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Building a strong union in Mozambique

D 9 décembre 2010     H 04:33     A Alex Ivanou     C 0 messages

Unemployment and low wages are a major challenge for Sintime, IMF’s affiliate in Mozambique. Through a renewed focus on organizing and collective bargaining the union is getting stronger and is gaining higher wages for its members.

It’s a hot day even for Mozambique’s warm tropical winter in Mofalala, a dilapidated residential area on the outskirts of the capital city, Maputo. Mofalala, once home to the former president and liberation struggle leader Samora Machel, is not far from the upmarket suburbs inhabited by nouveau riche Mozambicans, tourists, officials and a legion of aid expats. Yet the stark contrast between these areas illustrates the vastness of the wealth divide in Mozambique that continues to grow wider by the day.
As far as trade union organizing contexts go, they don’t come much tougher. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 175th of 179 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Unemployment is at 54 per cent and 74.7 per cent of the Mozambique population fall below the US$1.25 a day poverty line while 90 per cent are below US$2 per day.
Cesa Selvestre lives in Mofalala and is a welder at a typical small to medium engineering company in Maputo. He is also the chairperson of the workplace committee at his company and a long-time member of IMF affiliate Sindicato Nacional dos Trabalhadores da Indústria Metalúrgica Metalomecánica e Energia (Sintime), organizing in the metal and electricity sector in Mozambique.


Cesa has worked for more than 40 years, most of which as a welder. He did not receive much formal education, learning on the job to weld both ferrous and non-ferrous metals. For these skills he earns approximately US$130 per month. By Mozambican standards Cesa is quite well paid. The minimum wage in the metal industry was recently adjusted up to US$67 and some reports put the real average wage for the country at about US$37. Despite this, Cesa explains that his wages are still insufficient to meet the needs of his family.
Cesa’s home is down a narrow dirt lane with run down houses encroaching from both sides. The lane requires careful navigation to avoid an open sewer snaking its way down the centre of the road. A young girl disposes of a bucket of waste water into the ditch. The sun is already unleashing an unpleasant odour from the stagnant water and it is hard not to think of this as a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Malaria is still the number one killer in Mozambique.
Cesa has lived in this house since 1977 and raised eight children in this time, two of which still live with him. Seven people now live in the house, including Cesa’s brother. He explains it is necessary for families to assist one another to be able to meet the cost of living. Cesa spends his entire wage every month on household expenses and others make up the balance of the approximate US$300 monthly household expenditure. On a per person basis this means they live on about US$1.42 per day.
There is no running water in the neighbourhood, residents bring water by the bucket for washing and cooking and purchase drinking water. The Selvestre household is part of the fortunate six per cent of Mozambique’s population to have access to electricity, although as Cesa points out it is one thing to have access, another to be able to afford it.
Like all Mozambican’s his age, Cesa’s life has been deeply affected by 30 years of near continuous war in the country. As a teen, Cesa started work in 1964, the same year as the independence struggle started in Mozambique where the Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) led an armed struggle to end Portuguese colonial rule, which had been oppressive and discriminatory. Cesa’s father was one of the many people killed during this conflict.


Independence was achieved in 1975, around the same time that Cesa began working at Forjadora where he is still employed today. The state started to take over most companies as the Portugese left, abandoning and often destroying machinery as they went. Companies were nationalized and controlled by workers and smaller companies were joined together to achieve better economies of scale.
Francesco Bambo, a co-worker of Cesa, explains how at the time he was elected by workers to manage a factory where he was working after the Portuguese owners absconded. He was later transferred by the state to manage Forjadora. He left the company in 1981 and rejoined in 1987.
Post-independence peace was short lived. In 1976, the white minority Rhodesian government attacked Mozambique in response to the new government. Independence in 1980 for Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) once again brought hope for peace, but this too was short lived. U.S. President Ronald Reagan came to power in the same year on an anti-communist ticket and intensified the Cold War being fought by proxy in Africa in Angola and Mozambique. Renewed support for anti-liberalization forces in Mozambique came from the South African apartheid government and within a year war engulfed Mozambique once more.
Cesa and Francesco recall the huge refugee camps that surrounded Maputo and that at times during the conflict there was very little food available for anyone. From 1981 to 1992 over a million people died in the fighting or from starvation. A further five million, one third of the population, were displaced to urban centres or neighbouring countries.
Hostilities finally ended when apartheid ended in South Africa and the Cold War faltered. The fighting stopped in Mozambique in 1992 and elections were won by FRELIMO in 1994. There was a rapid demobilization of forces for in truth it had been a war of external interests and people on both sides were simply sick of the fighting. However by this time, the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) had firm control over the economy and policy and a neoliberal development trajectory was ensured.


