Addressing unemployment and underemployment, especially for young workers, is the most pressing issue for trade unions across Africa, according to participants in an African Labor Leaders Exchange Program sponsored by the Solidarity Center.
Speaking at a December 9 panel discussion at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., six union leaders from Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and South Africa discussed the challenges in securing economic prosperity for working people—and their strategies for empowering workers in the formal and informal economies.
“What faces us is high levels of unemployment, poverty,” said Edward de Klerk, deputy general secretary of South Africa’s United National Transport Union (UNTU).
“Unemployment is an African issue,” said Philip Kwoba, director of Youth Organizing with the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) in Kenya. Unions in Kenya are reaching out to informal economy workers, which include many young workers, helping them form worker savings associations as a step toward unionization and gaining bargaining rights. “We are allocating resources to help,” said Kwoba.
Members of the panel, moderated by Solidarity Center Regional Program Director for Africa Imani Countess, said poverty also is fueled by low wages. “Wage inequality is this battle still we have got,” said de Klerk. In Nigeria, unions are tackling wage issues by addressing government policies that reduce the pay of public-employees, including teachers, said Muhammed Nasir Idris, National Treasurer Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT).
Lack of employment opportunity and poverty in Liberia puts youth at risk of labor trafficking within the country’s borders, said Liberia Labor Congress (LLC) General Secretary David Sackoh.
Sackoh said labor recruiters take children from parents in their villages, promising the children will go to school in the city. Instead, the children are used in forced labor. “Even though our research shows (the children) want to return,” they are unable to do so for seven to 10 years,” he said.
Sackoh pointed to the Liberian trade union movement’s tremendous victory in eradicating child labor at the Firestone Natural Rubber Liberia plantation, and said the union movement now is working to address the issue at the seven other plantations across the country.
During questions with the audience, which included a packed crowd of union activists, policy experts and international experts, union leaders also discussed drawing more women into trade union leadership.
“Getting women elected to high offices is now on the union agenda,” said Boniface Kavuvi, general secretary of the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW). Kavuvi pointed to domestic workers in Kenya, represented by KUDHEIHA, as an example of dynamic organizing and strong leadership by women in Kenya. “They have done a tremendous job,” he said.
In Liberia, unions are pushing for 30 percent representation by women in union leadership, mirroring the country’s effort to increase women’s representation in the national legislature, said Isaac Grant, LLC organizing coordinator.
The six union leaders traveled to the United States for a South–South labor leaders’ exchange in which African labor leaders met with community and trade union organizers across the southern United States. The Solidarity Center worked with the U.S.-based labor education program, the National Labor Leadership Initiative (NLLI), to facilitate the exchange, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Nhlanhla Mabizela says he first truly grasped the meaning of gender inequality on a winter day in the dusty streets of Alexandra Township in post-apartheid South Africa.
Cutting through an alley surrounded by houses made of iron scrap and plastic sheets, Mabizela and a friend came across a group of children playing. All were barefoot in the cold, with a single layer of clothes he assumed were the only ones they owned.
“Guess the first thing that popped in our minds?” asks Mabizela, Solidarity Center program officer for gender. “Where are the mothers of these children?” Seconds later, he and his friend encountered groups of men sitting around a fire, drinking and laughing. Nearby, they also saw a woman doing laundry in a large corrugated bathtub, her hands immersed in icy water.
“There and then we had the answer to our question and a new one was born and it was, ‘What is happening in the mens’ minds?’ That was the day when it dawned on me that gender inequality is alive and some of us are quite comfortable with it.”
Solidarity Center Helps Unions Put Gender Equality into Practice
Solidarity Center programs around the world address gender inequality at the workplace and within unions and society. In South Africa, Mabizela holds trainings to empower women to join unions and take leadership roles and advocate for themselves and their families. Crucially, his workshops also focus on helping men understand cultural expectations and how those assumptions shape male leadership roles that are based on excluding women.
Mabizela’s work highlights a frequent dichotomy. Unions are key drivers in advancing gender equality. Yet in many countries around the world, there is a disconnect between labor union policy and practice in transforming gender inequalities within their own structures. Through the lens of the South African union movement, a new report commissioned by the Solidarity Center explores the disconnect and examines new strategies for closing the gap between policy and practice.
“Putting Union Gender Equality into Practice: The Role of Transformational Leadership” describes how “feminist leadership” can be encouraged within the South African trade union context in part by creating a democratic organizational culture and an environment that supports women workers in their struggle for emancipation and assists men to free themselves from patriarchal forms of power.
“We have internalized and institutionalized gender roles and the division of labor,” says Mabizela. “We have failed as a country to interrogate patriarchy and hence we will move four steps forward and six steps backwards. We are so immersed in the debates about political power at the expense of all the other oppressions in sexism.”
