The revolution in Sudan got rid of dictator Omar El Bashir, but workers are still fighting for basic rights to organise. Activists from Sudan Labour Bulletin are on the frontline of mobilising solidarity with their struggles for dignity. They spoke to Anne Alexander for this interview.
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How did the labour movement in Sudan begin?
The workers’ movement came into existence in Sudan as a natural consequence of the colonial projects in the area. The first strike in Sudan was staged by the forest workers in 1908, it was followed by other strikes of lesser importance. Eventually the self-consciousness of the numerically small working class found expression in the ubiquitous workers clubs that emerged in the mid 1930s.
The largest strike on record from that era was organised in March 1948 by the nascent Railway Workers’ Affairs Association. It is recorded in the annals of the workers’ movement as ‘The 33 Days Strike’, marking its heroic length.
The strike was the response of the railway workers to the initial refusal of the British colonial authorities to recognise their association, arguably Sudan’s first trade union. That record length of strike was surpassed only recently by the Kenana sugar factory workers’ strike of 2020.
The first trade union law was passed later in 1948 and the General Federation of Trade Unions was formed in 1950.The trade unions which played a decisiverole in the history of Sudan were the Railway Workers’ Union, the Port Workers’ Union, Textile Workers’ Union, the Doctors’ Union and The Teachers’ Union.
Are workers a majority in Sudanese society?
This is a matter of considerable debate and eventually fission in Sudan’s Communist movement. Indeed, it can be argued that wage labour as such does not constitute a majority of the workforce. The majority of Sudan’s peoples continue to live off the land, as peasants or pastoralists.
However, the penetration of commercialisation and wage labour continues unabated, and in ways and forms that do not necessarily generate a majoritarian industrial workforce but nevertheless are creating an expanding mass of people who earn a living through selling their labour.
The term informal labour and its offshoots is ill-suited to describe this wide and arguably, heterogeneous class of people in terms of their integration in the fragmented labour market. Their experience of waged work is often seasonal but in general, coercive and depriving.
However, employment, even if temporary, is a blessing in such conditions. Human beings are superfluous to capitalism and the lives of those who die in military conflicts in the peripheries are not central in the public discourse which of course is controlled by the ruling class.
An important and central component of the wage labour system is the regime of seasonal agricultural labour and its articulation with Sudan’s peripheral wars. This is a poorly explored aspect of the evolution of wage labour in Sudan and a major blind spot in theorisation and debate about Sudan’s working class.
What were the main challenges facing labour activists during the dictatorship of Omar el Bashir?
After the coup of 1989 which brought El Bashir to power, a committee was established to dismiss political opponents of the regime from their jobs. The committee issued what they called ‘The Public Good Law’ to justify their actions. The earliest workers’ bodies which suffered as a result of this law were the Railway Union, the Mechanical Transport Union and the River Transport Union. In an episode of extreme brutality, the newly ensconced regime murdered the doctor Ali Fadul who was at the helm of a doctors strike. Other labour and political activists were arbitrarily arrested and dismissed from their jobs in what was a purge of political opponents or likely opponents by the state bureaucracy. Sacked trade unionists were replaced with regime enthusiasts.
The regime soon launched its own corporate trade unions and trade union federation while passing a new law that criminalised strikes. Under these repressive conditions, strikes made a surprising comeback.
The corporate trade unions of the regime came under serious pressure from wildcat strikes of employees at the lower rungs of the state by teachers, nurses and workers in the public water and electricity facilities. The law thus became a dead letter and another relic in the museum of oppression. The labour movement, fragmented and devoid of a trade union framework, broke the seams of the corporate model.
Beyond the infrastructure of repression the greatest challenge facing the labour movement arguably relates to the sectoral, demographic changes within the working class. This is primarily as a consequence of the sell-off of state corporations to private interests and the crash dismantling of the state sector, given the fact that the state was and remains the dominant employer in the formal labour market.
