South Africa LGBTI Dialogue Raises Awareness among Unions

In Limpopo, a landlocked rural area in South Africa’s northernmost province, agriculture and mining are the primary industries, nearly 75 percent of residents fall below the country’s poverty line and many cling to long-held cultural and religious biases. In this difficult environment, workers who identify as LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) face frequent discrimination at the workplace, even though it is prohibited under the South African Constitution.

“Discrimination is bad—employers want us to dress a certain way, they want us to pretend to be what we are not,” said one young lesbian member of the Limpopo LGBTI group, Proudly Out. “I am seen as a demon.”

The worker was among 60 participants in a recent dialogue session, “LGBTI Rights in the Workplace,” organized by WageIndicator.org sponsors, the Solidarity Center, the Labour Rights for Women and others.

The discussion in Polokwane, Limpopo’s capital, included LGBTI workers and union leaders from South Africa’s four labor federations: the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU), the Confederation of South Africa Workers’ Unions (CONSAWU) and the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA).

Members of the LGBTI community spoke of not being taken seriously in interviews for jobs because they did not look “conventional.” Some said they were prohibited by their employer from taking time off work to care for a partner, a right guaranteed under the country’s Family Responsibility Leave policy. Others described being called names and being shunned by colleagues in spaces such as workplace bathrooms.

The low level of information about the LGBTI community in Limpopo results in prejudice and makes it difficult for LGBTI workers to access their constitutional rights in the province and in their respective communities, according to Nhlanhla Mabizela, Solidarity Center program officer for gender in South Africa.

Further, some members of the LGBTI community, particularly those in rural areas, do not know how to access their rights, according to a representative of the South African Commission for Gender Equality who also took part in the forum, along with the Labour Research Service.

The meeting also highlighted the need for more awareness among unions about the struggles of LGBTI workers so they could effectively stand up for LGBTI issues at work. Federation leaders agreed to hold similar LGBTI education and dialogue meetings with their local unions to help ensure LGBTI rights were recognized at the workplace and during contract negotiations.

The meeting in Limpopo is the third such LGBTI dialogue spearheaded by the WageIndicator.org’s Labour Rights for Women campaign in South Africa, as it works with trade unions and other civil society organizations to reverse the conditions that led one LGBTI participant to say: “We are hated for being who we are.”