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Labour | Human rights

Malagasy labour rights "inoperative"

afrol News, 13 June - In Madagascar, trade union rights are recognised in law, subject to a few restrictions, "but do not operate in practice," according to a new report. This was particularly true in the export processing zones, "where anti-union discrimination remains rife."

Last year was decisive for workers and labour rights in Madagascar. The annual survey of violations of trade union rights - released on Tuesday by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) - displays the great impact last year's political turbulence had on Madagascar's labour force and their rights.

At the start of the year the island was paralysed by a general strike called at the end of January by the "self-proclaimed president" Marc Ravalomanana, aimed at driving the outgoing President, Didier Ratsiraka, from power. Mr Ravalomanana felt he had been elected in the first round of the presidential election held on December 16 2001, while Mr Ratsiraka argued that a second round should be fought.

President Ravalomanana eventually won the conflict, "but at the cost of a two-month long general strike," the ICFTU survey notes. "The strike meant the loss of work for tens of thousands of workers and its overall cost was estimated at € 500 million."

Although labour rights are guaranteed by the Malagasy constitution, labour legislation is "very rarely applied and the government very rarely takes any notice of union representatives," the survey concludes. Workers further generally "face anti-union discrimination."

According to ICFTU, the labour legislation is "blatantly violated by the 200 or more firms in Madagascar's export processing zones and the government is either unable - owing to limited resources - or unwilling to inspect these workplaces and investigate reports of anti-union discrimination."

As a result, workers had been unable to join or form trade unions. One of the national trade union centres, Fivondronamben'ny Mpiasa Malagasy (FMM), has denounced the deplorable conditions in the zones, where "wages are often below the legal minimum, working hours excessively long and sexual harassment is rife."

Another case of such "blatant rights violations", at the National Social Security Institute, had continued, the survey says. It began in 1997 when workers went on strike in protest at a unilateral cut in benefits contained in the collective agreement.

The Labour Ministry mediated the dispute and ordered the benefits to be paid and that no sanctions were to be taken against the strikers. In direct contravention of this order, 20 union leaders were subsequently fired. The Director of the Institute refused to pay the benefits, and was taken to court. The judge ordered the workers reinstated and the benefits paid, but the Director again refused and appealed against the judgement.

Shortly afterwards many higher-level union officials were transferred against their wishes to remote posts several hundred kilometres from the capital city of Antananarivo, to stop their union activities.

In another case, in May 2000, the Malagasy government had issued a Decree requiring trade unions to provide a list of their members, a copy of their by-laws and the names of their serving officers. The government claimed this was merely to ensure that trade unions were representative. As the International Labour Organisation (ILO) pointed out, a record of membership dues should be sufficient for this purpose, as a list of names could make members more vulnerable to anti-union discrimination.

The country's trade unions also allege that the Ministry of the Public Service, Labour and Social law interferes in the elections of worker representatives to serve on various tripartite bodies; organises missions involving workers' delegates without the knowledge of their confederations for the purpose of appointing them to regional tripartite bodies; and requests proposals for candidates other than those already put forward by the confederations for membership of these bodies.

In another case, trade unionists at the SIRAMA state-owned sugar factory were dismissed in December 2001, despite the province's Labour and Social Protection Inspectorate's refusal to endorse the dismissals. Some of those concerned were even imprisoned, charged with impeding the activities of SIRAMA, voluntary destruction of goods and setting fire to sugar cane fields. Testimonies from about 120 workers, local councillors and the TIM showed these accusations were false.

The ICFTU survey holds that these violations are in sharp contrast to Malagasy labour legislation. The Malagasy constitution, for example, guarantees both public and private sector workers the right to join and form trade unions. The Labour Code also provides for the right to collective bargaining.

Further, the right to strike is recognised by Malagasy legislation, although workers first have to exhaust conciliation, mediation and arbitration procedures. The Labour Code also explicitly prohibits anti-union discrimination.

Finally, and despite practices, labour legislation applies fully in the export processing zones.

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