By Madi Jobarteh
As a signatory to the International Covenant to Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the Gambia Government is under international obligation therefore to protect the rights of workers to just and favourable conditions of work. This right applies to all workers, whether in the public or the private sector.
This right is further guaranteed, under Article 15 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights as well as in International Labour Organization’s conventions. Hence the Gambia Government, as a party to these international and regional instruments have an obligation to guarantee better working conditions for teachers.
The right to strike by workers is also a guaranteed right that forms part of freedom of association. ILO notes that ‘the right to strike is a fundamental right of workers and the principal means by which they may legitimately promote and defend their economic and social interests.’ Therefore, all workers have the right to engage in collective bargaining as a means to negotiate and conclude collective agreements and, in the absence of an agreement, to take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action.
Therefore, the current industrial action by a group of teachers is in line with international law to which the Gambia is a party. International law recognises that the right to strike is not absolute but can be limited by law where certain requirements may be set out before workers embark on a strike action. These include engaging in negotiations first or mediation or giving a strike notice. By all indications the ‘Teaches for Change’ group did perform all of these requirements before they reached a decision to sit down.
It is true that the Gambia’s Labour Act does not cover civil servants. But one would have expected that a democratically elected government such as the Barrow Government that is coming after a dictatorship would have sought to first and always align itself with international norms and fulfil its international obligations. It is therefore quite disappointing that the Barrow Government rather seeks to uphold a bad local law just to infringe on the rights of its own workers and not to respect and protect those workers.
Under Yaya Jammeh, several of Gambia’s domestic laws were crafted in such way as to deny citizens their rights. Hence many of our laws directly violate international and democratic norms even though the Government has ratified those international instruments. This is because at the time the APRC Regime never cared about human rights and international norms and its obligations.
One would have expected that the current Gambia Government would have quickly put in lot of effort to review those laws so as to bring them in line with international norms. Pres. Barrow himself had stated in his campaign manifesto that within six months of coming to office he would review all laws that infringe on human rights, popular participation and democracy. Yet it is now 18 months and no such laws were reviewed except those that suit his personal political agenda. Examples are the amendment of the Constitution to remove the age limit for president as well as amendment of the Elections Act to reduce nomination fees.
Teachers of the Gambia are among the most hardworking, self-sacrificing and lowly rewarded workers in the country. Conditions of work of teachers remain hugely poor and unhealthy. It is a shame that the Government of the Gambia since Independence continues to neglect teachers in this poor state. Now that teachers have decided to speak out and demand better conditions of work one would have imagined that the Gambia Government would give them urgent attention and address their grievances in full.
The Teachers for Change have a right to strike. Members of this group have a right to branch out of the GTU if they are not satisfied and to form themselves into their own association to seek better working conditions. They have a right to collective bargaining and the Gambia Government is under obligation to listen to them.
The threat from the Vice President that the Government will sack any teacher who refused to go to work is dictatorial and undermines Gambia’s obligations under international law. The Gambia Government therefore has no authority or power by law to sack any teacher for embarking on a strike action because such powers have not been provided to the Government by neither the Labour Act nor international or regional instruments. Hence if the Gambia Government sacks any teacher for striking then those teachers should take the Government to court for unlawful dismissal.
The Vice President must be advised that the Gambia Government has only one choice which is to negotiate with the teachers until they reach an amicable solution. But the Gambia Government cannot force its way in any way unless if they wish to act tyrannically and in total contravention of their own obligations under international law to which the Gambia is a signatory.
For the Gambia Our Homeland