Africa: Aid or Harm

Africa: Aid or Harm?

Thomas L. Friedman

New York Times, March 28, 2000



          I  wrote recently in support of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a bill designed to provide sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the U.S. for their textile and apparel exports. The act, now being debated by Congress, is embarrassing for U.S. unions, such as the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Unite, because they are opposing any duty-free access for Africa even though studies show it would create jobs in Africa and scarcely affect employment here.


Afterward I was bombarded with letters from union officials, who didn't like having their opposition to African imports exposed. The letters from Unite and the A.F.L.-C.I.O., though, really stood out. Both asserted that the U.S. unions were against this bill because it harmed African workers -- who were also against it.


"Wow," I thought, "am I urging passage of a bill to help create investment and jobs in Africa that Africans don't want?"


 To find out, I first called Roble Olhaye, the Ambassador to the U.S. from Djibouti and the dean of the African ambassador corps. He said: "There are people [in the U.S.] who have vested interests in not letting anything from Africa be imported, but they don't want to say that, so they say that Africans don't want it. Let me tell you, there is not a single leader in Africa who is not supporting this bill -- without reservations."


 Then I phoned Ebrahim Patel in Cape Town, South Africa, who heads the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union, the biggest textile union in southern Africa. Mr. Patel respects the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Unite. They supported South African workers in the struggle against apartheid. He said he would never want to do anything harmful to them. But he also made clear that his union favored duty-free access for African textiles and apparel to the U.S. market, as part of a broad strategy for promoting development.


"We support the concept of duty-free access for Africa in textiles and apparel," he said. "As with all the poorest economies of the world, one way to raise our development quickly is for you to give us preferential access to your markets."


While Mr. Patel endorsed duty-free access for African textiles and apparel, he expressed reservations with three clauses in the Growth Act. First is the condition (written in by the U.S. textile lobby) stipulating that if  African countries want duty-free access to America they must first buy all the cloth and yarn in America, then ship it to Africa to be sewn, then ship it back. Mr. Patel said Africans need to be able to use their own cloth too, otherwise there would be little economic benefit for them.


Second, said Mr. Patel, African unions are concerned about demands in the bill for African states to adopt more corporate-friendly, free-market policies in return for duty-free access. "Some of these demands infringe on our sovereignty," said Mr. Patel.


Third, he said, African trade unions want to ensure that any African factories given duty-free access to the U.S. be required to meet the core labor standards of the International Labor Organization, with union involvement in monitoring and verification. (The act already meets the I.L.O. standard, but does not yet include provision for monitoring by unions.) "I believe Unite and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. are committed to a fair global trading system," said Mr. Patel. "[But] as regards any duty-free arrangement for Africa, I think that if we were to interact with them, in a warm way, we could structure adequate worker rights conditions, in such a duty-free arrangement, that would improve the number of jobs in Africa, and the standards in the workplace, in a way consistent with the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s global mission."


That is good advice. Africa's workers desperately need duty-free access to our markets to create jobs. The African unions have concerns about some side issues that should be addressed. The U.S. unions, though, oppose any duty-free access for Africa under any conditions -- but they don't want to say that. So they take these African side concerns, highlight them, and then say that even Africans don't want this duty-free bill. That is simply untrue.


There is a way for Africa to gain duty-free access in textiles to the U.S. market, without harming U.S. workers or worker standards in Africa, but it takes a will to find it. Africa's unions have that will. How about ours?