In Uganda, a parliamentary commission has been investigating events surrounding a strike of more than 200 young women at a foreign-owned textiles factory. The “Agoa girls”, as they have become known, protested outside Parliament about working conditions and their right to join a union. As ILO TV now reports, the women have raised awareness of the role of trade unions and rights in the workplace, in a country where labour disputes are rare.
On the nightly television news, Ugandans followed the story of the “Agoa Girls”. They went out on strike protesting conditions at the big Tri-Star garment factory. They complained of low pay, sub-standard accommodation and problems with union representation. Within days they were sacked.
Angry Agoa girl
Are we criminals?
The women claimed they had been wrongfully dismissed and demanded to be reinstated. They took their case to the top, camping outside the Ugandan Parliament.
They were trained to work in top-quality garment production in a huge factory set up under foreign management under a special export agreement with the American government (known as Agoa). More than one thousand women were recruited from villages all over Uganda and brought to work here. The factory owners maintain that conditions were good, that the workers were represented by their own committees. They say it’s not true that there was a problem about joining the union.
Veluppillai Kananathan, Managing Director, Tri-Star Apparel
That’s totally wrong, that is wrong, if they have quoted that it is totally wrong. We are not refusing to unionize, I cannot force my girls or employees to go and join the union, they all have the right to union.
But union organizers say it was difficult to get access to recruit workers and that when the strike broke out, the management did not recognize their right to be represented.
For Ugandan members of Parliament, the dispute raises several questions. Were the allegations about ill-treatment of workers true? Were existing labour laws being put into practice?
For the International Labour Organization, which campaigns for fundamental rights in the workplace, it’s drawn attention to the whole issue of the right to join unions and the benefits of creating a dialogue between workers and employers.
Joseph Katende, ILO National Project Coordinator
I am sure all the unions in Uganda are looking at this case as a determining case to know whether they have freedom of association as laid out in the Constitution. If they have it de facto or is it just having it for window-shopping purposes.
The Tri-Star factory continues to grow. Some of the workers who lost their jobs have received compensation. Some are still out of work. But they’ve put the whole issue of labour rights on the table.