‘Everything Is Structured around Men’
South African unions and federations long have sought to redefine and reshape patriarchal structures, cultures and practices to better inhere gender equality. Beginning in 2005, several South African unions sought to develop alternative models of power after recognizing that male-dominated, hierarchical, union culture does not easily address such issues as violence against women and sexual harassment of women within the union. They took part in Gender at Work’s South African Gender Action Learning Program to employ gender-inclusive and accountable power building and power sharing.
Authors of the new study interviewed the men who took part, and reported that they expressed an appreciation of how, by challenging male stereotyped behaviors and aspects of patriarchal power relations, they have enriched their private and public relationships and strengthened their commitment to gender equality.
“The much broader question is the need to look at how male culture influences everything—how everything is structured around men,” says John Apollis, a leader from the General Industrial Workers Union (GIWUSA) who is quoted in the report. “We need a fundamental reorganization of the union otherwise we are not going to get far with breaking male dominance.”
Some of the men also noted they struggle with alienation by their peers, who see their efforts to incorporate gender equality in the union and at home as setting them apart from traditional male roles.
‘I Would Not Like to Rehash What Our Fathers Did’
Mabizela says he was aware of gender inequality even in childhood, when the girls would “disappear” after school to wash dishes or clean house, while the boys played outside.
But the winter day in Alexandria Township spurred him to “reflect on how easy it was for us (me and my friend) both men, to put the burden of care squarely on women’s shoulders and be oblivious to the effects of gender-based violence. That day still exists in many parts of this world and not only in shanty towns of South Africa, but also in the leafy suburbs of the affluent.”
As Solidarity Center gender program officer, Mabizela also works with other organizations to campaign for passage of national laws, like a minimum wage for South Africa’s 1 million domestic workers which became law last December. Parliament currently is considering an expanded maternity leave law that incorporates significant input by the Solidarity Center.
He works with four South African union federations on the International Trade Union Confederation’s Labor Rights for Women Campaign and assists federations in developing sexual harassment policies and gender policies. He brings to his work experience as a peer educator for me at Planned Parenthood of South Africa and as a program officer for EngenderHealth’s Men as Partners Program.
In striving to embody the change essential for advancing gender equality in South Africa, Mabizela is blazing a trail for others. When describing the influences that motivate his work, Mabizela says he often thinks about how much he yearned to have a father in his life when he was a child—an experience he later learned was not uncommon.
Now, as the father of an 11-year-old son, Mabizela says, “the thought that I would not like to rehash what our fathers did, motivates me to do the work that I do. Observing my son grow, and developing confidence and not being afraid to show his emotions—it is enough motivation to carry on for his sake and the betterment of our societies.”
The recent firing of a union leader at a Chinese-owned oil refinery in Kyrgyzstan is the company’s latest attempt in the past two years to prevent workers from forming a union, according to the global union IndustriALL and workers.
Zhanaydar Ahmetov, leader of the trade union committee at China Petrol Company Zhongda was fired and locked out of the plant. Credit: IndustriALL
Zhanaydar Ahmetov, leader of the trade union committee at China Petrol Company Zhongda was fired and locked out of the plant on August 29, the second union leader dismissed in two years, factory workers say. Oil refinery workers created a union last December, elected Ahmetov as chairman and joined the Mining and Metallurgy Trade Union of Kyrgyzstan (MMTUK). Some 350 of the 400 Kyrgyz workers in the refinery have joined the union. Although they negotiated a contract with management in January, the company refuses to sign it.
(Take action to urge the company to reinstate Ahmetov.)
The company now is challenging the union’s registration in court. In March, management set up a company-controlled union, and workers report that managers are pressuring them to join it.
Hazardous, Even Deadly Workplace Conditions
Following Ahmetov’s dismissal, hundreds of workers rallied at the refinery, demanding his reinstatement and reiterating to management the need for improved safety and health measures, an increase in wages and a collective bargaining agreement. Workers say workplace hazards include plant machinery with instruction and warning signs posted in Chinese, posing serious and even deadly risks to the primarily Kyrgyz-speaking factory workers.
In July, management refused entry to MMWUK’s safety and health inspectors, according to workers.
MMTUK President Eldar Tadjibaev says if management will not negotiate with workers, the union will take the company’s repeated violations of labor and human rights to the Kyrgyz state prosecutor.
Workers Forced to Sign Contract Lowering Their Wages
Zhongda, which began operating in Kyrgyzstan in 2013, employs nearly 1,000 workers, including management staff. Workers first created a union in April 2014, and in May, union leader Nuraev Almazbek was fired and the union disbanded. Almazbek is suing the company over the illegal dismissal.
Last November, managers told workers if they did not sign a contract lowering their wages, their actions would be interpreted as unwillingness to work and they would be fired.
Workers also are seeking compensation for hazardous working conditions, transparency about the hazards posed by specific duties and adherence to government regulations stipulating 90 percent of the workforce be locally based.
