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BURKINA FASO: For Workers, Privatisation Has Little Appeal

by Tiego TiemtoreInter Press Service News Agency
March 7th, 2005

Tole Sagnon, general secretary of the General Confederation of Workers of Burkina is demanding "the end of privatisation of state-run companies, a true and accurate accounting for previous privatisations, and the punishment of (officials) found guilty of committing financial crimes while managing state-run businesses".

While government agreed at the start of the privatisation process in 1991 to consult unions in the sale of state assets, workers are unhappy with the way in which these negotiations have taken place. This has prompted Sagnon to call for the employees of public companies to be involved in "all decisions that affect their lives and the future of the country".

The increased concern on the part of workers concerning the latest wave of privatisations is perhaps due to the fact that several firms up for sale are in strategic sectors such as telecommunications, electricity and water provision – and the supply of petroleum. These companies include the Burkinabe Precious Metals Syndicate and two companies that are responsible for mines and geology, and water management and purification respectively.

"We are apprehensive," says Georges Kouanda, a staff representative from the National Electricity Company of Burkina (Société nationale d’électricité du Burkina, SONABEL). "The studies on this subject show that this reform will in no way benefit the Burkinabe government nor, more specifically, SONABEL personnel."

These words are echoed by Sagnon.

"Right now, electricity is already expensive. It will be even more expensive after privatization," he told IPS.

At present, SONABEL supplies electricity across almost 14 percent of Burkina Faso’s territory – a figure it plans to increase to 60 percent within the next decade.

"To reach this goal, a huge investment programme...has been adopted, estimated at 240 billion CFA francs (about 480 million dollars)," Cheick Omar Bony of the company’s communications office told IPS.

For its part, government maintains that workers have been kept abreast of developments in the privatisation process.

"The rights of workers in the privatised enterprises have been respected," Commerce and Business Promotion Minister Benoit Ouattara said at a press conference recently. "No privatisations have been conducted without first consulting worker representatives."

The sale of public companies, adds Placide Some, president of the National Privatisation Commission, is also central to "improving the quality of service and reducing costs to support growth" at state firms.

In addition, the Ministry of Finance points out that subsidising loss-making government companies has taken a heavy toll on public finances.

In 1991, the state needed about 41 million dollars to keep a number of companies which have since been privatised afloat. However, the profits from selling off these firms netted government a profit of over 43 million dollars by December 2003. The companies in question included Air Burkina, and the Burkina Leather and Pelt Company.

Government also claims that investments in these enterprises rose from 4.6 million dollars in 1991 to 50 million dollars by the end of 2003.

But, say workers, these figures tell only part of the story.

"Each privatisation leads to new lay offs," Moussa Kaboré, who lost his job in a government transport firm, told IPS.

And, he says, such lay offs have far-reaching consequences in Burkina Faso, where people have large families: "In a country where a worker supports about ten people, you can understand why we resist privatisations which lead to hardship."

Sidy Barry, a lawyer who teaches at the National School of Administration and Magistracy, questions whether government may be failing in its responsibilities to Burkinabe citizens by selling off public firms.

"Who better than the state can take care of people? By privatising companies of this sort, isn’t (government) simply mortgaging the development of the country and its people?" he asks.

In instances where privatisation does go ahead, economist Moussa Nogo believes a more considered approach needs to be adopted.

The sale of state assets, he says, needs to be combined with developing the "participation of personnel (from government companies)...and small investors" in the private sector.

To date, 27 state-owned firms have been privatised (END/2005)

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