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November 14, 2003

Jobs- and Union-Busting for Africa

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was officially designed to help Africans by providing more jobs by removing US tariffs.

But the result has been a theft of jobs from one poor country to another-- with the predictable result of desperately low pay and union-busting as a threat by the employer.

Many of the jobs have jumped from poor Asian countries to poor African countries-- in this story's example, from Sri Lanka to Uganda. And the new employers are violating labor rights heavily, paying as little as $40 a month and suppressing any dissent:

In an embarrassment to the president, who visited Washington earlier this month to urge American officials to extend AGOA benefits, hundreds of Uganda's AGOA workers recently walked off their jobs, accusing their supervisors of exploiting them. The AGOA girls wanted to form a union, a kind of protection that is weak in Uganda and throughout Africa.

The boss at Tri-Star, Veluppillai Kananathan, a Sri Lankan businessman, promptly fired nearly 300 workers whom he considered trouble makers.

The women marched to Parliament, camped on the lawn for nearly a week and won the sympathy of some top government officials. "The AGOA girls have a legitimate case," Dr. David Ogaram, the labor commissioner, said.

But Mr. Kananathan has connections at the top. He rebuffed attempts by officials to inspect the factory and ignored an order from the High Court to reinstate the workers.

When AGOA was passed, many politicians and leaders criticized the law for lacking any commitment to raising labor standards in Africa.

Jesse Jackson Jr. labelled it the "Africa Recolonization Act" and introduced an alternative bill, the Human Rights, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment (HOPE) for Africa Act, which had a very different approach to helping trade. As the Congressman said back in 1999 when the competing bills were being debated:

Specifically, HOPE represents the new approach to international commercial policy that the President says he is seeking: access for African countries to U.S. markets; broad benefits to ordinary Africans; corporate adherence to labor, human rights and environmental standards; employment of African workers; promotion of African capital accumulation and investment partnership; emphasis on establishing small and medium-sized businesses in Africa; and partnerships between Africans and Americans...

Moreover, HOPE includes the purchase, at the significantly discounted market rate, and cancellation of African debt which has a face value of $230 billion and annual debt service that devours over 20% of all African export earnings. Cancellation of this debt would provide a clean slate -- and working domestic credit markets and resources for education, infrastructure and health -- for African countries facing the challenges of the global economy...

Whose interests will the AGOA advance? Look at the coalition promoting it -- a corporate who's who of oil giants, banking and insurance interests, as well as apparel firms seeking one more place to locate their low-paying sweatshops. Some of these corporations are already infamous in Africa for their disregard for the environment and human rights.

As the article today emphasizes, Jackon's predictions have been confirmed with a vengeance-- the issue is not trade versus non-trade, but trade with human rights and trade without it.

Posted by Nathan at November 14, 2003 08:41 AM