TUC member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Governing Body Sam Gurney has spoken to the Committee on the Application of Standards at the ILO Conference in Geneva about the appalling abuses of human and trade union rights in Swaziland. Here is his speech.
11 June 2010
Swaziland: time for human rights - remember Sipho Jele
This is my second conference and although last year I was on another committee I attended the discussion on Swaziland, as the British TUC - whom I represent here and on the ILO Governing Body - have always taken a close interest in the struggles of our Swazi colleagues.
I was most struck by the intervention of the employer spokesperson last year who, and I paraphrase, said that he had been involved in cases relating to Swaziland before this committee since 1997 and that almost every year he had heard the government's representatives say the same thing:
- legislation was being changed;
- the situation was improving; and
- Swaziland would soon be compliant.
He concluded by saying he was tired of hearing this again and again and seeing no change. Well sadly I say there has been change, but it has been change for the worse. For instance only today we have been told of a new law to remove the right to bail for anyone arrested for taking part in protests.
I am tasked with adding to the historical context for today's discussion and giving one example of current repression. This is important because it shows why the representative of the Swaziland government's statement must be taken with a high degree of scepticism.
Swaziland gained its independence and, it was hoped, genuine freedom for its people in 1968 with the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
However in 1973 the then governing party effectively ceded absolute power back to the King and established the long lasting state of emergency that, despite the hope invested in the 2006 constitution, effectively remains in place to this day.
Swaziland joined the ILO in 1975 and in the following years ratified a large number of conventions, 16 in a single day in 1978.
Sadly as we have heard it has honoured many of them only in the breach and in particular has failed on conventions 89 and 98.
With political parties banned, unions have continued to play an essential role in representing the interests of ordinary Swazi citizens and they have paid a high price.
Others have already cited the list of repression they have faced including:
- violent attacks on workers in the textile and sugar industries which have been reported in detail to the ILO;
- the attacks on former SFTU leader and governing body member Jan Sithole which we discussed last year; and
- recently we have seen suspicious burglaries and thefts of computer equipment from union leaders' homes and a bomb attack on the house of Alex Langwenya. The culprits are unknown, but the fact that the police arrived minutes after the attack, before they had even been called, and proceeded to arrest Mr Langwenya himself is not very reassuring.
The full list is long and depressing.
I want to comment today on one of the most recent violations that has occurred since the Committee of Experts report.
As brother Gina has said, on May Day this year Swazi trade unionists gathered at the Salesian Sports ground to celebrate international workers day.
Their banners read 'workers unite and fight for decent work and social justice in Swaziland.' Sentiments I hope nearly all in this room would agree with.
The police, using the Suppression of Terrorism Act, swarmed the stands allegedly searching for people wearing the T-shirts of banned organisations. Many were violently arrested, including guest speakers, indeed the head of the Swazi Consumers Association was arrested on the grounds he was not 'a worker.'
Most of those arrested were later released. However nothing was heard of union member Sipho Jele, his family were interrogated for over four hours, but were not told where he was being detained or what was happening to him.
On the 4th of May his body was released to them and they were informed that he had hanged himself from the rafters of the prison toilet and must be buried immediately.
Very few people believe he really killed himself.
Colleagues when you read the requests and recommendations in the expert’s report, when you consider the statements of the Swazi government representative today and when you think about the conclusions this committee will issue, I ask you consider the history of broken commitments and to remember Sipho Jele and all those fighting for their most basic rights in Swaziland today.
We must show them that the ILO can take action that will lead to real change.