For Cestrar to be effective much more effort is required
Recently the federation of trade unions, Cestrar (Central des Syndicats des Travailleurs du Rwanda), which groups 20 unions, celebrated its silver jubilee. Yet it seems more efforts are required for it to become an effective workers’ advocacy organization.
Cestrar was created back in 1985 with the mandate to advocate for workers rights, play an important role in training workers regarding their rights and also act as a bridge with government as well as the private sector.
At the start Cestrar was forced to work in a participatory way with the government rather than full advocacy, due to political influence from the then government which provided financial support. But in 1992, in its first ever congress, Cestrar members cut out the political influence, refusing any financial support from government and pushing for reforms that would make it independent from politics.
Cestrar, just like any other institution, had been heavily affected by the war yet the spirit never died as they continued to push for workers well being.
“It was not easy by then but we kept on pushing. We kept seeking dialogue from government on better ways to establish a clear mechanism that would look at workers rights,” says Eric Manzi, Cestrar’s executive secretary.
He confirms that in the first five years the road was bumpy dealing with government as well as the small and medium enterprises. He also indicates that though bigger private institutions such as Rwandatel, Bralirwa and MTN tend to be cooperative with Cestrar as regards the welfare of workers, in the end nothing much changes.
Despite his criticism, Manzi credits them for allowing Cestrar syndicates to operate within their institutions unlike in government where they do not exist. “Cestrar has no representatives in government institutions and it makes our job harder to understand employees’ situations,” Manzi says.
That does not mean Cestrar has nothing to celebrate. According to Manzi, one of their main achievements is the role the federation played during the amendment of the 1962 labor code in 2002. Manzi believes that the amendment ensured workers enjoyed more rights – no worker can be fired without good reason; employees can acquire a contract after three months on the job; and maternity leave has been increased.
Yet the recent amendment of the labor code has dealt a blow to the federation. “Some of the workers benefits we had pushed for in 2002 were scrapped but we are going to keep on pushing to make things better for workers,” Manzi says
Doing business reforms
According to the SG, in its drive to ease doing business in Rwanda, the government is focusing entirely on investors, sometimes at the expense of workers’ rights. “The new labor law is aligned to the Doing Business reforms, which is good in terms of attracting investments but also hampers some basic rights of employees,” Manzi says.
Since the first draft of the new law was out, deliberations have been going on ever since and from the look of it Cestrar is fighting an already lost battle. Some of the federation’s concerns about the new labor code are types of contracts, reducing the number of holidays, increased working hours and three to six months of pay for retrenched employees. Concerning this last issue, Cestrar vows to fight against what it regards as unfair treatment.
“We still have that point in our mind and we are set to table it for discussion in the next national labor council meeting,” Manzi points out.
Another bone of contention is maternity leave, during the first half of which employees receive a full salary, but this drops to only 20% in the remaining period. The private sector lobbied for the change claiming that it was costly to pay 12 weeks leave with no output from the employee.
It was later decided that a Maternity Leave Fund will be established to take care of all the payments. “As for now, employees seeking maternity leave will have to accept half pay,” Manzi says.
Cestrar is also far from satisfied with the government’s stance on strikes, which is that it regards them as a means to cause trouble. The federation, for its part, argues that strikes are a legitimate mode of expression for workers if their concerns are not addressed in time. Yet so far the government hasn’t budged, and its authorization is still required for any such action. Cestrar clearly still has a long way to go in this respect.
What also causes friction is the lack of a clearly defined pay scale, which results in wage inequalities among people doing the same job. “You can find a secretary in one institution earning Frw 100,000, while elsewhere a similar employee gets thrice that amount,” Manzi points out. He therefore urges the government to establish a uniform pay scale, including minimum wages, to avoid such inequalities.
Overall, Manzi feels that the new labor law has reduced Cestrar’s bargaining powers especially on bigger issues, because the government development plans which have taken center stage.
Trade union spirit lacking
However, it seems that Cestrar itself has part of the blame to take for its weakness, since its functioning still has many gaps. For instance, few employees really know and understand what the federation stands for or whether it even exists.
In addition, since it has opted to forego government financing in order to maintain its independence, Cestrar lacks the funds to improve its public awareness programs. Which is indeed problematic, since the federation depends on members’ contributions for its financing. Manzi therefore urges workers to become members of trade unions, all the more so since it will help to identify their concerns and be dealt with. However, he hastens to add that Cestrar is there to advocate for all workers, irrespective of them being union members.
Eric Manzi recognizes, though, that it will require more work to get people on board. “Trade union spirit is still lacking among employees,” he admits. “What is more, they often seem to think that Cestrar just wants money from them, without realizing that we are there to lobby for their wellbeing.”