Textile, leather and garment unions in sub-Saharan Africa have met in Kenya to discuss how workers' rights can be protected using the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

Organised by the Solidarity Centre Kenya in Nairobi, the workshop was attended by 27 participants including IndustriAll Global Union affiliates from Ethiopia, Eswatini, Kenya and Lesotho, confederations from the four countries, and regional bodies the East African Trade Union Confederation (EATUC) and the Southern Africa Trade Union Coordition Council (SATUCC).

40 African countries are beneficiaries of AGOA – with 26 enjoying duty-free garment exports to the US. The trade agreement has provisions to protect workers' rights including freedom of association and collective bargaining. 

The US law also aims to promote industrialisation through economic policies that reduce poverty, develop infrastructure and provide social services as well as support private enterprise. The integration of African economies into global trade through building trade capacity and linking African to US businesses are some of the goals.

However, the law is silent on women workers' rights, and the environment, the unions say, claiming it doesn't also adequately cover supply chains and brands that are sourcing from the AGOA benefiting countries. They also claim most AGOA benefitting countries are not paying living wages – for instance, in the garment sector in Ethiopia wages are as low as US$30.

To counter mass unemployment and precarious work, unions in Sub Saharan Africa see job creation and decent work as critical, IndustriAll says, adding they also recognise the "pivotal role" of international trade agreements in providing much-needed jobs. 

"International trade laws such as AGOA are important to Africa's industrialisation, which is lagging behind other continents," says Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriAll regional secretary for sub-Saharan Africa. "AGOA's support for regional integration is in line with the African Union Agenda 2063 and the African Continental Free Trade Area. By boosting exports, through duty-free access to US markets, AGOA has potential to create jobs in sub-Saharan Africa."