USA to Swaziland: ‘Fully’ comply or lose AGOA
The message from the Americans is loud and clear: Swaziland has to ‘fully’ comply with five conditions or lose their eligibility to participate in the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) programme.
In an exclusive interview on Friday, United States of America Ambassador to Swaziland Makila James said there was no longer any room for negotiations with the kingdom on the conditions that have to be met.
Listing the conditions, she said they include full passage of amendments to the Industrial Relations Act; full passage of amendments to the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA); full passage of amendments to the Public Order Act; full passage of amendments to sections 40 and 97 of the Industrial Relations Act relating to civil and criminal liability to union leaders during protest actions; and establishing a code of conduct for the police during public protests.
Not some, but all of the conditions have to be met for Swaziland to continue enjoying the preferential trade agreement with the USA, the ambassador emphasised.
Contextualising the conditions, Ambassador James said: “The Industrial Relations Act did not provide for the registration of labour federations.
The Swaziland government has had this issue on its plate for several years. We understand that the Industrial Relations Act is now being looked at by government as a Bill was tabled in parliament by the Ministry of Labour this week, but the amendments have to be passed fully to allow for labour unions to work collectively to improve workers’ rights.”
On amending the STA and Public Order Act, she said: “These are equally important because even if federations are registered, the question remains whether or not citizens and workers will be allowed to have peaceful public gatherings without interference by the police?
Amendments to these two pieces of legislation should allow for a process of transparency and objectivity in deciding how people can come together for public gathering. As the law is currently interpreted, any public gathering can be stopped, as has happened in the past. We are concerned because this interpretation negatively impacts the rights of labor unions and members of the public to gather to hold May Day celebrations and other meetings to talk about conditions of employment and other issues which affect the economy broadly.”
The ambassador then articulated the need to get amend sections 40 and 97 of the Industrial Relations Act.
“Civil and criminal liability are of concern because they seek to punish labour leaders for the actions of other people. It is a violation of international law to hold people accountable for actions that they themselves do not commit. There are many models of acceptable language to control security threats but these pieces of legislations in their current form are overly broad.”
On police conduct, James articulated: “There is a need to give police better guidance so they can do proper law enforcement. No one can say Swaziland, just like any other country, has no right to have reasonable limits on behavior that can be threatening but right now the law is overly broad.’
The ambassador said throughout the 2013 calendar year, the United States had seen little progress by Swaziland on any of the five conditions.
“The assessment by the U.S government is that of great concern that Swaziland has not made any progress between December 2012 and December 2013.”
However, she said when the AGOA review came in December last year Swaziland was given an extension period up until May 15, 2014 because it was realised that the kingdom’s government was in transition; with a new parliament and Cabinet coming in.
“It was decided that Swaziland should be given a small period in which to finalise action on these critical issues with the new government in place.
That was the reason for not deciding in December 2013 that Swaziland was ineligible. The new period goes on up to May 15, which is an important date because at that point a U.S inter-agency committee in Washington D.C. will reconvene to look at whether Swaziland has fully complied with the five elements.”
The ambassador continued: “If the determination is that Swaziland has not complied, On May 16, Swaziland will become ineligible to remain in the AGOA programme.”
If Swaziland becomes ineligible, exporting goods to the U.S under AGOA will continue until the end of the calendar year.
“But on January 1, 2015, goods coming into the United States from Swaziland will be assessed duty because there will no longer be a trade preference to allow them duty-free entry,” added James.
Close to 20 000 workers stand to lose their jobs should Swaziland be kicked out of AGOA because investors would close business and seek to open shop in countries which are still eligible for the programme.
Swaziland has been enjoying benefits of the AGOA programme since the year 2000.
Sunday Observer: What has the Swaziland government taken to address these concerns?
Ambassador James: I have had extensive, high-level engagement with the government of Swaziland to raise these concerns and to hear from them. Generally, the position of the government is that they appreciate and support the AGOA programme.
They would like to keep the programme in Swaziland and that they will try and comply with the criteria for remaining eligible.
That has been their consistent line to me since I arrived in Swaziland. But as we say, when the rubber hits the road is – what are they doing specifically, and I have just articulated to you that since December 2012 to now we have not seen the actions matching the assertions of intent and their desire to see the programme remain in Swaziland.
And so, I would have to say that the Swaziland government needs to demonstrate through deeds, through concrete actions, its level of commitment because they have indeed expressed strong support for the programme.
Sunday Observer: According to your own assessment, will Swaziland meet these conditions?
Ambassador James: Let me say I was very pleased this week to see the minister of labour table in parliament an amendment to the Industrial Relations Act; this is one of the things that must be done.
But there are at least five elements that must be fully complied with and so I will reserve judgment because I think the goal for all of us between now and May 15, 2014 is to work as hard and diligently as possible to meet the terms.
We stand ready as the mission to be helpful where we can. If the government makes the commitment and is doing all it can, we will dutifully monitor how they are progressing and ensure that Washington is fully aware, but it really rests with the government to make serious, diligent and expeditious efforts to comply because deadline is coming very soon.
Sunday Observer: Say Swaziland meets some of the conditions, but not all of them, will that be a problem still?
Ambassador James: Because we have had this conversation not one, not two but several years going back, there is a great concern and great frustration that we have been extremely tolerant of the obstacles and challenges within Swaziland to meet some of these conditions. But it is important that Swaziland now understands that we are at a very critical point where they must meet all of the conditions and that is a very clear message that I hope the government will fully appreciate and will take on board.
We are at a point where on May 15, 2014, the assessment will be – has Swaziland met these conditions?
Sunday Observer: Have you engaged labour organisations regarding this matter?
Ambassador James: Yes, we have. We believe that as an embassy it is important to talk to all stakeholders. And so, we have talked to labour unions; have talked to workers; have talked to the private sector; and have talked to exporters who are currently using the AGOA programme.
They have talked to us and they have sent was their opinions. And so we believe we are giving the same message to everyone, which is:
If you care about AGOA remaining in this country, you should work with government to help them but it is really up to the government to create the conditions to remain eligible.