afrol News, 20 June - After one year of tension between trade unions and the government, the recent arrest of Théophile Sonny Colé in the Central African Republic threatens nationa reconciliation attempts. Colé's short arrest has been internationally condemned.
- The recent arrest of a Central African trade union leader reveals once again the lack of respect for human and trade union rights in this country, the international trade union movement ICFTU today said in a protest statement.
It was on Sunday that the General Secretary of the Workers' Trade Union Centre of Central Africa (USTC), Théophile Sonny Colé, was arrested at Bangui airport. He was released on Monday afternoon. Mr. Colé was taken for questioning by the police as he was returning from a trip abroad. His passport was confiscated and he was held in custody at the premises of the Research and Documentation Inquiry Section (SERD).
The African department of the ICFTU, ICFTU-AFRO, immediately alerted the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and wrote to the President of the Central African Republic to condemn the arrest and provide the Central African authorities with information concerning Colé's trip abroad. As General Secretary of the USTC, he had taken part in the ICFTU-AFRO Congress in Nairobi from 23 to 26 May.
He left there, heading for Abidjan on 27 May. Owing to military operations in Bangui however, the flight taking him back to the Central African Republic's capital was diverted to N'Djamena, from where he was not able to return to Bangui until June 17.
Back in January 1999, he was arrested and severely beaten by the presidential Security Unit, according to the ICFTU. In September of the same year, he was prevented from taking part in a unionist congress in Johannesburg, South Africa. In October, he was again prevented from leaving the country when he arrived at the airport to take part in the AFRO Executive Board meeting.
The USTC, the country's largest national trade union centre, is one of five national centres who have been asking the Central African government for months to pay the several months worth of salary arrears owed to civil servants.
Social upheavals, together with conflicts based on ethnical lines, have been the main reasons behind the political instability in the Central African Republic over the last years. These trends culiminated in a coup attempt under one month ago, from which President Patassé's regime still has not recovered.
Tension was mounting between the government and trade unions over unpaid salary arrears in November last year, to such a level that it endangered the country's "peace and security in", according to the UN. The unions arranged strikes and protest marches over pay arrears in Bangui. Radicalised youth groups, the so-called 'Flambeau centrafricain' (Central African Torch), also took to weapons.
The monthly minimum wage in the Central African Republic is equivalent to about US$ 12 (7,800 CFA francs) for agricultural workers but to about US$ 28 (18,000 CFA francs) for office workers. The minimum wage does not enable a worker and family to afford the basic necessities and is not adequate to maintain a decent standard of living. Most labour is however performed outside the wage and social security system, especially by farmers in the large subsistence agricultural sector.
The national Labour Code also includes general laws on health and safety standards in the workplace, but the Ministry of Labor and Civil Service does not actively enforce them, a matter about which the International Labor Organization has expressed concern to the government for many years. Government claims it does not have sufficient funding to follow international labour rights and other human rights.
Sources: Based on ICFTU and afrol archives