Kigali — When Abdon Nkotanyi, 43, returned from exile in 1994, one thing he noticed was that there was no trade unionism in the country. Well, put more fairly, it was there, but loudly dormant. Quite a different picture from Tanzania, where he had grown up, gone to school and worked.
From his modest Kacyiru 'Ministeri' office, the smartly dressed General Secretary of SENJOUSMELI, a trade union he revived in pursuance of his dream of a vibrant movement in a fast growing Rwandan labour market, exudes the aura of confidence that is the preserve for high-flying trade unionists in a volatile environment of cut-throat capitalism, regular strike actions and numerous Industrial Court cases. He has all the hallmarks of a forceful negotiator: he is affable, eloquent, very selective of diction, and has the Labour Code and international labour practice at his fingertips.
He looks misplaced.
Being a trained, retired trade unionist myself, I first engage him in an exchange of notes. We go through various memorable moments in "the struggle", each retracing his road, before I ask him the question: "What made you think of getting into trade unionism, and in a country with a relatively calm industrial relations climate like Rwanda, of all places?"
SENJOUSMELI (Syndicat des Enseignants, Journalistes, Ouvriers techniciens, Services médicaux, Librairies et Industries/Informelle ainsi que d'autres du secteur privé) was a shell when Nkotanyi took it up in 1999, first as a movement, registering it with the Ministry of Labour through the Official Gazette as an independent trade union in 2004, he says. As its name reads, the union caters for employees in the private sector: educators, journalists, technicians, medical personnel, librarians, industrial/informal sector workers, and others. Lately, he has brought on board private security guards and is strategising on transforming informal sector workers into formal trade unionism.
He says that SENJOUSMELI was founded under the umbrella body, CESTRAR, in 1985 but had remained largely "inactive" - like, he adds, the other 17 fellow CESTRAR affiliates.
"I realised that the labour movement in Rwanda needed grassroots strength first before we could even talk about a strong umbrella body," says Nkotanyi. But there was no "strong umbrella body" either. "So there was need to narrow down the scope, reach the grassroots." He therefore, with his meagre savings, plunged himself into transforming SENJOUSMELI into a formidable entity that would be "more in touch with the worker", at the workplace.
I then discover that he is not as misplaced as I had initially thought. Rather, his 'wild' dream seems the most appropriate, and it seems to be bearing fruit. With a current membership of 4,000 "active" members and counting, the untiring Nkotanyi already has a lot in his hands. And he is not done yet.
"We are targeting a membership of 15,000 in ten years' time," he says, meaning it.
Incidentally, his union has an elaborate hierarchy in place, with its smallest unit at the workplace. There, in every office, factory or any other workplace where SENJOUSMELI has members, are representatives who form an Executive Committee of Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Treasurer and Women's Representative, all elected by a General Meeting comprising of all members at the workplace. So it is at the district level.
A similar structure at the provincial level has a Provincial Executive Committee, a Provincial Council and a Provincial Congress, in ascending order, with members of each level being included in the higher one. The same applies at the national level. But here, the National General Council also includes representatives from every profession that has members in the union as well as representatives from every workplace, and the National Congress the National General Council, the National Executive Committee and all Executive Committees from every workplace.
The National Executive Committee is made up of the General Secretary as the highest position, four Deputy General Secretaries, the National Treasurer and the National Women's Representative. The four Deputy GS's are the In-charge of Communication and International Relations, In-charge of Organising, Women's Rep., and General Treasurer.
All SENJOUSMELI posts are elective, hastily adds Nkotanyi, reinforcing his assertion that his union draws much of its strength from its democracy.
"We held democratic elections even before the government," brags Nkotanyi, a huge smile on his face, expounding that this was done at its inaugural Congress (national general meeting) in 2001, with another one in November 2005. Rwanda held her first democratic general elections (presidential, parliamentary and civic) in 2003.
Thanks to Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) signed with various willing employers, the union leader says, SENJOUSMELI has been able to benefit members in places like KK Security and Garsec Security, among others. Among the recent successes he has on his roll are several reinstatements; negotiation of better terms for workers, including higher salaries; introduction of employment contracts at various workplaces; and reinvigorating remittance of social security fund contributions. He also cites the case of private secondary school teachers, for whom the union successfully negotiated a 12% salary increment.
I am not surprised when he claims that many workers do not have employment contracts, but I am when he accuses some employers of deducting but illegally withhold employee's contributions to the national social security fund (CSR).
He has also been negotiating an out-of-court settlement on behalf of workers who have not been paid their salaries for September, which he had resolved with the employer at the time of filing this report. The employer, Garsec, also agreed to refund to the employees by the end of the year or upon cessation of employment deductions made over four months for insurance premiums and contributions to a voluntary Credit and Savings Scheme (CSS) but not remitted.
We are interrupted by a telephone call from a distraught worker who has been denied sick leave despite showing the manager a letter from the doctor to that effect. We must hurry the interview, we silently agree. Later, he would tell me of an employee who had been assaulted as he went to demand his salary from his former employer.
