VIII-1. African Trade-Unionism in the 21th Century – Coming of Age?

Convener: Maciel Morais Santos (University of Porto, Portugal); e-mails:,

Capital exports in colonial times induced the making of an African working class and later of African trade-unionism. From the 1940’s to the 1970’s the African trade-unions played a relevant role in fostering the growth and modernization of the African societies, in spite of an increasing governmental control and harassment for much of them. Yet, in the two following decades, the increase of public debts and the delocalization of capital fluxes blocked the power of the African labour organizations. In the mid-1990’s the investment in Africa resumed. However, the correlation of forces in African labour markets was no longer favourable to the Trade Unions. African working class used to represent less than 8% of the total population (except in South-Africa), which created a very tight labour demand that favoured the worker’s claims. The breakdown of traditional rural society, the rapid urban development and the social deregulation reinforced by the weakness of the African states allowed for a growing informal sector. The result was an excessive supply of cheap wage labour. The collapse of government control over the unions also brought them, in several cases, a pervasive side effect by accelerating the Union splits. In spite of the OATUU efforts, until now Union pan-African and regional organisations have not been able to reverse the trend of decreasing social role for the Unions. How can African labour Trade Unions frame these new and large sectors of African societies in order to recover its lost power for industrial action? Will African labour be able to restore its political role and fulfil the vacuum left in many of the African civil societies? This panel proposal intends to present a general view of the main features of African trade unionism during the last 50 years. It is part of ongoing project of research on African labour and its organisations. The discussion within this panel aims to widen the research network on this broad social topic.