Progress and future challenges in Togo’s export processing zone

Progress and future challenges in Togo's export processing zone


Twenty-two years. That’s how long it took for Togo’s export processing zone (EPZ) workers and trade unions to secure the same legal provisions as those governing the rest of the country’s manufacturing industry.

It was a long and difficult road.

Agbanan Kodjovi Jean, General Secretary of the national union of EPZ workers SYNATRAZOFT (Syndicat National des Travailleurs de la Zone Franche de Togo) recalls:

“The export processing zone was considered a rights-free zone. Any negotiation between workers and employers was simply out of the question. We had to introduce trade unions by force, which we managed to do by invoking the provisions of the Togolese constitution and the international conventions ratified by our country. But the employers are still reticent to accept us...”

Opened in 1989 in a bid to attract investors and to resuscitate the flailing labour market, the export processing zone of this West African country, eleven times smaller than France, is unique in terms of its geographical scope.

Unlike most others, it is not confined to a single closed area, but is scattered over the whole country, from north to south. It hosts around 60 Togolese and foreign companies, all of which use imported materials to produce finished goods and export at least 70 per cent of their production - the two prerequisites for the tax incentives and duty exemptions granted to EPZ companies.

“But these benefits only last for 20 years,” said Laurent Coami Tamegnon in an interview with Equal Times.

The president of ASOZOF (Association des Sociétés de la Zone Franche du Togo), the EPZ company association representing employers, Tamegnon receives us in the office of his military and civilian uniform manufacturing company. Hanging on the wall is an imposing portrait of Gnassingbé Eyadema, the man who ruled the country fate for 38 years and is still widely venerated by Togolese people of all social classes.

It was, however, under the rule of his son, the current president, Faure Gnassingbé, who was placed in power by the army on the death of his father in 2005, that the rule-bending and breaches of the law in export processing zone were tackled.

“In June 2011, Togo’s export processing zone was made subject to the national labour legislation,” explains Tamegnon, before concluding with a big smile: “Times are changing, and we have to change too.”

And yet, there is not a worker in sight in the company’s warehouse. The only people we come across are part of a garment-making collective that answered a call for tenders to make a new batch of uniforms.

Once they have completed the order, these workers will go back to fill the ranks of the millions of Togolese citizens living with the precariousness and insecurity of the informal economy.


Equal pay for equal work

Although their working conditions are better than before, EPZ workers are still struggling to make ends meet.

Banmazé Mazalo works for the Korean synthetic hair company Amina, the biggest employer in the EPZ.

Like her 4000 or so colleagues, this young woman in her thirties starts the working day before the closing of the factory gates at 06.50 in the morning, and works until 17.00 in the evening, sorting, combing, braiding and assembling synthetic hair that she can barely afford to buy herself.

Amina pays its employees by the piece. “We have to work really hard to earn at least 2000 CFA francs (US$4). We would like to have a fixed rate of pay introduced for everyone,” Mazalo told Equal Times.

This mother of four lives in a space of less than ten square metres, with no toilet, in a spartan military camp in Lomé. Her husband, a soldier, has been posted to Mali.

“It’s hard to live on 40,000 CFA francs (US$83) a month...When the union approached me, I was really interested and I feel stronger and more respected since I became a trade unionist myself. We have to set an example for the others, so that they join us too.”

Mazalo bitterly recalls the time when the workers had to go on strike, block the factory gates and demonstrate to receive no more than the equivalent of the legal minimum wage, set at 35,000 CFA francs (US$73) a month.

Now, she says, dialogue is much easier with the management and the general atmosphere within the company has improved.

So have the conditions. Night shift pay and transport allowances are some of the hard-fought gains secured by the unions, but they are still meagre and have not yet succeeded in taking the day-to-day pressure off the workers at Amina.


“Work during your working hours, organise outside”

The first two EPZ trade unions emerged at the end of 2009. Their example was soon followed, and a third union was formed a few months later.

Initially, it was the company staff representatives who decided to form a trade union to give themselves more clout in the negotiations with their employers.

But the union and employers’ representatives met by Equal Times admit that without the international pressure placed on Togo, especially by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it is unlikely that the employers would have given any ground.

“There is still a long way to go,” another Amina employee, Agbanan, told Equal Times. “We need to raise our colleagues’ awareness by listening to their problems and explaining what the union can do for them. What has worked best at Amina is word of mouth, the rallies and the public meetings. That’s how we’re managing to recruit new members.”

For Katanga Tchilalo Florence, a SYNATRAZOFT member, employed at a nylon fishing net factory in the EPZ, it is also important to work without attracting the employers’ wrath.

She explains that she learned this in 2011, at a seminar held in Brussels by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in collaboration with the Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV).

“I learned that it is important do your job properly, to be beyond reproach, so as to avoid any problems with the employers,” Florence told Equal Times. “But outside the factory we have to constantly raise our colleagues’ awareness.”

Florence has also learned this lesson from experience. On her return from Brussels, her Korean employer did everything in his power to make her leave the job. She stood firm and is continuing to fight for her colleagues’ rights, such as permanent contracts for those who have been working on temporary contracts for two years, as established by Togo’s labour legislation.

Three workers from her company recently faced dismissal after being accused of theft. After repeated negotiations with the management, two of them received severance pay and the third was reinstated.

“This type of victory is important for the survival of the movement,” insists Florence. “We have to bring as many people together as possible. When we hold meetings, everyone is invited, not just the members.”

There is still a long road ahead. Together, the three trade union organisations have 5000 members, less than half of the 13,000 people working in the export processing zone.