Labour Unions in Uganda, a Threat to Workers’ Rights

Published on 18th May 2009

Uganda does not suffer the dearth of instruments highlighting democracy and human rights. Our constitution is called a human rights constitution. The whole of chapter four addresses human rights, a situation that has led many people to dub it: the Ugandan bill of rights. Many rights enshrined in the international bill of rights are replicated therein. We also have numerous Acts of parliament aimed at promoting and protecting the rights of different social groups.  

Despite the fact that Uganda has ratified 31 ILO Conventions including all the eight core conventions, observance of these rights has drastically eluded us. The country is seething with high levels of unemployment and underemployment, worst forms of child labour,  sordid working conditions for workers, squalid accommodation for the police force, miserable wages, high levels of hire and fire of the employees, absence of employment policy, sectarianism, nepotism and corruption among others.  All these deal a hard blow to our workers. 

One of the most contentious areas is social security or social protection. The government uses (some believe it misuses and abuses) the National Social Security Fund the way it wants without due regard to the workers who in an actual sense are the owners of the money. The government proposes that the National Health Insurance scheme be funded by workers and employers in addition to the contribution made to the National Social Security Fund. This follows the Local Service Tax which is being paid already. Workers now feel that the government is bent on encroaching on their meager earnings to fund its activities without due regard to their plight.  

The right to social security is born out of convention 102 on minimum standards. The ILO Convention provides for nine forms of benefits which include among others medical care benefits and health insurance benefits. Uganda seems to have adamantly refused to ratify convention 102 so that it could be bound by the provisions therein. Uganda has ratified the tripartite consultation convention (convention 144) yet it continues to sideline the other two partners in matters of concern to them. Experience has shown that the government in a number of cases calls workers and employers to give them lectures and not for consultation.  

On 30th June 2007, Hon Otafiire on KFM stated that he wouldn’t agree with workers on local service tax unless they showed him an alternative source of funding. Dr Francis Runumi, commissioner of Planning in the ministry of health said the National Health Insurance must be passed. One therefore wonders whether the Ugandan workers are not punching bags.

It is possible that workers in Uganda are taken for granted because of the absence of a strong trade union movement. In countries like Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Zambia, and South Africa and neighbouring Kenya, trade unions are a force to reckon with. The trade unions are so influential in these countries that they can determine who should be in power or not. In South Africa, the role of COSATU in the ANC government cannot be underrated. In Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai got all the clout he has partly because of his leadership in Zimbabwe Congress of Free Trade Unions.  

On the other hand, here in Uganda, trade unions are preoccupied with internal squabbles. They have hardly mobilized and recruited members and are appendages to the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government. If you are deemed not to be an NRM, you are thrown out of the trade union leadership. In fact the entire Workers’ MPs stood on the NRM ticket. Are  they NRM or Workers’ MPs?  In the run-up to the 2006 elections, Central Organisation of Free Trade Unions (COFTU) broke off from National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU) following the elections in NOTU in which Dr Sam Lyomoki and Mr Kahirita emerged losers. It could be possible they never viewed the exercise as free and fair.  

Another labour centre, Confederation of Labour Unions (COLU) has been formed following the elections in NOTU that were reportedly marred by irregularities which threw out the outspoken former Vice Chairman, Irene Kaboole, whose passion for workers’ rights has remained unswerving.  The total number of unionized workers is less than 1,000,000 (1 million) in Uganda. Some union leaders occupy two fulltime positions. For example, two Members of Parliament are at the same time General Secretaries of their Union positions that entitles them to two salaries. This smacks of greed.  

The leadership of some unions is comprised of semi-illiterates whose main preoccupation is not the betterment of workers’ welfare but self aggrandizement. In many Unions, if you are a university graduate, that is enough to disqualify you from getting a job there. The leaders and some staff members fear that you might catch the eye of the donors hence blocking them from the spoils or that you may use that as a platform to contest as a workers’ Member of Parliament. This intrigue has cost our unions talented and skilled potential employees who would authoritatively advocate workers’ rights in Uganda.  

This intrigue has also affected other labour rights civil society organizations as unions try blocking them from accessing funds from International Labour Organisation. It is prudent that since all workers’ MPs are from Labour Unions, the unions address all the workers’ concerns whether unionized or not. But apparently, unions seem to be impotent.  From the foregoing, one may ask the following questions: are Labour unions in Uganda as they are now qualified to represent Ugandan workers? Can Ugandan workers count on the Labour Unions to effectively articulate their interests?  

Labour Unions should neither be anti-NRM nor pro-NRM but pro-workers, regardless of their political inclinations. That is their raison d’etre.  

By Vincent Nuwabaga

The writer is a human rights defender and was a HUGGO-Danida Intern at the National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU)[email protected]

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