Nkotanyi's inspiration? Well, for the holder of a Higher Diploma in Business Management from Tanzania, the "unique nature" of private sector employees was a huge gap that was waiting to be filled. He took up the challenge.
"Unlike civil servants who are under one employer, the private sector has many employers with divergent views," explains Nkotanyi. "That means dealing with complicated cases of people of diverse backgrounds and conflicting understanding of industrial relations. Hence the need for a trade union that is as unique as the situation."
But obstacles are always in his way. Among the upsets are cases where obstinate and/or ignorant employers fiercely oppose trade unionism among their staff. Such employers openly vigorously harass whoever would as much as mention the word, sometimes even sacking the culprits, says Nkotanyi. The experience of an employee I later interviewed correlated to the claim.
"Others refuse to deduct union dues from their employees, even with the employee's authority as provided for by law," he charges. He cites as examples Fodey Security Services and SoS Children's Home.
Yet there are employees who are ignorant about trade unionism, giving union leaders a complex assignment of educating them, he avers, a claim that is verified by interviewing randomly sampled workers. As a solution, he has in his five-year plan a provision for setting up a training centre, which would be preceded by a countrywide training programme.
"Funding is the major problem," moans Nkotanyi. "It's very hard to accomplish all this without money." Currently, the union runs entirely on members' dues, he says.
Has he tried some ... donors, maybe?
"Yes. I've sent proposals, but up to now I'm yet to get a feedback. We'll manage though. One day...." his voice trails off, but with rare optimism. For instance, he says, a proposal he put forward to the South African Embassy in Kigali for the training programme is yet to be accepted, although he is still banking on it.
But there must be other challenges, I pose.
"Yes, there are. For instance, we have a problem with the law-"
"What? With the government?"
"No no no. We have no problem with the government at all. In fact, we enjoy very cordial relations with the government; it actually supports us a lot. After all, we have nothing against each other. Look, we deal with private sector employers, not the public sector. So where would a clash with the government come from?" poses Nkotanyi. He underscores that the Rwandan Constitution gives trade unions "the right to exist".
"Our problem is with the Labour Law ... some aspects of it. For instance, there is a legal lacuna in dealing with employers who deny their workers their right to demonstrate peacefully in case of a deadlock," he says. "Some even deny workers the right to join a trade union of their [workers'] choice, although it is clearly granted in the Labour Law." He quotes Labour Code No. 50/2001 of 30th December 2001, Chapter 3 Article 151, which states: "The right to be a member of a trade union is granted to every worker in every enterprise in conformity with rights and freedoms enshrined in the Fundamental Law."
"There is also the problem of representation of unionisable workers in courts of law. First, there is no Industrial Court in Rwanda and, second, trade unionists are not allowed to represent workers in court," laments Nkotanyi. He cites an incident where a judge bluntly told him he did not have powers to appear for a worker in court, and he has since been hiring lawyers for such tasks whenever they come up.
"Although I tried to argue with him [judge] a bit, I knew I didn't have the legal powers for that. So I gave in," he reminisces. He cites the same Labour Code's Cap 3 Arts 151-159 on "Exercising the Trade Union Right", particularly Art. 153 that grants trade union committee members "the mandate to represent their trade union before their employer and assist members in their claims." Instructively, the chapter is silent on such representation in a court of law.
The Minister of Public Service, Skills Development and Labour, Professor Manasseh Nshuti, however refuted the allegations.
"No, that is not true," he said of the issue of court representation by union officials. He said a worker can represent him/herself in court "just as an individual may represent himself; they don't necessarily have to hire a lawyer for that," he said when contacted on phone.
On the issue of an Industrial Court, Nshuti said there is actually in place a law on labour disputes, although the issue of setting up a specialised court for labour disputes is being addressed. "In the meantime," he advised, "those affected can seek redress in the ordinary courts."
When contacted, Industry and Investment Promotion state minister in the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Investment Promotion, Tourism and Cooperatives (MINICOM), Vincent Karega, said a law establishing a Commercial Court has already been adopted by Cabinet and is only waiting to go through Parliament. He added that the law, drafted by the Justice ministry under the ongoing wide-ranging law reforms, also takes into account "mediation and reconciliation mechanisms" for settling disputes "in a friendly manner" without parties necessarily engaging in legal suits.
Like Prof. Nshuti, Karega also said workers may seek redress from the ordinary courts, although there currently exist "special chambers" where labour disputes can be resolved. He said one of the factors that guided the Commercial Court draft was the need to expedite business oriented disputes by separating them from the rest.
"The same courts that deal with business also deal with other issues," he said, adding that due to delays in these courts, occasioned by their huge workload, and in a bid to avoid losses to businesses due to the delays, there is need to have a special court that deals exclusively with business issues, including labour disputes.
Although not opposed to the establishment of an Industrial Court, Karega however echoed Prof. Nshuti's view that time is not ripe for one, particularly in a country with a nascent industry like Rwanda.
"We can have an Industrial Court when industry grows significantly," Karega said. "Everything goes according to the size of business." He added that the anticipated Commercial Court will also "take care of industrial disputes".
