Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The right to work remains a challenge for labor groups in Africa because of constant economic instabilities, the severe impact of globalization and unfavorable rapport between the countries of the North and the global South. However, as the case of the SYNARES exemplifies, labor organizations in Africa have embarked on a new direction since the end of the Cold War. They have multiplied and defended their workers’ rights a lot more rigorously.


This article discusses the implications of the right to work for labor groups in Africa by looking at the history, vision, mission and activities of the National Union for Research and Higher Education of Côte d’Ivoire, identified by its French acronym SYNARES. The article is based on first-hand information that I collected from a phone and Skype conversation with Dr. Nyamien Messou N’guessan and the paper copy[1] of a speech he gave to the membership of the union. This ethnographic approach of the topic brings originality and provides a social justice leader with the opportunity to contribute to the literature on social movement organizations in Africa.

Choosing the SYNARES as the subject of analysis for this article rests on three reasons. The first is that the SYNARES is the first labor group of civil servants, here teachers of public universities, in post-1960 Côte d’Ivoire, which resolved to remain autonomous and independent of the influence of political regimes and powers. The second reason is that the SYNARES is the oldest university teachers’ union. For more than three decades, it was the only organization that existed to defend the rights of university faculty. The third reason is that the SYNARES was one of the leading organizations of the democratization movement, which brought profound changes to Côte d’Ivoire’s political and social institutions in the 1990s.[2] As part of the democratization process, the SYNARES addressed the rights of university faculty members threatened at that time by the “race to the bottom” theories and policies, the emergence of free trade zones, migrations and the measures of austerity implemented by a failing state.

For the sake of clarity, this article is subdivided into five sections. The first section briefly defines the right to work and how it is regulated in Côte d’Ivoire. The second talks about the birth and the vision of the SYNARES. The third section is about how the SYNARES relates to politics. The fourth section sheds light on the 1990s and the transformations thereof and the ways in which these transformations affected the philosophies, policies and actions of the SYNARES. The last section is devoted to identifying and explaining what the SYNARES considers are the implications of the right to work.

The right to work in the Ivorian legislation

The right to work is a series of “rules and regulations that govern the relations between employers and employees, or collective bargaining, union rights and the institutions that represent the employees. The right to work is considered a basic human right (www. guaranteed by institutions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDR) and the African Charter on Human and People’s rights (ACHPR). The UDR states:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment, (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work,

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection,

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 15 of the ACHPR also says that:

Every individual shall have the right to work under equitable and satisfactory conditions, and shall receive equal pay for equal work.

In Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, the right to work is guaranteed by the constitution and enunciated in details in: “le code du travail” or labor laws, the last version of which was promulgated in July 2015 (law no 2015-532 of July 20, 2015). The code grants workers certain rights and duties, for instance, the right to organize in labor groups and take appropriate measures to voice their interests. In addition to the Code du travail, the workers of the public sector including the members of the SYNARES, by virtue of being employed by the state to teach and do research at public universities and institutions are under the Statut General de la Fonction Publique[3], which has been in force since 1992. Modifications to the statute were adopted in 2016 and are yet to enter into force. Nonetheless, the 1992 statute grants civil servants, including faculty members, the right to unionize and to go on strike. The statute enunciates the rights and benefits of public sector agents, as well as their obligations. In addition to these two laws, the government of Côte d’Ivoire has signed various executive orders to regulate the application of the Statute for particular entities, for instance, elementary, secondary and higher education teachers, and researchers.

Creation, vision and philosophy of the SYNARES

The SYNARES was created in 1968, at a time when the government of Côte d’Ivoire strengthened the one-party rule system by suppressing potential sources of dissent. As he was aware of the role that labor groups played in the African anti-colonial movements of the 1940s – 1960s, Mr. Houphouet-Boigny[4] and his regime coerced labor organizations into forming a larger coalition, the General Union of Workers of Côte d’Ivoire (UGTCI), which, became an organ of the ruling party.[5] Prof. Nyamien Messou writes that:

The context in which the SYNARES was born was that it was a prowess to even exist. In fact, whereas the law 60-315 of September 21, 1960, enunciated that organizations could be formed by simply declaring them, it was quasi-impossible to create a labor group outside of the control of the UGTCI.