Privatization began soon after the first structural adjustment programme was implemented leading to many job losses. Wages were also depressed. For example, due to the insistence of the International Monetary Fund the minimum wage was decreased from US$40 to US$15 per month between 1991 and 1995. The privatization of metal factories between 1987 and 2005 resulted in nearly 4,000 job losses in the Maputo province alone. Many companies closed after privatization, causing even more job losses. For a long time workers could do little to improve their situation as the employers simply threatened retrenchment and the union got progressively weaker.
The liberal development path also saw the beginnings of mega investment projects such as the Mozal aluminium smelter in 2000. This US$1.4 billion investment represents a particular form of development that has had little impact on poverty in the country. Mozal represents half of Mozambique’s exports and a large share of GDP but contributes very little in the form of tax, being situated in an industrial "free" processing zone.
Ten years on, this investment and allied industries have not yet managed to create the number of jobs lost during the liberalization process despite a GDP growth rate consistently above six per cent and per capita GDP doubling over the last decade. Even though workers at Mozal are paid more than others in the sector, there are relatively few jobs because of the capital intensive nature of the plant combined with the practice of outsourcing. As a result the plant has limited economic benefit to the country, but a lot for the larger shareholders.


Sintime began organizing Mozal even before the plant opened. In cooperation with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF) a joint shop stewards council between Mozal and similar smelter operations in South Africa, also with BHP ownership, was set up. This proved to be an effective strategy and at first membership rose rapidly with industrial action occurring soon after the opening of the plant. But as Sintime fell into an organizational crisis much of this progress was undone.
In Mozal and elsewhere, the union paid insufficient focus on organizing and growing an involved membership base and as a result Sintime leadership started to become increasingly unaccountable. There were conflicts among office bearers and a loss of coordination between the national and provincial offices. The union became more about fundraising than organizing. Structures were not meeting, and the ineffectiveness of the union saw members voting with their feet and leaving. Employers obviously took advantage of the situation and things got worse for workers as a result.
Adriano Manhica, chair of the workers’ committee at Mozal, and a national office bearer in the union, explains that despite the good start made in organizing at Mozal the union was not able to retain membership. By 2006 membership had dropped from over 600 to just 185. He tells how the IMF and Numsa played an important role when the union was near collapse by changing strategy and working directly with shop stewards on the ground. This helped worker leaders to galvanize efforts for change in the union to rebuild its strength.


By 2007 there had been no Congress in Sintime for more than seven years, with the same office bearers holding onto their positions and using the lack of funds as justification not to hold constitutional meetings. This was unacceptable to workers and pressure increased from workers’ committees in all the provinces. Letters were continuously sent to the head office demanding and complaining that the union was not servicing members at all. Spontaneous workers’ meetings increased and calls for change grew louder. On June 18, 2007 the national council was convened and suspended the national secretariat and elected an interim committee.
In October 2007 a Congress was convened, with the assistance of the IMF and its Portuguese affiliate Sindicato das Industrias Metalurgicas e Afins (SIMA), and new leadership was elected. Unfortunately, in a dismaying incident it was found that monies were unaccounted for by the newly elected General Secretary. In a show of firm resolve to entrench good governance the new executive committee dealt with the situation immediately and Domingos Tembe took up the position of General Secretary.
Since then the union has made good progress. A clean out of the administrative systems and sound financial management has seen the union move from a position of defaulting on accounts to breaking even and beginning payments to purchase the space occupied by the head office. Membership has grown by nearly 40 per cent thanks to workers’ renewed faith in the union and as a result of worker centred organizing campaigns emphasizing recruitment and servicing. For example at Mozal, membership has grown to 485 people. "This has not been easy as once people leave the union it is hard to get them to join up again," explains Adriano, emphasizing that for a union to be sustainable it must be driven by shop floor interests.
Nationally Sintime now has 8,466 members with a potential of 13,544 in companies where Sintime already has a presence. The metal and electrical sectors are in fact larger than this but national statistics are not reliable and unavailable by industry. Numsa assisted by taking Sintime officials on an organizing campaign in South Africa. Many of the tactics used there have now been implemented in Mozambique. Domingos comments that the union used to ignore employers where they were not allowed in, while now they wait and meet workers outside the plant to organize them.
Sintime is proud of the fact that the majority of activities, salaries and costs are now paid for through union subscriptions and not donations. "In this way the union remains accountable to workers and is sustainable, but it required discipline in spending and hard work increasing membership and collecting subscriptions," explains Domingos. The process has also been helped by holding activities in all provinces allowing members to see their subscriptions in action. 2010 sees the first national council paid for by union funds and, in an attempt to improve transparency, the finances of the union will be published ahead of this meeting in the national press.


