ministry of Health, which is doing nothing to
mitigate accidents or encourage awareness. SWTUF is trying to
compensate for this by training its own members to teach its workers
about petrochemical safety and other hazards. Despite this,
Ghandour claimed that compensation for industrial accidents is "very
good." Ghandour stated that labor disputes are settled in labor
courts, which he said function well. He described the current labor
environment as one in which workers are winning against employers.
Because workers often cannot afford legal support, SWTUF is trying
to offer it at no cost to its workers; however this will take time
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and money to institute.
6. (SBU) On the issue of foreign labor, SWTUF claims that there has
been a recent influx of foreign workers into Sudan from China,
Ethiopia, Thailand and Bangladesh. According to SWTUF, the Ministry
of Labor estimates the number of foreign laborers in Sudan at
15,000, while Sudanese immigration officials estimate it at 100,000.
Such laborers are willing to work cheaply, "do not make a fuss"
over conditions or wages, and are non-associated. Ghandour stated
that Chinese laborers will work for less than the Sudanese minimum
wage. He said that a Foreign Labor Act has been drafted by the
tripartite committee and is now with the Cabinet for approval. The
act will specify that companies operating in Sudan must employ a
certain percentage of Sudanese workers.
SWTUF - NOT ALL IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE?
7. (SBU) A meeting with Omar Hassan Shumena, a Sudanese labor and
human rights lawyer who received his Masters of Law in London, told
a different story about labor union movement in Sudan. Shumena, who
previously worked as a legal advisor to the Government of Sudan and
for the ILO in Geneva, described the trade union movement in Sudan
as a "sham." He stated that unions have no effective leadership.
He further stated that their members do not have a good grasp of
union duties and rights, and claimed unions do not adhere to
democratic practices. The union movement is a "cog in the machine
of the (Sudanese) political system", declared Shumena. Because
there is only one federation of unions, it can be "easily
manipulated and controlled" by the GNU. The SWTUF is "not genuine",
stated Shumena, "it is theatrical." Shumena stated that Sudanese
minimum wages are not at all in sync with current inflation.
Furthermore, unions seldom use their right to strike. Shumena
criticized the fact that Sudanese trade union law states that
workers may only associate within their enterprise, saying that the
workers would have a stronger voice if they were able to associate
within their industries. He stated that union activists are lobbying
for this change while the NCP is resisting it.
8. (SBU) COMMENT: While there have been amendments to the Sudanese
labor law over the past several years which have served to benefit
workers, unions in Sudan do not operate independently of the GNU.
This is evident in the streamlined organizational structure of the
union system in Sudan and the fact that the head of SWTUF is a
well-known NCP figure. Although Sudan is a signatory to ILO
convention 98 which allows workers the right to associate and
bargain collectively, all bargaining is done by the SWTUF in a
government-run tripartite committee. The SWTUF feigns to be a
powerful, independent force that reckons with the government and
employers in order to effect change on behalf of workers. Although
some progress has been achieved to improve workers' conditions,
workers' rights still remain extremely limited. Union activity takes
place under the microscope of the Sudanese government. A true labor
movement cannot take root until the GNU allows labor unions to form
and operate freely. The 2009 election cycle may provide an
opportunity for independent unions to form, but not if the ruling
coalition that results from the election continues to restrict the
free association of labor groups.