A labour dispute has put Madagascar’s port of Toamasina under the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. While the government is keen to highlight a recent funding agreement with the Japanese government, the sacking of port workers has become a cause celebre for the international labour movement.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is to investigate the government of Madagascar over the sacking of 43 employees by International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI), which operates the port, for joining a trades union. The Malagasy courts ruled that the workers should be permitted to join a union but the government has failed to uphold the decision.
Syndicat General Maritime de Madagascar (SYGMMA), which is the union representing the port workers, took the matter to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which in turn has filed a complaint with the ILO against the government of Madagascar. ICTSI, which has operated the port under a 20 year concession since 2005, has experienced labour disputes at other ports it has managed around the world.
ITF general secretary Steve Cotton said: “The local union took action through the Madagascan Courts and won – yet the Government refuses to obey the court direction. None of the 43 workers who were dismissed for union activity have been reinstated. Many of these workers earn just $40 a month and were engaged in legitimate union activity to try and improve their working conditions.”
He added: “They face very dangerous working conditions and stood up in the face of intimidation and retaliation from management. The ITF will be coordinating escalating action to get the message to the government that they must act to reinstate these workers.” The ITF argues that dock workers at Toamasina are employed under poor conditions and with little protection. They are entitled to join a trades union under the country’s employment legislation.
Levi Strauss targeted
Campaigners have sought to encourage Levi Strauss and the other big garment manufacturers that produce clothing in the country to put pressure on the government and ICTSI. More than $500m worth of textile products were exported through the port last year. The ITF published a report in order to pressurise Levi Strauss, entitled Levi’s: End the Double Standard in your Supply Chain. Protests are also being held outside the company’s retail outlets around the world.
ITF president Paddy Crumlin commented: “Levi’s are industry leaders in developing policies to improve workers’ rights in their factories but the same rights need to be extended to their global supply chains. Levi’s policies have seen improvements in working conditions for the garment workers but transport workers that deliver Levi’s jeans and other apparel to stores across the globe are being exploited and working in dangerous conditions.”
Toamasina is the biggest port in Madagascar and handles 90% of the country’s international trade. It is set to benefit from a Y45.2bn ($414m) loan on preferential terms from the Japanese government. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed the loan agreement in late March. The money is to be repaid over 40 years at an interest rate of just 0.01% with a ten year grace period.
The money will be used to finance dredging work, the extension of the breakwater and the construction of a new dedicated container berth, plus associated consultancy and advisory services. Apart from more than doubling the port’s annual handling capacity, the work will allow larger vessels to use the port. All work on the project is due to be completed by April 2026. A tender for the Phase 1 work will be launched by the end of this April.
JICA has funded the completion of master plans into economic development in Madagascar. It has also financed the construction of other big container projects elsewhere in the eastern half of Africa, including Nacala Container Terminal and the second container terminal at Mombasa in Kenya.
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