- Labour disputes over months of unpaid salaries have been a mayor cause on instability in the Central African Republic over the last decade. Last year was not better. Meanwhile, the Bangui government has answered by trying to break trade unions' power.
In the Central African Republic, the problem of salary arrears of public servants and state officials has led to many strikes, which the government tried to break by exerting pressure on the trade unionists, according to the annual survey of violations of trade union rights, released yesterday by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
Year 2002 was, so far, the last year of civilian rule in the Central African Republic. This troubled year saw a large number of strikes in the health and education sectors, because of many months of non-payment of salary arrears.
In December last year, the cross-sectoral teachers’ organisation Interfédérale des Enseignants de Centrafrique (IFEC) denounced the "underhand" government measures to break the strike it had organised since 23 September, aimed at obtaining the nine of the 32 months of salary arrears owed to civil servants and officials, the ICFTU survey notes.
The unions especially had condemned the pressure exerted on children's parents and the improper recruitment of unqualified temporary teaching staff to replace teachers. It had also condemned the redeployment of several striking teachers to different parts of the country and the "veiled threats made against union officials in Bangui and the provinces."
Dialogue between the government and trade unions had already broken down in May 2001, with the unions accusing the government of failing to honour an agreement signed on 6 March of that year. The agreement aimed at ending a fierce five-month strike by civil servants by paying wages regularly and settling salary arrears.
The social unrest caused by the large salary arrears and the following strikes had been one of the main problems for the democratically elected government of President Ange-Félix Patassé. His civilian government never achieved receiving the UN-promised funding from the World Bank to ease social conflicts. This in turn was one of the principal reasons behind the success of General Francois Bozize's coup in March this year.
The ICFTU survey further reports that, in theory, trade unions and workers enjoy rather good labour rights, compared to African standards. The country's labour code allows all workers to join trade unions, without prior authorisation.
The right to strike is recognised in both public and private sectors, but is "curtailed by complicated procedures," ICFTU says. After a union has presented its demands, and the employer has responded to those demands, there has to be conciliation between labour and management.
If no settlement is reached an arbitration council must rule that the union and the employer failed to agree on valid demands; only then may a strike be called which can subsequently be declared legal. If a union calls a strike, only its members can join in the action.
The government further reserves the right to requisition workers if it is in the "general interest". The labour code does not foresee sanctions against employers for acting against strikers. The Code does not specifically recognise the right to bargain collectively, but does protect workers from employer interference in the administration of a union.
In practical terms in the troubled civil service, wages are set by the Ministry of Labour, "further to consultation but not negotiation with the unions." In the private sector, collective bargaining has played a role in setting wages, but this had been "undermined by the continuing catastrophic economic situation and long-term salary arrears."
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