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2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Malawi

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 11 June 2009
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Malawi, 11 June 2009, available at: [accessed 24 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 14,300,000
Capital: Lilongwe
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

The large informal economy and gaps in the labour law make it very hard to carry out trade union activities. In the tobacco industry, almost 300 workers were sacked for carrying out an "illegal" strike.

Trade union rights in law

Freedom of association – rights recognised in theory: Workers have the right to form and join trade unions. This includes civil servants, with the exception of army personnel and the police. Unions must register with the Ministry of Labour, although this is largely a formality.

The law prohibits anti-union discrimination and requires that workers sacked because of union activities must be reinstated.

Collective bargaining: Collective bargaining is recognised in law, provided the union represents at least 20 per cent of employees at enterprise level. At sectoral level, unions must represent at least 15 per cent of employees. In the absence of collective agreements, the law provides for industrial councils to set wages and conditions and resolve disputes.

Cumbersome strike procedures: Registered unions may strike. However, strike action can only be taken after all dispute settlement and conciliation procedures have been exhausted. The employer and the Ministry of Labour must be given at least seven days' notice after the lapse of the 21 days' notice and further to the declaration by Ministry of Labour conciliators that the dispute is unresolved. Workers in essential services have a limited right to strike. The law does not specifically prohibit retaliation against strikers.

Labour laws apply in the export processing zones (EPZs).

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2008

Background: After being one of the last African countries to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Malawi decided to break them and establish relations with China instead. The "chequebook diplomacy" that has been criticised for several years by Taiwan is likely to bring an influx of capital to this agricultural country that is extremely dependent on its tobacco exports.

Employer resistance: Since barely 10 per cent of workers are in formal employment, the labour legislation automatically excludes the vast majority of workers in the informal economy. For the small minority in formal jobs, the resistance of some employers, and the government, towards respecting their rights, limits freedom of association and collective bargaining. This was the case in a local branch of Group 4 Securicor (G4S), which was cited in the previous Survey for its anti-union hostility. After the breakdown of negotiations in January and a threatened strike, the manager finally agreed to a 17% wage rise. The workers in the informal economy have organised themselves into a union and have since been affiliated to the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU), but it took them over two years to get registered with the Ministry of Labour, as they claim the union had no negotiating partner. The MCTU has reported in recent years on a number of cases where workers are badly mistreated, and where employers appear unaware that workers have employment rights by law.

Right to strike opposed: Legal ambiguities in the application of the right to strike are making it very hard to exercise. For instance, the law does not specify exactly which services are essential, enabling the authorities to declare strikes illegal. The length of the procedure is also problematic. In August, for example, 297 workers belonging to the Tobacco Tenants and Allied Workers Union of Malawi (TOTAWUM) were sacked by the Limbe Leaf Tobacco company (which sells a lot of its production to the Philip Morris group) for allegedly failing to respect the normal procedure, thus rendering the strike illegal. The union then tried to meet the management. The workers were demanding a wage increase, better working conditions and, above all, proper equipment to protect them against toxic substances.

Many companies in the EPZs resist union activity, while the unions complain that they have little access to workers in the zones.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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