Eswatini: Murders and harassment of trade union leaders must cease immediately!

published 17 February 2023 updated 23 February 2023

Education International denounces the continuous attacks on trade union leaders in Eswatini and condemns the targeting of Mbongwa Dlamini, President of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), a member organisation of Education International.

The absolute monarch of Eswatini, King Mswati III, in power since 1986, continues to crush human rights defenders who protest the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. There are several laws in place which severely restrict freedom of expression and association, including the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act 1938, which continues to be invoked, the Public Order Act 1963, and the Suppression of Terrorism Act, 2008. In addition, the State of Emergency, which was declared in 1973 and remains in effect, suspends constitutional freedoms, and effectively prohibits opposition political parties.

In 2014, the Government tabled legislation to dissolve all workers’ and employers’ federations in Swaziland, including the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland, of which SNAT is a member. In 2019, the SNAT president was fired from his teaching position for attending a union meeting. In October 2021, teachers and public sector workers were attacked while they were delivering a petition to the Municipal Council of the capital city, appealing for decent working conditions, a salary review, and basic trade union rights.

In a letter addressed to the Eswatini’s Prime Minister Cleopas Sipho Dlamini, and dated 7 February, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Deputy General Secretary Owen Tudor and Education International General Secretary David Edwards denounced “the brutal murder of Thulani Maseko, a human and trade union rights lawyer,” as well as the “government's forced exile of Sticks Nkambule and Mbongwa Dlamini, both leading representatives of trade unions in Eswatini.” International trade unions believe the government is behind the assassination as the lawyer was killed after he appeared on a hit list.

Mbongwa Dlamini is being persecuted for his trade union activities following union protest actions for better wages and working conditions for teachers. Both union leaders have been forced into exile to safeguard their lives and security.

SNAT check-off system for the collection of membership dues must not be undermined

Education International and ITUC’s leaders also expressed serious concern due to “the threats made by the Minister of Public Service, Mabulala Maseko, to stop the check-off system for the collection of membership dues for the SNAT. The Government has also refused to include the 3% increase in SNAT dues and to include new members recruited by SNAT.”

These attacks continue despite the government of Eswatini and the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland's agreement to submit such disputes for mediation through the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Social dialogue needed to bring peace, social reconciliation, and development

Both ILO Conventions 87 and 98 have been ratified by Eswatini and guarantee workers' rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The ratification of these two conventions places an obligation on Eswatini to ensure workers enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti­union discrimination with respect to their employment.

Education International and the ITUC call on the government of Eswatini “to immediately take steps to stop security operatives from carrying out any further repression and the extra-judicial killing of trade unionists and human rights defenders”. EI and ITUC urge the government to “choose social dialogue to bring peace, social reconciliation, and development to the people and the workers of Eswatini.”

A history of violence against workers

In October 2021, Education International and the ITUC vigorously denounced attacks and violence perpetrated by the police against teachers and other public sector workers in Eswatini.

They strongly condemned the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters, which caused scores of injuries and the death of a student.

The SNAT had reported that the security forces fired teargas, stun grenades and live ammunitions. Two busses ferrying public workers to the peaceful gathering were also stopped by the police and their passengers shot at with live bullets.

In March 2021, following a submission by Education International, the review of Eswatini by the United Nations Human Rights Council had noted “According to Education International, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Employment Act of 2000 and the Industrial Relations Act of 2000, and the Public Order Act (2017), continued to create restrictions on freedom of expression of trade union members, some of whom have also been intimidated, beaten and arrested. Education International indicated that the government intimidated teachers, including through media platforms, to discourage them to exercise their right to strike.”

The UN recommended that the Government of Eswatini “reform, in accordance with international human rights standards, all legislation that unduly restricts freedom of expression and association, in particular, the suppression of Terrorism Act and the suppression of Sedition and Subversive Activities Act.” and to “Immediately end law enforcement violence and other restrictions against people exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association”.