From its inception, the SYNARES dismissed the idea of collaborating with the government. It chose to stay autonomous and free from the influence of political circles. The choice of autonomy was reasserted at the Congress of 1980. According to Article 2 of its bylaws, the SYNARES is not and cannot be an affiliate member of a political or religious organization, although the union reserves the right to speak on matters of national interest relating to education, research, or the future of the nation. In Messou’s words, autonomy means creating a cadre in which only the material and moral interests of the members of the SYNARES matter in order to preserve cohesion and respect the variety and divergence of opinions among members.

The SYNARES and politics  

In addition to its prime mission of fighting to protect and/or improve the rights to work of its members in particular, and all Ivorian workers in general, the SYNARES has made it its duty to intervene in political matters. This means that for the SYNARES, the right to work obligates labor organizations to be concerned with the ways in which political authorities manage the resources of the country and plans its development. There are three ways in which the SYNARES engages in political affairs. First, the SYNARES has deemed it possible to collaborate with political parties, provided that the collaboration does not tamper with its independence and agency, and provided that the goals of the collaboration do not contradict its mission and vision.

Second, the SYNARES has determined that the democratization of the Ivorian society is a priority. Therefore, it would engage in any movement, which aims at initiating and/or consolidating democracy. As a civil society organization, the SYNARES is convinced that democracy and the rule of law are the basic conditions that need to be met for workers’ rights to be rightfully expressed and protected. Third, the SYNARES has determined it is its obligation to call on the state/government about the utilization of the nation’s resources and wealth. In this particular case, the right to work also means being a watchdog of the government’s policies and actions to ensure that resources are used properly. For the SYNARES, there is a direct correlation between the exploration and exploitation of national resources and workers’ benefits and duties. This three-pronged philosophy certainly accounts for the focal role that the SYNARES played in the social political upheavals and changes of the 1990s.  

The 1990s onwards

The social, political and economic impacts of globalization did not spare Côte d’Ivoire at the outset of the 1990s. At the economic level, Côte d’Ivoire faced a huge deficit and a ballooning debt. The “Ivorian miracle” of the 1970s turned into a mirage as the economy became moribund. The World Bank reported that between 1990 and 1994, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the Gross Public Investment (GNI), the Gross National Product (GNP) and the external debts reached alarming proportions (World Bank, 1996). In order to remedy the deteriorating economy, Côte d’Ivoire accepted the International Monetary Fund-inspired measures of austerity, which consisted of reducing state expenditures and privatizing multiple state-owned firms, and which negatively affected the right to work.

First, the new measures increased unemployment, whereas the divestment of public firms was expected to generate more jobs and better working conditions. Second, for the first time, university graduates largely made up the bulk of the unemployed. Jobs were no longer guaranteed to them as they were in the past. Third, workers, in both the private and public sectors, lost their jobs in scores or were asked to take a pay cut. Nyamien Messou recalls:

During the National Council of September 21, 1989, the government asked the civilian workers to consent to sacrifices, as peasants and farmers, whose commodities’ prices fell drastically, were doing. In order to make this sacrifice possible, the government presented the “Koumoue plan”, in which it proposed between 5% to 40% salary cuts for workers.

The “Koumoue plan” was rejected but soon replaced with another plan proposed by neoliberal prime minister, Alassane Ouattara. The new proposal included: hiking the prices of staple food, levying new taxes or increasing existing ones, instituting a 5-day/week work calendar, etc. In the words of N. Messou, “the biggest attack on teachers’ right to work was the government’s 1992 decision to halve the salary of the new recruits in the education sector. The new decision posed that elementary, secondary and higher education faculty and staff recruited on or after October 1991, would be paid half the salary of those who were recruited before 1991.”

The SYNARES and the neoliberal policies of the 1990s

One key question I asked the interviewee was if neoliberal globalization hindered or created more opportunities for labor groups. His answere indicated that both situations happened. The measures of austerity hindered the right to work, but in turn, incited labor groups to redesign and/or reinforce their strategies. For the sake of the topic at hand, I will insist more on opportunities and what labor groups, especially the SYNARES, did.

