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Labor Strikes Are Becoming a Rising Concern across Africa

Miners hold up their hands as they are addressed by former African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) President Julius Malema outside a South African mine in Rustenburg (REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO).

Since the start of this year, the number of labor strikes by workers in both the private and public sectors has been on the rise across Africa. About 280,000 teachers and over 10,000 lecturers have gone on strike in MalawiKenya and Swaziland. All of these strikes have been over wage disputes and millions of students have been affected. The university and college strike of 8,000 lecturers in Kenya affected about 200,000 students preparing for their October exams.

The public health care sector that serves the majority of Kenya’s 40 million people has also been affected by labor strikes recently. About 2,300 doctors went on a three-week strike over wage disputes and poor working conditions. During that time, several patients died in hospitals since only a few doctors went into work to handle emergency cases.

Africa’s private sector is not immune to these labor strikes. In fact, it has recently been hit hard by ongoing labor disputes and walkouts. For example, investor confidence in Namibia has fallen as a result of the many ongoing strikes across the country. The country’s broadcasting cooperation staff was on strike for a full week making the airwaves silent. Agribank workers went on strike for two weeks paralyzing banking operations and only returned to work after a wage increase of 8 percent was agreed upon. Recently, South Africa’s mining sector was slowed by a six-week long strike of thousands of Lonmin company workers. The Lonmin strike not only caused a surge in global platinum prices by 1.3 percent, but also led to deaths of 45 people, 34 of which were a result of clashes with the police while the rest were because of clashes between rival unions. The strikes in South Africa have now spread to the country’s gold mining companies, shutting down all seven of Anglogold’s mines in the country and two of Gold Fields’ mines.

Sub-Saharan Africa is not the only part of the continent experiencing these problems. After the democratic uprisings that brought an end to Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, a series of labor strikes followed. The country’s textile industry—a key economic driver in Egypt—was badly hurt when over 30,000 workers staged a week-long strike over insufficient wages. Around the same time, the Egyptian ceramics industry also saw strikes with workers from private companies.

The rising number of strikes across Africa, especially in the public sector, is a cause for concern given their operational scale, the costs involved and their length of time.

Many of the strikes in the public sector are driven by wage disputes. Often, African governments can be discriminatory in the way they award wage increases for its civil servants. In other instances, African governments have reneged on promises of wage increases or reforms. For example, Kenyan members of parliament in the past have increased their own salaries while keeping the salaries of civil servants the same. The Kenyan government also promised to carry out reforms in the public health care sector, improve working conditions and increase wages for doctors, but then never followed through.

For the most part, these strikes have been effective in achieving resolutions for the grievances of workers, albeit at high costs. Lives have been lost, revenues have suffered and learning hours have been wasted.

When a wave of labor strikes paralyzes public sector services, the government is often to blame. A government is responsible for ensuring that resources are prioritized and shared fairly across sectors and that civil servant wages are synchronized equitably. For many African countries, some unnecessary disruptions to the provision of public services could be avoided if wage increases for all civil servants were factored in from the onset of budgeting process. In the private sector, companies have the responsibility to ensure that workers are properly paid and working conditions are safe and sanitary.

At the same time, the power of labor unions may need to be kept in check—especially unions of essential emergency professionals, such as doctors and nurses. But there must be a careful balancing act since the collective bargaining rights of workers and unions need to be protected as well.

The rising number of labor strikes in Africa is a wake-up call for African governments to consider the following: First, look at labor markets with a renewed interest to revise laws governing the role and powers accorded to collective bargaining unions with a view to streamline them. Second, revise minimum wages, wage increases and dispute resolution policies in line with the latest economic developments in the country and international standards to ensure fairness and equity. Third, ensure that negotiations involving unions that represent essential emergency professionals do not break down and go to strike since people’s lives could be at stake. Finally, deliberately incorporate wage increase policies in the national budgeting process. These reforms would go a long way in minimizing the growing number of strikes across Africa.

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