Gender Links (Johannesburg)

South Africa: Trade Unions Still Have a 'Male Face'

Johannesburg — The upsurge in the number of strikes in recent months in South Africa, from mines to farms, in what others have termed the “strike season” have one common characteristic. Very few women are seen on the front lines of the protests and trade unions still have a “male face.”

Women are often seen in large numbers when it’s a service delivery protest. This shows that women are under represented in the mainstream economy where a wage is often negotiated between employer and employee and through collective bargaining between employers and trade unions.

During the “strike season”, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of women in leadership positions in trade unions and their unequal representation in the workforce.

In the Western Cape farm strikes, a significant number of women protested. However, the agricultural sector is known for its unscrupulous practises of employing mainly women as seasional labour and paying them next to nothing.

Despite the seemingly progressive policies such as the Gender Project for Africa Trade Unions (Gepatu), initiated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity as part of their effort and commitment to build trade union gender capacity, inequalities still persist.

In South Africa, female representation in trade unions remains low. Although some of the leading trade unions such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have a gender policy, this remains on paper and is yet to translate to any meaningful action. Most unions in the country do not mobilise casual workers. More employers especially in the agricultural sector are capitalising on this and employing casual labourers, who are mostly women. This explains male dominance in trade unions.

Research findings by a study sponsored by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa's (Numsa) show that women often occupy "insignificant" positions in the top-six of a trade union’s leadership structure. The treasurer position is often given to a woman mostprobably because women can be trusted with finances. However, in such a position, women still have to get instructions from the president or the general secretary of the union.

A gender and trade unions report by the Global Labour University points out that in Zimbabwe, only 21.9% of unionised members are women, men make up 78%. In Namibia, women constitute 60% of union membership in the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW). The representation of women in the trade union structures in these countries remain low.

There is need to broaden the scope of trade union work beyond quantity representation to reflect the current gender gaps that widen as a result of women’s traditional roles. Trade union work demands travel away from home, which often clashes with women’s roles in the home. Union meetings often take place in the evenings, effectively ruling out female participation as women are socially expected to be at home to be with the family. The high crime rate in South Africa makes travel at night for women risky.

Furthermore, men still have negative perceptions about women and doubt their leadership capabilities. It is therefore important for trade unions to organise around women’s multiple roles at home and also in the workplace so that they have time to participate in trade union work. Unions must also provide more leadership and capacity building training for women on collective bargaining.

Most unions turn to violence or open confrontation as opposed to dialogue to express their demands. Violence (and open confrontation) is usually associated with the macho whereas dialogue is regarded as feminine. Women do not often identify with this tactic and will therefore distance themselves from trade unions.

The role of trade unions is undoubtedly to organise workers to influence and make decisions about their jobs, give both female and male workers voice and influence. Trade unions also influence decent work and working conditions for workers.

According to the ILO, decent work “sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives – their aspirations for opportunity and income; rights, voice and recognition; family stability and personal development; and fairness and gender equality.” It becomes imperative for women to participate in trade unions and to be well represented in trade union bodies.

Women have different needs which male representatives may not necessarily understand. For women to fully participate in the economy, they may need other services such as breast feeding hours, maternity leave, child facilities and medical aid among other things. Thus a critical mass of women in collective barganing efforts becomes important.

Trade unions must make gender issues more visible, move away from mere rhetoric and open up spaces for women. Women are capable of leading unions and should be voted into influential positions such as secretary general and president. Workers, both women and men, should be confident that women will bring the change required in trade unions, improved working conditions for all and advocate for equal pay for equal work. This will assist in reducing poverty in the household.

Sehlapi Dawu Sibanda is a free lance journalist based in South Africa. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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