The government of Swaziland, the last absolute monarchy of Africa, is well known for its human rights violations, including the rights of workers. In recent years, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has admonished the government for its refusal to register trade unions, for prohibiting assemblies and demonstrations and jailing trade union activists and their lawyers.
Workers’ rights violations are so serious and widespread that the United States suspended trade preferences to the country under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) in 2014. Despite minor steps taken to respond to the criticism, such as registering the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) after a three-year delay and releasing imprisoned activists a few weeks earlier than scheduled, the country remains a difficult place for workers. This is particularly true in the sugar sector.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in cooperation with TUCOSWA, has released a new report – King Mswati’s Gold – which details serious labour violations in Swaziland’s sugar sector.
Sugar is one of the country’s most important exports, to the region and to the European market. However, as detailed in the report, sugar largely benefits one person – King Mswati III. The sector is largely controlled by a national development fund, Tibiyo, which is controlled by the king, his relatives and his cronies, even though it is meant to benefit all citizens.
The report explains that for many workers, long hours and very low wages are the norm. Most workers, especially those who are seasonal or casual, have no written contracts of employment. Some workers have to walk hours each day to and from work in the dark, and once they arrive they are forced to work in dangerous conditions with little to no protective equipment – when applying pesticides or cutting cane. Women are routinely subjected to pregnancy tests and are not hired if tests are positive.
Additionally, some of the land used for sugar production was confiscated by the government, with little to no compensation for the communities forcibly expelled from their land.
To our disappointment, we also found that labour violations were just as common on the Fairtrade certified farms in Swaziland. The ITUC has shared a copy of the report and Fairtrade has issued this reply.
We do note that informal communications have indicated that Fairtrade will conduct an investigation of their certified farms on the basis of this report. We hope and trust that Fairtrade will take the appropriate action to ensure that certified farms will comply with the labour obligations of the Small Producer Organisation (SPO) standard, which applies to these farms.
We would also call on Fairtrade to improve the SPO, which has a number of important deficiencies, including no language on working time except for minors.