In recognition of the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights in one of the world’s most autocratic countries, we are proud to award the annual George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to the Trade Union Confederation of Swaziland (TUCOSWA). Despite legal and physical attacks on Swaziland workers and their allies, TUCOSWA has remained resolute in its support for worker rights, its defense of its right to exist, and its support of human rights activists who have been illegally harassed and imprisoned. TUCOSWA continues to lead efforts to make Swaziland a more inclusive, just, and democratic country.
The labor movement in Swaziland has long been recognized as a center of the country’s independent civil society. Unions enjoy a basic legal platform for worker rights advocacy, and the country’s labor relations system includes a labor court, a mediation and conciliation body, and a system of tripartite dialogue between unions, employers, and government. Yet in recent years, this system has faltered as all aspects of civil society, including unions, independent political activists, and journalists have come under increased political pressure. TUCOSWA, formed in 2012 when the Swaziland Federation of Labour, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, and the Swaziland National Association for Teachers merged, was refused registration and legal standing for three years, during which time the political space for unions constricted. Tripartite dialogue was discontinued and freedom of association was curtailed by regular police actions against union meetings and protests.
Through persistent efforts and support from unions in Southern Africa and worldwide, TUCOSWA won its recognition battle in May 2015, but continues to face hurdles in the way of making legal standing a reality. TUCOSWA has faced down many efforts to splinter its unity, remaining united and refusing to back down from its core beliefs. Despite regular police presence, unions continue to meet and assemble publicly. While the ban on political parties is enforced as a ban on all political speech, TUCOSWA steadfastly refuses to stop voicing its support for a more open political system based on parliamentary democracy. Swaziland’s trade unions continue to advocate and support fellow civic leaders and human rights activists who are regularly harassed and/or jailed, including the recently released labor lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu, as well as political dissidents Maxwell Dlamini and Mario Masuku. TUCOSWA made a strategic decision to support an AFL-CIO petition on worker rights violations knowing that union jobs could be at stake.
Despite pressure from other countries and the International Labor Organization, Swaziland’s government refuses to make promised policy reforms that would recognize freedom of assembly, speech, and organization and curtail the broad discretionary authority that police use to disrupt union activities and arrest civil society activists including union leaders, journalists, student leaders, and political dissidents. The Swaziland government’s aggressive stance consistently violates its international commitment to core labor standards and endangers the country’s economic development. Because of its open violation of the worker rights eligibility criteria in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), Swaziland lost preferential access to the U.S. market in 2015. This resulted in the loss of thousands of garment sector jobs and risks thousands more over the course of the year. The government’s inconsistent decision-making remains the biggest hurdle to job creation and poverty reduction in the country.
The AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center, and international unions have supported TUCOSWA through these difficult times and remain committed to seeing the federation remain unified and resolute in its defense of worker rights and support for democracy. Swaziland will not be able to address its major economic needs without a strong TUCOSWA supporting worker efforts to organize, bargain, and advocate for their basic human rights. For its dedication to fighting for a more democratic country that recognizes and protects freedom of association and worker rights, the AFL-CIO is pleased to award TUCOSWA the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.