Nkotanyi agrees with the ministers on the existence of the law to resolve labour disputes but says that that is not enough.
"We need to have powers to represent our members in court as is done elsewhere," he says, adding that this can only be possible if an industrial court is in place. "Again, Rwanda has only around 200 lawyers; how would these satisfactorily cater for the huge labour force?"
Karega was, however, on the view that in the meantime workers should continue to be represented in court by labour lawyers, who he said have more expertise in the field than trade union representatives. He observed that in the past there was a provision that allowed union leaders to do that but the same unionists complained that they were not being paid for, hence the entry of labour lawyers into the scene.
He was also quick to point out that, unless in the past where trade unions were set up by the government, the current ones have been voluntarily set up by workers. He added that the Labour ministry recently put in place a requirement that union representatives must be elected by members, hence giving them democratic space.
Infighting to blame
Although empathising with workers, Prof. Nshuti however put blame at the trade unionists' doorstep. Citing an ongoing feud between CESTRAR and CRISAT for the position of the bona fide umbrella body that he has been arbitrating, he lamented infighting within the unions. CRISAT was founded by a splinter group of dissatisfied executive committee members of CESTRAR, further investigations revealed.
"Sometimes the trade unions seem not to be working for the interests of the workers. They still have much to do," Nshuti observed. He said the government is already doing its part and, while assuring them of government support, advised the leaders to have patience and show restraint.
"Rwanda is still new to trade unionism," the minister noted, adding that trade unions operate more freely nowadays than they used to during the previous regimes.
Nkotanyi, who served as General Treasurer of CESTRAR between 1996 and 2001 and as its Head of Finance and Projects in 2005, largely concurs with the minister, especially on the issue of the wrangles. He agrees that the government can only deal with one umbrella body that is organised, and hopes the arbitration efforts will bear fruit soon.
Regarding many employers' antipathy to trade unionism, Nkotanyi is quick to dispel the "widely held misconception" that trade unions are "just out to cause chaos".
"On the contrary, trade unions bring together workers with diverse backgrounds for the common good. We call each other 'Brother' and 'Sister'," he says. "Comrade" is also widely used globally.
Industrial Relations instructors teach that a good trade union leader is one that harmonises the divergent interests of the employer and the employee for the common good. Both parties look at returns to investment: the employer seeks maximum revenue at minimum cost, while the employee wants maximum remuneration from minimum effort. The unionist must, therefore, bring the two together.
In order to keep the job, the employee needs to put in maximum effort and produce a quality product at minimum cost for the employer; to keep the enterprise profitable and running, the employer has to keep the employee satisfied. The unionist, therefore, plays the role of 'referee' - to ensure fairness and cordial relations, hence mutual benefits.
But to attain that the unionist - as well as the employer and the workers - must be prepared to occasionally make sacrifices.
In another dimension, the family man and father of three believes that trade unionism is more than a channel for airing grievances and making demands: it is also an integral tool for unity and reconciliation in a country with as horrid a past as Rwanda's, he opines. He also sees in it a significant role in national development as well as in building democracy and human rights. In order to preserve the nation's labour force, SENJOUSMELI also has in its five-year plan a strategy for HIV/Aids awareness among workers, he adds.
While living outside his motherland, Nkotanyi says, he learnt the merits of organisation, solidarity, self-preservation and self-sufficiency, and that is what he is passing on.
'Like a culture'
"In other countries, trade unionism is like a culture. In Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, every employer knows his obligations, and every worker is aware that he should join a trade union. Workers see the trade union as a savoir," he observes.
Despite the teething problems, Nkotanyi sees a great future for trade unionism in Rwanda, based not on tyranny but on fairness and mutual benefit, hence helping in nation building.
"I'm happy because I'm implementing it," he enthuses.
Meanwhile, SENJOUSMELI has applied for affiliation with international bodies like UNE, the international union of private sector workers, reveals Nkotanyi. In the quest for better service and more rights for members, it has also been pushing for the contentious legal amendments - including demands for better "legal determination" (court awards for illegally dismissed workers) and the legal minimum wage. This it does through discussions with the Labour ministry and by participating in the relevant public debates, including open Parliamentary commission sessions, he says.
So what does a worker pay to access the services of a trade union?
"It varies with the particular union, but at SENJOUSMELI membership is 100 francs only per member per month-"
"One hundred?!" I interject, surprised.
"...Yes, but the Congress agreed to make it a uniform one percent of net salary from next year " he quickly adds. "Every member will also be issued with a membership card." He adds that one needs to have worked for only three months in Rwanda to qualify for membership, and that his union does not discriminate in any way - whether on lines of gender, nationality, race or creed.
But the effect the change will have on the union dues is overshadowed by a special arrangement: 30 percent of the dues will be saved for each contributor, to be refunded in case of cessation of membership due to loss of the job, retirement, death, or other reasons.
As part of his social obligation, through SENJOUSMELI Nkotanyi is promoting Shalom Club, an association of former students of Israeli institutions, where he took a course, "Workers' Education Related to Development", in 2000.
Mr Marete is The Sunday Times editor.