The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) came into effect on 1 January 2021. 54 of the 55 African Union members have signed the agreement. Once the AfCFTA moves beyond the establishing phase, it needs help. Member countries will step in to implement and enforce the agreement.

One of the ways the AfCFTA aims to improve inter-African trade is through removing non-trade barriers such as cumbersome border controls. But more action will be needed beyond pronouncing the end of border controls. The governments – State Parties in the AfCFTA agreement – will develop national implementation strategies to operationalise this and other objectives in the agreement.

“Trade Agreements such as the AfCFTA are implemented through the domestic measures implemented in the State Parties. They must change their national tariff books, provide for domestic procedures regarding the issue of certificates of origin and for compliance with technical and health standards. The aim will be to harmonise these procedures, but they will need national legal foundations to ensure officials will give effect to the relevant provisions in the AfCFTA Agreement.”

Source: TRALAC

The onus is on the governments to develop balanced domestic legal and policy frameworks in line with the obligations of the AfCFTA. In this regard, labour policies and laws are some examples. Sound national industrial policies that integrate the concerns of labour and gender would anchor the AfCFTA.

Despite the complexities associated with such large-scale trade liberalisation and the risks for workers and communities, trade unions haven’t been included fully in the AfCFTA process. The implementation of the agreement at national levels can enable unions to influence the processes of the AfCFTA. However, the union influence is only possible if the organisations can secure the necessary buy-in from their governments.

Trade union responses

What to look out for, deliberate and demand

The implementation of AfCFTA will largely depend on interventions and buy-in at a national level. Therefore, trade unions should recognise the role of their governments in implementing the AfCFTA at national levels. Unions must strive to build their capacity for influencing the AfCFTA processes in their countries. To this end, unions should consider the following issues:

  1. Do trade unions have the necessary networks and influence to engage the government on issues relating to the AfCFTA? If not, what immediate remedial actions can unions take and who are potential allies for any advocacy?
  2. Does the national government have the necessary knowledge, expertise and resources to implement the AfCFTA?
  3. Who will be responsible for developing the AfCFTA Implementation Plan in the country? How can unions ensure mainstreaming of labour, gender and environmental concerns in the plan?
  4. Where are the resources for developing and maintaining, for example, the supporting infrastructure for the AfCFTA?
  5. What job transitioning and retraining programmes is the government considering to address the possible job losses due to the AfCFTA? How will such resource-intensive programmes be supported to ensure no worker is left behind in the transitioning process?
  6. Does the country have balanced legal and policy frameworks (including on labour) that can form part of the obligations under the AfCFTA?
  7. Does the country have a sound industrial policy and with labour and gender issues mainstreamed throughout?


Additional AfCFTA futures and programmes to look out for

Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA)

“State Parties have included in the agreement a Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA). Full and effective implementation of this programme would have important positive impacts for trade in Africa as it will help develop infrastructure.”

Source: CUTS International (African Continental Free Trade Agreement: Opportunities and Challenges)

The AfCFTA Online Mechanism for Reporting, Monitoring and Elimination of Non-Tariff Barriers

“The AfCFTA Online Mechanism for Reporting, Monitoring and Elimination of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) provides a facility for online reporting of identified non -tariff barriers (NTBs) including for reporting via SMS. Reported NTBs and the status of their resolution can be accessed in the public domain. Various informative pages on the website, including FAQs, assist in the use of the system. NTB notifications will be received by the focal points of the reporting country, the responding country and the AfCFTA Secretariat for processing. In a non-public space, the system then allows information exchange between the concerned State Parties to monitor and resolve NTBs”

Source: AfCFTA TRALAC Guide, 7th Edition

The African Trade Observatory (ATO)

The African Trade Observatory (ATO) will be responsible for information on trade data, market conditions, regulations, and about registered exporters and importers. This could improve trade governance and policymaking considerably, but the collection of trade data is a national responsibility. In many instances, this function needs to be improved and coordinated. Improving capacity at the national level to collect, verify, clean and publish trade data regularly and expeditiously is not only important for domestic policy processes but also important to monitor and review the impact of trade agreements, including the AfCFTA.”

 Source: TRALAC (African Continental Free Trade Area negotiations: WHO is negotiating with WHOM? SACU and the EAC)


Strengthened public procurement

Public procurement helps governments to support local companies and economic development. Through it, governments can set conditions for labour standards within the companies that benefit from public procurement.  Open access to government procurement would subsequently be to the advantage of outside multinational companies. Trade unions need to demand the protection of the right of governments to use public procurement to support economic development, improve working conditions and pursue social and environmental objectives.

Creation of an AfCFTA Compensation Fund

The International Trade Union Confederation advocates for special benefits for those who stand to lose in trade agreements. Trade unions should demand the establishment of an AfCFTA Compensation Fund, which would see to the fair sharing of the benefits derived from the Agreement. Also, short-term financial support and medium-term re-skilling and training would support transitions to new activities and sectors of employment.

Social dialogue is crucial in the AfCFTA processes

Trade unions should demand proper social dialogue in the AfCFTA processes. Some topics for social dialogue are youth employment, gender, decent jobs and sustainability. Also, unions and their social partners should always demand democratic participation in the AfCFTA.

Demand a rapid response labour enforcement mechanism

Formulate demands for the inclusion of a rapid response labour enforcement mechanism. The facility would have specific inspections and actions against organisations and individuals who violate any labour standards commitments.

Trade union research

Trade unions can benefit from research to sustain their positions and advocacy activities in trade agreements. For example, unions would have a stronger case to put forward if they could prove how the opening up of all services will negatively impact workers. Employment impact assessments should focus on both the number of jobs at risk and the quality of jobs.

Information collection and sharing

The collection of employment-related data is important and unions should play an active role in this regard. Baseline data can help to prove the negative or positive consequences of the AfCFTA. Also important is the consistent sharing of data and information between countries.

Advocate for vulnerable workers

Trade unions need to expand their mandate to advocate for the large percentage of the workforce active in the informal sector. These workers are vulnerable and often women. One way of addressing the needs of workers in the informal economy is simplified trade regimes. For instance, simplified customs documents, a common list of goods that qualify for duty-free status, and assistance in completing customs procedures. African governments should also implement specific national plans to widen the range of companies that can benefit from the AfCFTA.


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Why trade unions should be concerned about the African Continental Free Trade agreement

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The implications of the AfCFTA for Africa’s development and the working class



Marie Daniel

Marie Daniel is an Associate at Labour Research Service. Marie has an urban studies and development economics background and one of her research passions is organisation and participation approaches within the informal sector. She is intrigued by the manner in which participatory democracy is approached and implemented in South Africa. 

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