Ana Maria de Jesus is a national office bearer and Sintime’s Secretary for Social Affairs and Grievance Handling since 2007. She explains that aside from the major transformation in the head office with the office bearers now working as a team, the union focused its efforts on consolidating its position in the largest employers initially and is now expanding to cover the smaller ones.
At the large companies this includes looking at outsourced workers. For instance Mozal uses an extensive system of outsourcing making organizing more difficult. There are more than 100 workers in the plant that are supposedly "in training" and employed by another company. Outsourcing is also built into the design of the plant where machinery maintenance is often outsourced to the supplying company.
A good example is to be found in French multinational ECL, the largest manufacturer of machinery and equipment for primary aluminium smelters in the world. ECL established a Mozambique subsidiary shortly after the opening of the Mozal plant. Zimba Sergio, one of about 75 staff at ECL, explains that when Mozal maintenance workers can’t fix a problem then ECL is called. However Zimba earns US$190 a month compared to a Mozal maintenance position which pays between US$842 to US$1,195. According to shop stewards at ECL, management argues that the lower wages are necessary as profit margins are tight because of the agreement with Mozal and its tendering system for non-ECL machine maintenance work.
To improve the organizing of smaller companies Sintime has begun pursuing compliance with collective bargaining agreements and become a lot more responsive to workers calls for intervention and assistance. In this regard, the provincial offices are the life blood of Sintime and the Maputo Provincial Branch is by far the most significant with 58 per cent of Sintime’s total membership.
This office organizes 158 companies and has achieved 52 collective agreements covering 5,432 workers and an active membership of 4,975 workers. There is a total potential membership of about 9,000 workers in the province, meaning the union has a penetration rate of 56 per cent. While there is some scope for expansion, ultimately, the size of the industry is the real obstacle to growth.
Organizing in a fragmented labour market with many small companies is difficult and time consuming. There are also huge differences in wages paid by employers making sector-based bargaining strategically difficult. Shop stewards do most of the recruiting and shop floor level education is an important part of this work. Education also acts as a pull to attract young people to the union and ensure that gender issues are continually addressed in this male dominated sector. These efforts have resulted in active gender and youth structures at the Maputo Provincial Branch.
The improvement of the shop floor focus in smaller companies appears to be paying dividends for workers. By 2006, 14 years post-conflict, Cesa and Francesco were both earning approximately US$65 per month at current exchange rates. That was just over the US$2 per day poverty line for skilled artisan work. This increased to US$74 by 2008. With renewed support from Sintime and concerted shop floor action by the workers’ committee by 2010 the wage, including performance bonuses, had doubled to US$130 per month. They are now pushing for a minimum wage of US$149 at the plant where the current minimum is US$82. Francesco feels the union has improved since the Congress but the important drive for change still comes from the workers.


Other than in a handful of larger plants, which are mostly foreign-owned, the overwhelming problem confronting the majority of workers is the extremely low level of wages. At the recent tripartite sector-based minimum wage deliberations the union demanded a minimum wage of US$185 per month, which was based on a basket of goods calculation. The wage was set at less than half this at US$63.
As is the case for Cesa, long-term employment is no antidote to poverty. The story of Cesa and others serves as a strong illustration of the realities of the working poor in Africa. As he nears the end of his working life Cesa worries about income after he has retired. He does not know how much income he will receive from the social security system, but expects that things will get harder as the years go on.
A growing level of child malnutrition after 17 years of peace and significant economic growth is a worrying sign for Mozambique. A new generation has grown up without the memory of war, simply the experience of deprivation. Scarcely a week after visiting Cesa and Sintime, bloody riots raged in Maputo over bread and power price increases. Police opened fire on protestors, 13 people were killed including two children, and 27 were wounded while hundreds have been injured and detained.
Similar protests erupted in 2008 following the announcement of fuel price increases. In both cases the government was forced to back down. The actions of these thousands of protestors speak of a people on the very edge of survival. Building strong unions in Mozambique goes beyond improving conditions for workers in the metal sector ; it is about strengthening the voice of the people that says the choice between working in poverty and unemployed destitution is not a development choice at all.
In addition to IMF and Numsa, CNM/CUT, CAW and FIM/CISL have provided financial and practical assistance to Sintime in Mozambique in the last two years. IMF plans to continue its union building work in Mozambique, including a particular focus on gender, through support from Numsa, CAW and SASK.

Nationally Sintime now has 8,466 members with a potential of 13,544 in companies where Sintime already has a presence.Nov 16, 2010 – Alex Ivanou

Source from http://www.imfmetal.org