Swaziland is the only African country with US trade privileges that the American Trade Department has been asked to remove from a list of countries eligible for such economic benefits, according to a petition filed by the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO).
"The AFL-CIO petitions for the withdrawal of Swaziland's status as a beneficiary developing country, on the grounds that the government of Swaziland has not been and is not taking steps to afford internationally-recognised worker rights," reads the document that was accepted by the US government after nine months of debate.
The government and business community fear that the end of Swaziland's participation in two US trade schemes, including the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), will reverse recent growth in manufacturing. AGOA, which allows Swazi-made goods tax-free entrance into the American market, has encouraged foreign industrial investment.
"Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost overnight. Factories that came here to take advantage of AGOA would relocate to Lesotho or another country with the same benefits. Government's tax revenue base will also take a hit," said one garment factory manager at the Matsapha Industrial Estate, 30 km east of the capital, Mbabane.
Noting that the manufacturing sector took the lead last year in job creation, thanks to companies trading with the US, the Central Bank of Swaziland said in its annual state of the economy report, issued this week, "Swaziland's membership to AGOA assisted the country to retain existing foreign direct investment [FDI] as well as to attract fresh FDI inflows, particularly in the textile-manufacturing sector.
"Government is, however, urged to immediately implement a corrective plan to remove the growing threats to the country's trade privileges under AGOA."
The government has responded to the AFL-CIO petition by hiring lobbyists in Washington, Enterprise and Employment Minister Lufto Dlamini told a press conference this week. Dlamini said the lobbyists had helped Swaziland recover trade privileges suspended after King Mswati's approval of an Industrial Relations Act that severely curtailed union activity. Mswati later withdrew the law.
The AFL-CIO petition was drawn up with the cooperation of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), and presents a damning portrait of an authoritarian government.
"Despite the fact that Swaziland has ratified core International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions, the trade union movement remains a target of repression, and faces continuing interference by the authorities," the petition to the US Trade Representative said.
"The judiciary system, hindered by [the] heavy-handed impact of authorities, has been unable to consistently rule impartially. In this repressive atmosphere the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) constantly struggles to fulfil its democratically elected mandate to represent working people independently and fairly," the American unionists wrote.
AGOA was designed to reward only those African nations with market economies and a commitment to democracy. As such, the Act is specific on a participating nation's commitment to labour issues, which it defines as follows: "A country has taken, or is taking, steps to afford internationally recognised worker rights, including (1) the right of association, (2) the right to organise and bargain collectively, (3) freedom from compulsory labour, (4) a minimum age for the employment of children, and (5) acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health."
A Western diplomat told IRIN that "the Act is not about human rights and politics so much as workers' rights. These have to be observed. The Swaziland petition does not get into governance abuses. It sticks to violations of workers' rights".
The diplomatic source said over nine months had passed from the submission of the labour organisations' petition, in December 2002, to its acceptance this month. Now that workers' concerns have been granted a hearing, an inspection team will come to Swaziland.
According to the labour federations' petition, the team will delve into a long history of abuses, arrests, detentions, prevention of workers' meetings by police, and "significant legal restrictions that impede workers' rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining".
The petition notes that a State of Emergency introduced in 1973 is still in force, despite the apparent lack of any emergency. "Political parties are banned and constitutional freedoms remain suspended. Swazis are actively discouraged from participating in even circumscribed political discourse. Freedom of speech has collapsed," the petition said.
Specifically, the petition raised concern about an Internal Security Bill gazetted last year, which awaits King Mswati's signature. If passed, the bill will permit police to carry out personal and property searches without a court warrant, and grant police the authority to disperse any meeting of any nature by any means they choose.
Attorney-General Phesheya Dlamini argued that the bill is an "anti-terrorism measure", while other proponents of the bill point out that AGOA requires member nations to commit themselves to fighting international terrorism.
Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the SFTU, scoffed at that interpretation. "These measures are for internal repression. They intend to stifle dissent, and end workers' legitimate expression of grievances," Sithole told IRIN. The petition also accuses the government's labour department of failing to pursue workers' complaints.
The complaints in the petition irritated Enterprise and Employment Minister Dlamini, who accused labour groups of being unpatriotic, and suggested they were sacrificing their members' interests to pursue an unspecified foreign agenda.
"Why would someone with the workers' interest at heart call for the same workers' companies to close down, once AGOA is gone?" he asked.
"Those who claim that we are not observing worker rights should come forward and discuss with my office their concerns," Dlamini added.
In response, Vincent Nxumalo, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Labour, said the government did not welcome, nor did it respond, "to our overtures".
"Last month we had to get a court order to deliver a petition to Minister Dlamini at an economic summit. The police refused to allow us to deliver the petition, despite the court order. They said we associated with terrorists," Nxumalo said.
Unionists feel the petition before the US government is one that Swazi authorities cannot afford to ignore.