Bollay, in the 1950s, giving an interview about the trade unions

Maqaalkaan oo af-Soomali waxaad ka heli kartaa halkaan.

The Somali trade unions have a long history, having been founded in 1949, in the colonial period. Their role in securing workers’ rights in Somalia is undeniable, despite the fact Somalis were still under colonial rule. As historians have illustrated, trade union movements in the Global South played a formative role in anti-colonial nationalism, particularly in mid-twentieth century Africa, as it was graced with winds of change.

In July 1955, The Somali Trade Unions (hereafter, STU)—known then by its Italian name of Sindicato di Lavoratori Somalo—held free and fair elections to elect its leadership. Ahmed Gurre Maamun was elected as the chairperson and I, Abdulkadir Ali Bollay, as the Secretary-General. Following my appointment, I set out to work, to find solutions for the problems that faced Somali workers. Over the years, our organisation achieved tangible results.

At the first ever meeting of the Somali Trade Unions, it was decided that a Labour Code should be established to guarantee workers’ rights, at a time when such action was imperative. The reason for this being, Somali workers, still living under the colonial yoke, were mistreated, with no group or body to secure their rights. Soon enough, the trade unions succeeded in implementing the Labour Code. It was also decided that henceforth both the government and the trade unions should work together to ensure that this legislation was implemented, it being recognised the importance these safeguards held for the interests and common good of the Somali people.

Later, trilateral negotiations were inaugurated, which brought together representatives of the government, the trade unions and employers, who agreed to work together to achieve these aims. These objectives were soon put into writing, including the expectation that employers— who at this time largely constituted Italians, it being the late-colonial period—should respect what had been agreed. These provisions included that: a minimum wage should be set; workers should have statutory annual leave; health facilities should be made available for workers and that workers should have access to a pension upon their retirement.

In October 1955, the Somali trade unions entered its first agreement this time with the sugar factory in Jowhar, when the city was still known as Villaggio Duca degli Abruzzi. It was famous for its agricultural fertility, in particular sugar cane. At the time, the sugar factory was the largest in the whole country, having the highest number of employees. It was also agreed that the workers at the sugar factory at Jowhar should receive a pay rise of 30%. In the following month, the Somali trade unions took part in international conference organised by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). It was at this convention that the Somali unions became a member of the ICFTU. Through its membership, and with the support of the Confederation, the Somali trade union movement developed further, going from strength to strength. The Confederation provided indispensable support, particularly in the training and rallying of workers.

On 10 January 1956, as STU representative, I attended the founding meeting of the All- African Labour Organisations in Accra, Ghana, a conference which took place with the assistance of the ICFTU. This event can be rightly considered the first pan- African conference of sorts, having brought together—for the first time—the African trade unions. It also had the distinction of being presided over by Kwame Nkrumah, the pan-African visionary and later President of Ghana. In the opening speech, Nkrumah urged the African trade unions to unite and work together. His incisive mantra was that unity is a force which cannot be vanquished and its antithesis, disunity, the precursor to failure.

The conference was duly concluded on 13 January, with the main points of agreement reached being that the African trade unions work together; that the regulations agreed by both employers and employees be enforced and that a Regional African Confederation (RAC) be established, tasked with addressing the difficulties facing African workers. The ICFTU published articles and regulations by which the RAC was to be managed and it was agreed that the RAC should have its base in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

In early June 1956, I was part of the Somali delegation to the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s annual meeting, the International Labour Conference, which, as ever, was held in the Swiss city of Geneva. Mr. Isse Elmoi (Cisse Ceymooy) was the government’s representative to the Conference and Mr. Rafele, the delegate representing employers in Somalia. Over the course of the Conference—held every year in June over two weeks—each of us had separate meetings with representatives from the ICFTU as well as the Italian Confederation of Free Workers’ Unions (CISAL, Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Autonomi Lavoratori), discussing how to advance the cause of Somali workers.

There, I delivered a detailed report of the many speedy changes taking place in Somalia at the time and the tangible successes the Somali trade unions had achieved in the short time since their inception. I also mentioned that God willing, soon the Somali people would achieve independence. At the Conference’s conclusion, the Italian delegates from the CISAL extended to us an invitation to visit their headquarters in Rome, Italy and we accepted their gracious hospitality. At the CISAL’s HQ, we met the Secretary-General of the organisation, Mr. Pastore, who congratulated us on the role played by the Somali trade unions in the development of our country and the opening up and expansion of the economy.

The following year, Mr. Elmoi, Mr. Rafele and I once again attended the Conference. I reported on recent developments. One of the notable outcomes of the Conference was that the Italian representative agreed to the enactment of the Labour Code, which was a monumental piece of legislation. It brought Somalia in line with developed parts of the world in setting a national minimum wage for Somali workers as well as other measures to better workers’ living and working conditions. There were also measures to try and encourage the country’s productivity, an area where the Somali trade unions contributed a lot. Immediately after our return from the International Labour Conference, in July 1957, the heads of the Somali trade unions set up a summit known as Dopolavoro, which was held at the Theatre, opposite the Guglielmo Marconi primary and middle schools (later renamed Yassin Osman).

Part Two will appear in subsequent issues.

This article was translated from Somali by the Editor. A Somali version is available on our website.