Interview with Dan Cunniah, Director of ACTRAV

After the publication of a study on trade union pluralism and the proliferation of trade unions in French-Speaking Africa, the Director of the Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV) reaffirmed the need to promote trade union unity. In this interview, Dan Cunniah discusses the causes of this proliferation in French-Speaking Africa and invited the unions to strengthen their unity to effectively meet the needs of workers.

Statement | Genève | 07 February 2011

ACTRAV INFO: Your department has recently published a study “Trade Union Pluralism and Proliferation in French-Speaking Africa”. Why did you choose that particular region?

Dan Cunniah: There have been major developments in the trade union situation in Africa. We are not opposed to pluralism, but we are against a proliferation of trade unions that further tilts the balance of power away from the unions towards employers and governments. Also, this proliferation is harmful to workers’ unity within a country. When I became ACTRAV’s Director in 2007, I took note of that trend and, as I am familiar with the continent of Africa, I thought we needed to pay some attention to that region, where many trade unions came into being after democracy had arrived in these countries. At first, we thought things might improve over time and the unions would come to realize that freedom of association does not mean chaos and that it is vital to have unity in the trade union movement. Particularly as that is the spirit in which we should take Convention No 87on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, which gives workers the right to establish the trade union organizations of their choice. So this freedom should not be turned into anarchy. But later on, I found that the problems had become more serious. For instance, Senegal used to have one single trade union centre, but now there are 18 of them. In Cameroon, there are six trade union confederations. And the same goes for other countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So we decided to make a study of this trade union proliferation in French-speaking Africa, pinpointing its causes and consequences.

ACTRAV INFO: And yet ILO Convention 87 does empower workers to establish their own unions. In your view, what has caused this trade union proliferation in the region?

Dan Cunniah: I think Convention 87 does indeed guarantee the right to form a union. What I mean is that the Convention isn’t a pretext for setting up several trade union centres. The Convention is quite clear, but the workers know that our strength lies in the unity of the trade union movement. So creating several trade union centres is not the way to achieve a strong, solid trade union movement in a country. In fact, that is one of the basic principles of trade unionism. As to the causes of this proliferation, there are a number of them. But one of the main ones, for example, is two groups vying for the leadership during a trade union organization’s congress. The group that does not get elected pulls out and forms another trade union centre. So this is down to a clash of personalities rather than any disagreement among the members.

Another reason, for instance, is that government subsidies may lead people to create trade union organizations in order to draw on these funds. Then there are the cases where trade union organizations are set up by political parties. And sometimes trade union organizations may think it is better to have another trade union organization in order to benefit from scholarships or training grants or foreign travel. There are also cases where trade union organizations are set up and apply for affiliation to a trade union organization at the international level. But at that level, as the two big international trade union organizations (the WCL and the ICFTU) have merged to form the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), this is no longer a valid motive. True, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) still exists at the international level, but I think this cause has diminished in relation to the others.

ACTRAV INFO: At the ILO level, what steps has ACTRAV taken to strengthen the trade union organizations in French-speaking Africa?

Dan Cunniah: To achieve unity and get the ILO’s message across, we can use worker’s education, training and awareness-building. In ACTRAV, we make use of these strategies through our training programmes in Turin, in the field and with the help of our specialists. But that has not been enough because, despite this education drive, the importance of trade union unity has not yet been grasped. But it has to be said that, unfortunately, our education programme did not reach a broad audience. Perhaps, if we have sufficient means, we will be able to get through to a larger number of workers and secure good results for trade union unity through education.

At present, we need to use other means, for example by involving the Pan-African organizations. So we have contacted those that exist on the continent, the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and ITUC-Africa, and we are working with them to get the workers and trade union leaders to understand that this division of the trade union movement, this proliferation of trade union organizations, is not in the workers’ interests. This division can not provide answers to the many problems facing the workers. They need to close ranks and strengthen the trade union movement, in order to improve working conditions and pay, and even to contribute to the development of their respective countries.

So the measures taken by ACTRAV are accompanying measures, and we are organizing a number of activities to strengthen workers’ capacity. The aim is to train trade union leaders, debate the issues that directly affect Africa and promote trade union platforms, known as “common fronts”. Because we think there’s nothing stopping trade unionists from uniting around a joint programme – in other words, a common front for common action. So we have assisted the creation of “intersyndicales”, as in Burkina Faso where seven trade union centers are grouped together in one single umbrella organization that regularly chooses a president by rotation. And this strategy has been working for ten years now in Burkina. Other countries have been inspired by this example, including Benin, Senegal, Mauritius and Guinea. So we are involved in helping the trade union organizations to unite so that they can better defend the workers’ interests.

ACTRAV INFO: Today, the African workers in general are being hit by the economic crisis, made all the worse by poverty and unemployment. Do you think trade union unity is a solution for better bargaining on workers’ rights?

Dan Cunniah: Yes, definitely! Because it is at times of crisis like the one we are going through now that the trade union organizations have to combine their strength and find ideas or solutions for the problems their countries are facing. The fact of being together prompts union organizations to discuss and come up with solutions, so as to influence governments’ economic and social policies. That is also one of the trade union movement’s aims – to be capable of influencing government economic and social policies. Today, we are confronted with poverty and unemployment, and trade union organizations have to play their part in society, pointing governments and employers towards ways of reducing unemployment and fighting poverty. In that way, they can contribute to the development of their countries, and also achieve the goals set by the United Nations on poverty, unemployment and other scourges that we face.

ACTRAV INFO: Finally, is ACTRAV planning studies on this issue in other regions of the world?

Dan Cunniah: Yes. You know, this study has been a real success. Now, I think other regions also have an interest in this problem of trade union proliferation. The Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA).This regional organization of ITUC has already set up a project in Latin America called “Auto reforma”. Itis a project that asks the trade union centers to make an analysis of their own organization, to uncover the weaknesses and suggest solutions. So that is a similar vision, because it is about looking at the strengths and weaknesses of trade union organizations, in order to boost their effectiveness. In Asia, some countries are in the same situation as certain African countries. That applies to Bangladesh, for example, as well as Nepal, Sri Lanka and other countries in the region. We are also doing a study in these countries, to see if the causes of division among trade unions are the same as those we came across in Africa, or if there are other ones specific to the Asian continent, where most of the countries are former British colonies. In United Kingdom, there is one trade union centre, the Trade Union Congress which rather contradicts what we see happening in these former British colonies. So some of the causes I have already mentioned may also exist in these Asian countries. It is going to be a long haul, because it’s important that ACTRAV, as the Bureau responsible for workers’ activities, should not overlook this aspect. History will condemn us if we does not help the trade union movement to face up to this problem of proliferation of trade union organizations. So we want to contribute to the development of solid, effective trade union organizations that can tackle the challenges facing the workers.

Interviewer: Mamadou Kaba Souaré

For more on this study, see the ACTRAV website:

Trade Union Pluralism and Proliferation in French-Speaking Africa