'We're neglected as if we're nothing': sacked workers desperate to get jobs back at Madagascar's port
Union-busting and dismissals at Madagascar’s main port highlight the struggle facing workers on this impoverished island.
François Bia, now a 50-year-old rickshaw driver, began working at the docks in Toamasina on Madagascar’s east coast in 1989. He carried sacks of rice on his back to and from the ships, or lashed containers to the decks using cables and metal turnbuckles. After 23 years, he was still a day labourer, working for no more than a few dollars a shift. In 2012, he joined a union, hoping to improve his pay and conditions, but managers at the port fired him, along with 42 other dockworkers who had joined the same union.
Although union-busting violates national law and international labour standards, the state-owned SMMC, which oversees the handling of non-containerised cargo, has refused to rehire the workers, pay them compensation, or recognise the union.
In the rush to attract foreign investment, workers’ rights in Madagascar and across much of Africa are routinely overlooked.
In the mid-2000s the port at Toamasina was privatised. The container operations are owned, through a subsidiary, by International Container Terminal Services, Inc, a company that operates 28 terminals around the world, mostly in poorer countries. Enrique K Razon, the Filipino billionaire who runs ICTSI, told the Wall Street Journal that the company’s best returns were in Africa because it receives high fees, due to a lack of competition.
Razon did not mention the other reason for the company’s high returns in Africa: very low wages. ICTSI uses the state-owned SMMC as a labour-hire firm. “ICTSI does not want a unionised workforce, and they have used SMMC … to avoid the direct responsibility of employing these workers and entering into a proper social and work contract with them,” said Paddy Crumlin, president of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).
Hans-Ole Madsen, a senior vice-president at ICTSI, denied Crumlin’s allegations. He said ICTSI had a collective bargaining agreement with other workers at the port. However, unionists in Toamasina claim ICTSI only deals with “yellow unions” that rubber-stamp management’s demands.
SMMC said there were no workers’ unions at SMMC and did not respond to other questions.
Crumlin argues that there is often a double standard in supply-chain management. Many firms, like Levi Strauss & Co, considered a leader in ethical sourcing, promote the rights of their factory workers, but fail to consider how their goods, or clothes, get to market in North America or Europe. Levi’s orders clothes from five factories in Madagascar, and the ITF directly targeted the company in a recent campaign for dockworkers’ rights, since those clothes go through the port in Toamasina. Once Levi’s learned about the situation, the company sent a letter of support for the dockworkers to Madagascar’s labour ministry.
But despite mounting international pressure, the fired dockworkers remain stuck in legal limbo. The regional labour and social laws director determined that they had been fired “in an abusive manner” that was “without valid or legal reason”. Local courts have repeatedly ruled in the dockworkers’ favour, calling SMMC’s behaviour “a violation of international labour standards” and “above all an unconstitutional act”. Yet the courts have not compelled SMMC to compensate or re-employ the dockworkers, and lately the case has stalled, partly down to court clerks in Toamasina and partly because hearings have been postponed over concerns about the plague outbreak.
“I admit that it’s a big sport, a big battle, a big battle to fight,” said Hermann Tandra, Madagascar’s general director of labour and social laws. Tandra’s ministry has relatively little power; it cannot unilaterally reinstate the 43 fired dockworkers. (The prime minister’s office, which could exert influence, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.) In April, a complaint was filed on behalf of the dockworkers to the International Labour Organisation. The ILO has not yet ruled on the matter.
Meanwhile, hundreds of workers still at the port are engaged in their own struggle to be recognised as permanent employees with proper contracts and benefits. According to Madagascar’s labour code, they should be given this status after six months of work. SMMC says this rule doesn’t apply to their dockworkers, who are not continuously employed if ships are not at port. But a local court ruled in 2014 that “there is no doubt that the claimants have for a long time filled the requirements for a permanent contract”. Many have worked at the port for decades and remain day labourers, but, as in the case of the 43, the court has not yet ordered concrete action to be taken. ICTSI are not directly involved in this case, but Madsen said that on a given day, more than 90% of ICTSI’s workers at the Toamasina port are full-time employees.
“Multinational corporations have more lawyers than many of the unions have members,” said Bastian Schulz, director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Trade Union Competence Centre in Johannesburg. FES, a political foundation affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany, is one of only a handful of international organisations working to support unions in Africa.
trengthening unions could alleviate many of the problems African societies face: inequality, low wages, and weak social safety nets. Research shows that unions help in all of these areas, for members and non-members alike. In countries like Madagascar, unions may also serve another important function: increasing civic participation. A new study suggests unions in Africa serve as “schools of democracy” where members learn to organise and engage with issues that go well beyond the immediate concerns of their union. An earlier study found that: “As workers gained increased control of their lives at the workplace, they also wanted decision-making powers in their lives after working hours.”
That will be of little comfort to François Bia in the struggle to support his family. Within a year of being fired in 2012, two of his children, then aged 10 and 16, stopped going to school because he could no longer afford to pay the fees. He now earns about $2 a day on the rickshaw, but his small body has started to break down after his years working on the docks and the creaky streets. He is not allowed access to the hospital that the port’s permanent workers use, despite his years of service, and he cannot afford a doctor’s visit, so he rubs ravintsara (literally, “good leaf”) balm into his aching muscles when he gets home.
Meanwhile, he says, the managers at the port grow ever more wealthy. “If there were true human rights, it would not be like this,” he told me. “We have families and we have rent to pay, and we need to send our children to school. But we are neglected as if we are nothing, as if we are not human beings at all.”
By: Edward Carver
Source: The Guardian