Blog: Internationalism has always been at the heart of our work

Since our union was established 25 years ago, internationalism has always been at the heart of our work. It’s one of the reasons why UNISON is so widely respected around the world – we don’t just talk about our values, we live them and put them into practise.

Our work in Liberia is just one example.

Shortly before the Ebola virus struck in 2014, 22 health union leaders were dismissed by the Liberian government for organising a national strike for safer working conditions in the health sector.

From day one, our union stood alongside them and campaigned for their reinstatement. Finally, following a four year international campaign for their reinstatement, the last two – general secretary George Poe Williams and president Joseph Tamba – have returned to work.

When Ebola struck, Liberia had one of world’s lowest levels of health workers per head of population. Its weak and underfunded health system was rapidly overwhelmed, contributing the deaths of almost 5,000 people, including 192 health workers. Working conditions were often unsafe for patients and workers, and essential personal protective equipment was almost never available.

The National Health Workers Association of Liberia (NAHWAL) repeatedly attempted to warn the Liberian government of the challenges in the health sector but their demands were ignored. Worse still, the government used Liberia’s draconian civil service code to deny health workers and all public service workers the right to organise and bargain collectively.

When NAHWAL looked to its international partners for solidarity and support, UNISON – working through Public Service International (PSI) – responded with the trade union Ebola response, a two and a half year project to help trade unions in West Africa respond to the pandemic and campaign for quality public health services and workers’ rights.

The results have been dramatic.

Health care and workers rights were both major issues at the 2017 elections, and NAHWAL has become one of Liberia’s most significant and well respected unions.

I am proud that UNISON has campaigned in solidarity with Liberian health workers in their struggle for recognition and rights. When they protested to the government of Liberia, UNISON protested outside the Liberian Embassy in London too. When they complained to the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation, UNISON co-signed NAHWAL’s complaint. And when they highlighted their demands to governments around the world, UNISON brought George Poe Williams, NAHWAL’s general secretary to the UK to meet with Labour MPs.

We hope that the reinstatement of NAHWAL’s leadership marks the beginning of a new chapter for workers’ rights in Liberia under the country’s new President George Weah. UNISON will continue to stand with Liberian health workers in their demand for workers rights and quality public health services. Only by doing that can avoidable tragedies like the devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014 be stopped once and for all.

You can see an interview with George Poe Williams, NAHWAL’s general secretary here.