A second Honduran union leader and participant in the Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras has been threatened with death if he does not stop his union-related work, according to the human rights group Aci Participa.
Tomás Membreño Pérez, president of the agricultural workers union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria (STAS), received death threats by phone and on Facebook in recent days and was followed as he traveled to the Santa Rita banana plantation where he is helping workers get a voice on the job.
One Honduran union leader has been murdered this year who also was a member of the anti-violence network and another union leader disappeared and is presumed dead. In July, the president of the health care union reported receiving death threats. (ACI Participa has documented more such cases.)
The network, comprised of union activists and ACI-Participa, was launched late last year to combat government corruption and stand up to increasing violence and threats against union activists. Among them, José Maria Martinez, an active union member who hosted a popular pro-worker radio show, was forced to flee Honduras twice because of death threats in 2013 and 2014.
Honduras: No Progress in Addressing Worker Rights
Pérez also is active on the Honduran labor movement’s Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) Complaint Commission, which has received numerous documented cases of worker rights abuse in the banana and agricultural sectors in Honduras.
The United States passed the CAFTA agreement in 2005. In 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed a complaint under CAFTA’s labor chapter with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs alleging the Honduran government failed to enforce labor rights under its labor laws. The trade and labor affairs office accepted the complaint in 2014, and the United States is waiting for the Honduran government to present its corrective plan of action. In a February 2015 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office says Honduras has made virtually no progress since 2012.
‘Overwhelmed’ by Violence, Attacks on Worker Rights
The Santa Rita banana plantation is included in the 2012 complaint under its previous name, Tres Hermanas. As the AFL-CIO points out, Santa Rita, now a subsidiary of Chiquita, owes full-time and temporary workers nearly $50,000 for unpaid overtime and other wages.
In addition, Honduran unions reported that the Labor Ministry selected an employer-controlled union to represent workers at the plantation, even though it is documented that STAS is supported by 136 workers out of 145. In a July 2015 letter, the AFL-CIO asked the Honduran secretary of Labor and Social Security to address the issue.
Last October, a delegation of U.S. union leaders to Honduras reported that they were “overwhelmed” with the information they received from union activists about widespread noncompliance with laws, including attacks against labor leaders, a lack of compliance with minimum wage laws and an unresponsive government. The delegation issued a scathing report on the conditions.
Garment workers at Sin Sin Poly factory in Bangladesh’s export processing zone (EPZ) won increased pay and leave benefits in August after forming a workers’ welfare association and successfully negotiating with management.
Mehedi Hasan, 35, was among workers helping form the association. When Mehedi began work at the factory, where he was hired to make plastic and polyethlene bags, he says instead he was asked to perform janitorial duties.
“That disappoints me a lot. Though I was appointed as a factory worker, I was asked to clean the factory. There were other problems as well,” he says.
“From that day, I promised to myself that I would work for a change in the factory,” Mehedi added.
Staying Strong to Form Their Association
Mehedi joined with Dalim Sarkar, 30, Russel Sarkar, 28, and Mohammad Alamin, 25, and other workers to form a Workers’ Welfare Association to represent the 100 workers in the factory, formerly called Ju Hyung Co. Ltd.
“The initial stage (involved much) struggling,” says Dalim Sarkar, association secretary. “We had to work hard to convince other workers about the benefit of a (Workers’ Welfare Association).”
“We are now getting increased money for our meal and transportation,” said Alamin.
Garment worker Russel Sarkar said that under the agreement, workers also will receive paid leave for the first time. Some workers have begun to receive performance promotions, a practice the company had ended.
In Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industries, workers often face abusive employers, low pay and unsafe working conditions. EPZ workers cannot form unions. However, in 2004, Bangladesh passed a law passed enabling workers in the special zones to form workers’ associations.
Associations are permitted to represent workers in disputes and grievances, negotiate collective bargaining contracts and collect membership dues, but cannot affiliate with labor unions, nongovernmental organizations or political organizations outside of the EPZ.
“Now other factories in the EPZs are inspired by us,” Dalim says. “If there is a federation in EPZ, our fight for workers’ rights will be easier,” he added.
Workers Associations Spreading
Despite obstacles, more workers are forming associations in factories throughout Bangladesh’s export processing zones. Associations now represent workers at 53 of the 102 factories in the Dhaka EPZ alone.
Bangladesh derives 20 percent of its income from exports created in the EPZs, which are industrial areas that offer special incentives to foreign investors like low taxes, lax environmental regulations and low labor costs. Some 405,166 workers, the vast majority of them women, work in 437 factories in Bangladesh’s eight EPZs.
The Solidarity Center holds trainings for garment workers on labor law and union rights and strategic planning and leadership development. The Solidarity Center also mentors union organizers and workers welfare association leaders and helps workers resolve workplace issues.