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Brief History of the Eritrean Trade Union Movement

The Eritrean working class emerged with the advent of the Italian colonialism and capitalism in the late 19th century. Immediately after colonizing Eritrea, Italy embarked into massive development of various infrastructures: ports, roads, railways etc. using forces and/or low-paid Eritrean labour force. By 1909, as a result of confiscation of fertile and lash land by the Italian colonizers, thousands of Eritrean’s were turned land less rural labourers.

In the run-up to the Second World War, the fascist Italian colonizers were making extensive preparations to expand their colonialist ambitions in East Africa. Consequently, in 1930 the Italian settler population rose to 50,000. Various infrastructural renovations-expansions of port facilities, new roads, new houses and administrative buildings, and many service and consumer goods manufacturing plants were established. As a result of this major war effort, by 1939 about 2,198 small scale factories were in operation in which thousands of Eritrean’s were employed. At this stage of historical development more and more Eritrean’s were being drugged into the slowly developing capitalist system which was a new phenomenon in Eritrea.

During this era, the Eritrean workers were subjected to appalling working conditions, law pay, discriminatory labour law, long hours of work, and above all they were deprived of improving their skills and educational opportunities. Few Eritreans were allowed to go to school up to the 4th grade to serve as interpreters at the various Italian administrative in order to perpetuate their colonial system.

Although Eritrean workers were prohibited by law to organize and protest against the incredible injustices, there were isolated protests against the foregoing injustices all over Eritrea. As a result many workers were detained, hanged and some exiled to NAKHRA (an island prison of the Assab Port).

The British Era of Military Administration

After 50 years under bitter Italian colonisation, in 1947 the Italians were defeated in East Africa by the British with active participation of the Eritreans. Since much of the factories and plants were not destroyed by the war, the organization of “Industrial Exhibition” was possible in 1943 where a variety of products of many factories was displayed. In 1944-45 there were 1,610 medium and small-scale factories in operation with 5,640 expatriate and 6,954 Eritrean workers.

After the British took over Eritrea in 1941, the discriminatory policies of Italians with respect to low pay to indigenous workers still continued. In fact in 1942, the British promulgated Act No. 38 that further ensured preferential pay and better working conditions for expatriates and lower pay scale to Eritrean Workers. More over, in order to reinforce their high level political intrigues (which was being orchestrated by the US and Ethiopia), the British removed 85 million East Africa Shillings worth of industrial plant and communication facilities to neighbouring countries. This measure was actually taken in order to convey the impression that Eritrea look as not economically visible and thus not eligible for self government. On this pretext the British Military Administration was pushing for the partition of Eritrea: the western lowlands to Sudan which was then its colony and the central highlands and south to Ethiopia. This proportion was, however, strenuously rejected by all the Eritrean political parties.

Under the British Military Administration, the Eritrea workers continue to struggle against the inhuman exploitation. As the British Military Administration had already introduced some liberalization politicise in terms of provision of education, allowing the right to associate and organize, in the mid 1940’s many political parties were formed.

Eritrea workers started to actively participate in those parties struggling for independence. As workers gathered strength, they formed trade unions to lead their struggle in an organized manner.

Chronology of the Formation of Trade Union Movement in Eritrea

1948- The first trade unions were factory based and emerged in 1948. The factory based unions later united and on February 4th, 1952 they formed the NUEWI (National Union of Eritrean Workers for Independence). The NUEWI was based on the principle of unity amongst all Eritrean Workers.

1953 The erosion of Eritrea’s Political autonomy through Ethiopian annexation in the 1950’s catapulted the union movement into the leading force of the Eritrean nationalist movement. Trade union rights were withdrawn in 1957. The NUEWI opposed the abrogation of the rights of freedom of association. Workers in the two Ports Assab and Massawa, organized a strike and many members were jailed.

A simmering dispute between the unions and the Ethiopian government came to the forefront in March 1958.

1958- The unions called for a three-day general strike and were joined by students and youth. The Ethiopian government responded to the strike with force, killing many workers and detaining thousands of other workers. The officers and president of the NUEWI were subjected toe harassment and assassination attempts and thus, were force to flee the country. The Ethiopians strove to weaken the Eritrean economy by dismantling the factories and encouraging foreign investors to move their investments south Ethiopia. Many industries in Eritrea were closed as a result and workers, skilled and unskilled, were forced to flee the country, many then joined the Eritrean liberation movement.

1970- Eritrean workers sought employment in Europe, North America and the Middle East and organized themselves along with the students to participate in the Eritrean liberation movement. The first meeting of the Eritrean workers in the Diaspora was held in Germany in 1970.

1977- The Eritrean organization known as “Eritrea’s for liberation” began to organize in the different countries as the Eritrean Workers Union.

1979- Eritrean Workers from many parts of the world gathered in the liberated area of Eritrea in 1979 and founded the NUEW (National Union of Eritrean Workers) based on principles of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. The second congress of the NUEW was held in 1983 and the Third Congress in 1988 both in the liberated areas.

arrow white3 Food, drink and allied workers
arrow white3 Chemical, Mining and General workers
arrow white3 Service giving industries workers
arrow white3 Transportation and communication workers
arrow white3 Textile and leather workers

Five Federations

chemical     food     indusrty     textile     transport
Chemical, Mining and General workers federation     Food, drink and allied workers federation     Service giving industries workers federation     Textile and leather workers federation     Transportation and communication workers federation