As a consequence, a primary strength of certain sectors like the Railway Workers’ Unions, namely the geographic concentration of strategic contingents of labour was lost. The fragmentation of labour across small manufacturing and service units is arguably a major challenge to workers’ organisation.
Health workers and teachers’ strikes, along with the other strikes mentioned above gave professionals confidence in their ability to organise and they also opened new spaces for opposing the totalitarian regime. On a larger scale, they reminded all factions of the people that issues and demands raised by different bodies are interlinked and can be attained only by eradication of the regime.
What role did organised workers play in the revolution against El Bashir?
Workers engaged in the revolution against El Bashir as ordinary citizens and sometimes as part of small closed groups, and this is due to the repressive nature of the regime. Despite that, a few exceptional moments stand out, for example workers of the Terrestrial Port (the main bus terminus for Khartoum and its suburbs) organised a strike where they shut down the capital’s bus network.
Also, there were many protests by workers and professionals in different sectors such as electricity, telecommunications and healthcare which all delivered fatal blows to the regime and led to its demise in April 2019.
Can you tell us more about how the general strikes were organised during the revolution?
In 2019 revolutionaries raised slogans and demands that united different political and professional bodies. Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) which comprises different professional bodies including doctors, lawyers and journalists), adopted these demands and supported revolutionaries in the street. That’s why when the SPA called for general strikes, the masses responded promptly.
All professional and workers’ bodies conducted general strikes that forced the generals of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) to open negotiations with the opposition political coalition, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC).
Also, the general political atmosphere helped by uniting the masses after the massacre on 3 June 2019, during which the TMC murdered revolutionaries who were protesting in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum.
What has happened since the Transitional government came to power?
Despite the formation of a Transitional government, workers’ conditions are the same. Living conditions are getting worse everyday and wages cannot keep with the increase in prices. Also the same labour laws are still in effect and there have been many workers who were arbitrarily dismissed since this government was founded for demanding their basic rights.
The strikes are still happening, the latest of which is the doctors-in-training strike. They are demanding a career ladder, salaries (most of them work for years with no salaries at all) and health insurance.
What are the legal developments in relation to workers rights to organise?
In relation to the right to organise workers’ conditions are the same as during the El Bashir era. What has happened until now is the appointment of workers’ steering committees by the Transitional Government instead of letting workers elect their representatives democratically. Most of these appointments have been merely political. Also, the trade union act still has not passed, as the authorities are trying to dictate a law which will restrict trade union liberties.
The SPA and the Sudanese Communist Party are also supporting this law. The Communist Party is inclined towards more restrictions and more state intervention in workers’ organisations. The cause of this requires an understanding of the party’s grand strategy. It has become cut off from the working class and is convinced that alliance with bourgeoisie is the only tool to transform society, albeit with some tensions which can be transcended. This means looking at trade unions as a political bargaining chip in negotiations with other political powers rather than “schools of struggle.”
In short, workers’ interests have been ignored in writing the bill, and statist views dominate. This proposed act was drafted and decreed from above and the workers were never consulted about it. And although Sudan has signed up to the ILO’s Convention number 87, which guarantees the right of workers to organise, it has not been implemented in reality. All talk about trade union liberties is pure propaganda from the government.
Do political parties play a big role in the labour movement?
Today political parties play a negative role in the labour movement: firstly by being a part of the ruling coalition, political parties actively suppress the labour movement for the reasons mentioned previously and secondly, through their insistence on an authoritarian labour act that violates the basic principles of building a democratic labour movement
What are the challenges facing the Sudanese labour movement today?
The key workers’ demands include improving the working environment, increasing wages, having the freedom to organise without harassment from employers. Challenges include building grassroots organisations that truly represent workers interests and changing laws that cripple the labour movement, especially the 1997 Labour Code through which hundreds of workers have been arbitrarily dismissed since this government took over.
Go to https://www.facebook.com/SudanLabourBulletin/ to find out more (in Arabic).