In terms of opportunities, globalization caused the emergence of numerous labor organizations in Côte d’Ivoire. In 1990, a new student organization, the Fédération Scolaire et Estudiantine de Côte d’Ivoire (F.E.S.C.I) appeared and soon became the leading student movement opposing the unpopular decisions and policies of the government. Unlike the Mouvement des Elèves et Etudiants de Côte d’Ivoire (M.E.E.C.I 1968 -1990), which was an organ of the ruling party and the one-party system, the F.E.S.C.I remained autonomous as previous student unions before 1968 were. Today, there are more than one student organization on Ivorian public universities and high schools.  

Other professional sectors have also been marked by an exponential increase of labor organizations. Today, there are approximately 46 federations, associations, or unions of traders and businesses in Côte d’Ivoire. Many of these groups emerged in the 2000s.[6] The Centrale Syndicale Humanisme,[7] a coalition of unions, currently claims a membership of 112 organizations representing workers in the sectors of education, transportation, communication, artisanship, consumption, commerce, health, industry, security, local governments, and insurance. These two examples are sufficient proof that the multiplicity of labor groups in Côte d’Ivoire validates the thesis that civil society has expanded since 1990. It also validates the thesis that workers have been more and more aware of their rights and how to defend these rights.

On its part, the SYNARES, according to Messou, joined or helped form larger coalitions at the national and international levels. At the national level, the SYNARES spearheaded the creation of the federation of autonomous labor organizations (FESACI) in 1992, with two other autonomous labor groups operating in higher education. At the international level, the SYNARES adhered to the International Union of Education (Intersyndical de l’éducation) and the World Federation of Scientific Workers (Fédération Mondiale des Travailleurs Scentifiques). The move to form or join larger national and international coalitions was predicated on the success of past inter-union collaborations. This is a dimension of the internationalization or globalization of social movements. 

If the neoliberal world, which expanded in the 1990s, created challenges and opportunities for the SYNARES, we can assess these opportunities by looking at its demands and means of action. The SYNARES’ demands can be classified in three groups: academic demands, corporatist demands, and general demands. At the academic level, the SYNARES demanded the reform of the educational system to fit in the new national and international realities. These demands include: the respect of freedom of expression on university campuses, and more funding for research and teaching. The corporatist demands centered on demanding a stable and clear status for faculty members in higher technical schools, the abrogation of the 1992 law concerning the new salary cap for faculty, and the age of retirement at 65. At the social level, the right to work for the SYNARES implies providing workers with decent medical benefits and housing, because the right to work is a right to live, have equal opportunities, and enjoy the fruits of social justice.

In order to make its demands known, the SYNARES used a multidimensional arsenal, which included: collecting membership dues, calling for exceptional mobilization, sending memoranda to authorities, participating in rallies and meetings, using propaganda, publishing special documents or leaflets on rising pertinent issues, seeking the assistance of international organizations, going on strike, using the new technologies of information and communication, and training and informing workers through seminars, webinars, internships, etc.


The right to work remains a challenge for labor groups in Africa because of the constant economic instabilities and the severe impact of globalization, and the unfavorable rapport between the countries of the North and the global South. However, as the case of the SYNARES described in this article exemplifies, labor organizations in Africa have embarked on a new direction since the end of the Cold War. Not only have they multiplied, but they have also defended their members’ rights a lot more rigorously than ever before.

* Eric Edi, PhD, teaches Global Politics and Area Studies courses at Philadelphia University, Philadelphia PA. Nyamien Messou is Professor of Physics at the University of Abidjan. He is the Secretary General of the SYNARES.

End notes

[1] The paper is entitled: “Presentation du SYNARES.” It is a conference paper that Prof. Nyamien Messou delivered at a General Assembly of the organization.

[2] Several research projects indicate the role that secondary school and university professors and student unions played in the revival of democracy in Cote d’Ivoire in the 1990s.

[3] Loi No. 92-570 of September 11, 1992 available at Retrieved Nov 28, 2016.

[4] Houphouet-Boigny was the first President of Côte d’Ivoire. He ruled from 1958 to 1993.

[5] Nyamien Messou’s thinking corroborates the theses of other researchers including I. Touré, L’UGTCI et le developpement harmonieux: un syndicalisme anti-conflicts.

[6] The list is available at

[7] Available at