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Historical Perspective

Early Development of the Eritrean Workers’ Movement

Almost 80 years have elapsed since the Eritrean workers’ movement began in the 1930s. The Eritrean workers’ movement whose development was closely linked with the rapid Italian industrial colonial economy created in the country was one of the first workers movements, that is historically remembered for its advanced technical skills and high level of consciousness in the African continent at that time. When Eritrea established a federal system of government in 1952, the Confederation of Free Eritrean Labour Unions was a formally recognized member of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and had started to participate in its conferences. At that time the rest of African states were still under the yoke of the European colonialism. This legal status and freedom of the Eritrean workers was, however, curtained by the intensive campaigns of terror that the Ethiopian regime of emperor Haileselassie unleashed, forcing the ranks and file of the Eritrean workers associations to be dispersed.

The historical development of the organization and movement of the Eritrean workers is directly related to the colonial challenges and experiences of the struggle waged to liberate the country from consecutive colonial powers. In the first phase during the Italian fascist colonial rule (1935-1941) the Eritrean workers’ movements took simple forms that of opposing the severe racial discrimination and exploitation, improving their social and economic conditions and securing their elementary rights as workers, at the time of World War II the Italian fascist regime was heavily engaged in fierce competition with the other European colonial forces to implement its expansionist plan in the region. It was therefore unthinkable for the Eritrean workers to exercise any nationalist political agenda in the face of the brutal racist policy and massive forcible military conscription of the Eritrean youth that the fascist regime was enforcing.

After the fascist reign in Eritrea came to an end in 1941 when Italy was defeated by the Allied Forces, the Eritrean people’s aspiration for national freedom became highly charged, especially among the conscious strata composed of workers and the educated. Thus the Eritrean workers’ movement was transformed from its narrow enclave of workers’ rights to playing an active role in the national and political matters.

However, during the 1941-1949 after the decisive conclusion of World War II the British administration embarked upon a policy of dismembering Eritrea to implement its long awaited plot of enlarging its colonies by adjoining parts of Eritrea. In order to justify its project the British administration descended on the weakening of the Eritrean economy by plundering and destroying vital infrastructure and industries. This resulted in the suffering of the Eritrean works from massive unemployment and disintegration that caused great setback to the organization and movement of the Eritrean workers.

The British Military Administration in Eritrea was replaced in 1949 by a civilian administration that introduced new changes in the existing colonial laws and system of administration. The newly introduced liberal changes gave Eritrean people an opportunity to participate in political and civic activities. It also gave the Eritrean workers an opening to revive their organization and to advocate for their rights taking advantages of the newly instituted labour Code and a labour supervisory office. Thus the period from 1949 until the establishment of a federal system of government in Eritrea in 1952 the Eritrean workers were preoccupied in a series of strikes in order to ascertain their rights.

For instance, the strike waged by the dock workers in Massawa that lasted for six months in March and April 1949 was one of the notable industrial actions of the time. This strike combined political and economic demands that were formally submitted by the worker’s representatives to the British administrator in Eritrea. The event was significant in that it forced the British administration to respond with the formation of the Native Advisory Employment Committee. As a result of the historic strike, the Eritrean workers for the first time secured their right of equal pay for equal work with expatriate workers. Indeed this event occupies a prominent chapter in the history of the Eritrean workers’ movement as the first of its kind that forced the colonial administration to concede to workers’ demands for their rights to freely organize and bargain with their employers.

In September- November 1952 the workers’ associations that were hitherto organized in unions at the level of factories and workshops saw a rapid transformation to a higher level of unionization under the leadership of the veteran Weldeab Weldemariam. The Confederation of Free Eritrean Labour Union was established with its own constitution containing 28 articles. The declaration of the Confederation that it had “no political affiliation of religious connection, and that membership was voluntary and open to all Eritrean workers of any age, sex or religion” is a testimony that it was a progressive worker’s organization with far-sighed vision. In accordance with the provision of the Confederation’s constitution, the 7th of December was declared as the Eritrean Workers Day, the first Eritrean workers’ day was subsequently marked on the 7th of December 1952 where over 20,000 participants attended. This was an ample evidence of the powers and popularity that the Eritrean workers’ association commanded at the time.

The Ethio-Eritrean federal administration was put to effect in 1952. Soon, the imperial government of Ethiopia took measures in 1953-1954 to put under the government sector the big economic establishments such as transportation, communication and many others that employed large numbers of workers. This measure that brought their workers under government administration and control was the first move designed to curtail the Eritrean workers’ movement and to undermine their rights early on. In January 1954 the Eritrean dock workers in Massawa and Assab staged strikes opposing the moves.

During the period from 1954 to 1958 the nominal government of Eritrea led by Asfaha Woldemichael and the emperor’s special envoy in Eritrea, Andergachew Messai exercised their hostilities against the free existence of the Eritrean workers’ associations using the Eritrean parliament that was dominated by the unionist elements. In March 1958 which gave powers to the leader of the Eritrean government to reject and dismiss workers associations. The Eritrean workers tried to peacefully oppose the ratification of the employment act, specifically against article 84 which gave the leader of the government such powers. However, since their peaceful efforts did not bear fruition, during 10-30 March 1958 the Eritrean workers staged huge strikes that paralyzed the economic activities of major towns causing nation-wide instability.

Although the infringement of workers’ freedom to organize was the apparent cause of the strikes, the actual aim of the massive demonstrations staged by workers, students and other segments of the society  was to oppose the economic plunder and political repression perpetrated by Ethiopian and thus to demand national independence. The brutal force with which the Ethiopian regime reacted against the peaceful demonstrations served as a big turning point that transformed the Eritrean workers’ movement and the Eritrean people’s struggle for independence to a stage that was new both in form and content. Starting from September 1961, therefore, the Eritrean workers’ movement became an integral part of the Eritrean people’s struggle for national liberation and independence.

It is not possible, in the space of this article, to attempt to explain the organizational development ant the role played by the Eritrean workers in the course of the 30 years bloody armed struggle. For the time being, it is prudent to mention that the Eritrean workers’ have been a highly charged and disciplined force whose dedication finds no matching anywhere in the world. Starting from 1961 until they were organized on November 1979 under the umbrella of the National Union of Eritrean Workers (NUEW)  the Eritrean workers in Ethiopia and inside Eritrea, as well as those living in exile in all corners of the world continued to pay heavy toll that made significant contributions towards the realization of the Eritrean just cause.

Starting from 1979 until the realization of Eritrea’s independence the Eritrean workers residing in all corners of the world organized in the National Union of Eritrean Workers ( NUEW) under the umbrella of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) or individually waged relentless struggle for the workers’ rights, as well as for the attainment of the Eritrean people’s aspirations for independence and the right for self-determination. Ever since Eritrea’s independence in 1991 the Eritrean workers have been occupied in the strengthening of their organization in order to safeguard their interests and rights, and to secure the sovereignty of the country and to develop its economy.

Source: Voice of Workers, No 20  

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