Speaking for Ourselves

From cocoa farming to fighting for workers’ rights

From cocoa farming to fighting for workers’ rights

Michelle Fuller

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - From cocoa farming to fighting for workers’ rights

Ake Achi was born in the Ivory Coast to parents who were farmers. To protect him from the hardships of child labour in the cocoa fields they sent him to Europe. With the help of his aunt who was settled in France, tickets were bought and accommodation arranged. So began his life as a migrant at the age of 10.
Accompanied on the plane journey by his elder sister, Achi remembers feeling immense sadness at being sent away from all he knew - his parents, his home, his friends, his country. On arrival in France in 1986 “it was cold” he recalls, “and people did not look or sound like me.”
But, he adds, “When your parents send you away at the age of 10, thousands of miles away, it’s not because they don’t love you – it’s because they love you!”
“Those of us sent away to these countries are trying to improve our lives and our families’ lives.”
Blending his African culture with European values was a challenge. He believes that if you live in a new country you should integrate, adding new values to your own, without forgetting where you came from. 
But he found that there were few promising job opportunities for migrants, and instead looked to London because of the British media's portrayal of successful black people in the UK. Britain was portrayed as accepting and respecting diversity and promoting equal opportunities. So in 2006 he moved to London.
Initially, Achi continued to work with the security company for which he had worked in France. He improved his English and met British people. After three years he enrolled at Kingston University in London and, like many migrant students, supported himself by working night shifts.
“Getting my degree was difficult," he recalls. "I needed to look after my family in Africa and further my education while working and studying full time  in a new language.”
His focus after getting a degree in international relations was human rights - particularly workers' rights and he got a job with the GMB trade Union.
“If the trade unions in Africa were able to protect the basic economic, social and cultural rights of my parents I wouldn’t be here today," he points out. "The multinational companies are depriving people of their basic human rights.”
Using his knowledge, skills and GMB support, Achi has organised the GMB black workers self-organised group, the HUB, to encourage ethnic minority involvement in union activism: “It’s been difficult for the ethnic minorities to have a voice in the work place here in the UK as their concerns are not a priority, and racism is a big part of that.”
He has since created two other groups. The first, Re-Solution 53, campaigns for the protection of trade union officials in Africa: “My colleagues trade union activists in Africa can be killed or sent to prison for doing the same job I do in the UK.” It also aims to encourage Europe-based transnational companies to change their practices and policies in their Africa operations.   
His second initiative, Right2workUK, was set up to tackle abuses of UK immigration law in the workplace: “Immigration law in the workplace already causes a lot of confusion and Brexit has created more complications. This puts a lot of pressure on employers, who do not have the relevant knowledge and skill in immigration law to assess an employee’s right to work.” As a result, many migrants are unlawfully dismissed or suspended from their jobs. Achi's group works with the trade unions, migrant communities and employers to protect the rights of migrant workers and has been winning support from NGOs and union activists.
Achi is modest about his achievements in establishing these groups and protecting workers: "They are things that need to be done. I don’t know if this is what I was meant to do, but it feels natural for me to do it.”
“I will talk about achievements when I have my PHD in my hand," he adds, "because that’s my aim, so I can go as high as I can in my career.”
Undaunted by the scale of the problems he is tackling, Achi credits the GMB Southern region for supporting and empowering him and says he is inspired by the work of great human rights activists’ like South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela and international Ghanaian statesman Kofi Annan. Achi is confident that his ideas and initiatives will attract the support needed to create positive change: “Fighting for human rights can never be a hopeless struggle,” he says.
Sadly, he has seen a change in attitudes towards migrants, with an increase in attacks and more people told to leave the UK.
“Many people who are bullied to leave this country have been living here for decades. They have paid their taxes, their children have grown up here. People need to think about what’s actually happening,” he cautions.
His wish is for the media to focus more on people's mutual support rather than giving a platform to those wanting to create division and hate.
“Since the migrant crisis, British people came out to support refugees and migrant workers. People have set up organisations to help strangers. This is something that comes from the heart … I am grateful because a lot of the British people have this heart. This is encouraging."
Now, at 41, Achi has relocated again, from London to "quiet" Birmingham with his wife and two children. The family will have more time together and the children more space to play.
“Ivory Coast is where my roots are," he says, "but France and the UK are my second home and the home of my children; and no Brexiteers will bully me to leave. I AM HOME ”

Further links and information:
Re-Solution 53 is a participant of the United nations global compact Business and human rights initiative  https://www.unglobalcompact.org/what-is-gc/participants/83601


Right2workUK https://www.facebook.com/right2workuk/

GMB Trade Union southern region  https://www.gmb-southern.org.uk/