Women working in South Africa’s mining sector report being subject to sexual and gender-based violence and harassment, inside mines and within the mining communities where they live and efforts to redress such abuse must address the nature of the workplace and political, social and economic factors.
Women working in South African mines “at times confront danger, violence and indignity in their work environments,” where gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) appears both widespread and normalized, according to a new report from the Solidarity Center and South Africa-based Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR).
The report, “What Happens Underground Stays Underground: A Study of Experiences of Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Harassment of Women Workers in the South African Mining Industry,” found that while verbal harassment is most common, women mineworkers also face requests for sexual favors in exchange for physical labor or for promotions, transfers or changes in work schedules. And sexual assault and harassment can occur both above and below ground at mines.
GBVH in the mining sector can be attributed to a range of complex political, social and economic factors, including:
- The dark and isolated nature of underground mines makes GBVH more likely, and monitoring and supervision of workers and evidence collection more difficult.
- South Africa’s dominant patriarchal social norms are exacerbating reporting barriers by enabling a culture of silence and victimization and the economic dependency of women on men.
- Women working within the numerically and culturally male-dominated sector are outnumbered and often subordinated in their personal security and professional development.
- Some business strategies are undermining the well-being of women workers in the mining industry, such as the outsourcing of female worker recruitment, which can expose recruits to sexual exploitation by gatekeepers of lucrative jobs, and the failure to accommodate women in the design and placement of facilities such as bathrooms, locker rooms, bus stops and elevators, which leaves women vulnerable to violence and harassment.
The report’s findings and recommendations are based on interviews conducted in Cape Town, Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Rustenburg and Wonderkop last year with former and current women mineworkers and representatives of women’s structures within mining unions, including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the Center for Applied Legal Studies at Wits (CALS), the South African Gender Equality Commission, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Wits Mining Institute. All women mineworker interviewees chose to remain anonymous, to protect their safety and jobs.
“Women mineworkers, striving to support their families, live a troubling reality—one that comes at great cost to their physical and mental well-being. The stakes are high, and the failure to prevent GBVH amounts to granting tacit permission to perpetrators,” according to the report.
Lead report researcher Sheila B. Keetharuth—who previously served on the United Nations team of international experts on the Kasai, Democratic Republic of Congo—says that the lower proportion of female workers in the mining sector in South Africa is, “a recipe for disaster that necessitates easily accessible and trustworthy reporting mechanisms as provided for in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”
The International Labor Organization two years ago adopted Convention 190, the first global binding treaty to address GBVH in the world of work. The treaty calls on governments, employers and unions to work together to confront the root causes of GBVH, including the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, gender stereotypes and unequal gender-based power relationships. South Africa has yet to ratify Convention 190.
“Safe and healthy jobs are among workers’ most fundamental rights,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “As we observe World Day for Safety and Health at Work today, we must continue to reinforce that a safe workplace is one that is free of gender-based violence and harassment. And through unions, workers can achieve the strong, collective voice needed to improve safety and health on the job.”
Report recommendations include that:
- South Africa immediately ratify ILO C190 on Violence and Harassment at Work
- Occupational health and safety laws and policies, as well as sector-specific laws and policies, obligate employers to prevent and eliminate GBVH
- The country’s Mining Charter extend employer obligations with respect to prevention and elimination of GBVH and require that special measures be adopted for women working in mining
- In consultation with workers and unions, compulsory GBVH risk assessments be established for identifying safety risks.
- Acquisition of a mining license be conditioned on right holders’ commitment to the prevention and elimination of GBVH
- Employers adopt confidential and independent reporting system
- Women working underground be provided with a confidential, anonymous, efficient and easily accessible incident reporting system.
- Workers be informed that victims of sexual assault have the right to press separate criminal or civil charges against their perpetrators.
- Mandatory and effective education and training with respect to laws and policies on GBVH be provided to workers and supervisors, and that policies addressing GBVH be printed in all official languages, displayed conspicuously throughout the mining shafts, and widely and regularly promoted through interactive workshops.
- Policies against GBVH be included in employment contracts and clearly state repercussions for GBVH violations.
- The mining industry provide education and counseling to rehabilitate perpetrators in cases not likely to reach the level of criminal prosecution.
“Although the report shows that GBVH is rooted in complex and deeply entrenched patriarchal social norms, it also presents fairly simple, cost-effective changes to the work environment—such as improved lighting, a buddy system and safer toilet and locker room locations—that will make women mine workers less vulnerable to crimes of opportunity,” says Solidarity Center Rule of Law Department Senior Program Officer Ziona Tanzer.
Beginning in 2014, the Solidarity Center was a core member of a global coalition of worker rights organizations led by women union activists that successfully advocated for Convention 190. We support our partners as they campaign for their governments to ratify ILO Convention 190 and recognize GBVH as a primary barrier to achieving gender equality and a key step for security of all workers’ rights and seek to enhance the voice of women and other marginalized workers in policy making at the local, national, and international levels to reduce the risk of gender-based violence at work—including through their unions.
“Violence and harassment happens to all workers, irrespective of your gender,” says Brenda Modise, a union activist in South Africa. “It doesn’t matter whether they are men and women, old young LGBTQI community or anyone, but we are addressing violence and harassment in the world of work against all workers.”
Modise spoke with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau in first episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast, “Billions of Us, One Just Future,” which highlights conversations with workers (and other smart people) worldwide shaping the workplace for the better.
Front-line Leaders Building a Future Inclusive of All Workers
The Solidarity Center Podcast’s seven-episode season will feature worker advocates from around the world:
- Maximiliano Garcez, a labor rights lawyer who describes workers’ efforts to seek justice following a deadly mining accident in Brazil.
- Adriana Paz, an advocate with the International Domestic Workers Federation who understands firsthand the power of unions in ensuring domestic workers have safe, decent jobs.
- International Trade Union Confederation President Ayuba Wabba, who explores the Nigerian labor movement’s response to the COVID crisis on workers, and discusses the global labor movement’s plans to build back better for workers around the world.
- Preeda, a migrant worker rights activist in Thailand working with unions to help migrant workers meet the challenges of COVID-19.
- Sergey Antusevich, a brave union leader in Belarus working for democratic freedom in a repressive regime.
- Francia Blanco, a domestic worker and trans rights activist reaching marginalized workers through her all-trans domestic workers union.
These front-line leaders will share the steps they are taking to shape their livelihoods at the workplace and in their communities in the face of escalating attacks on democracy and civil rights, and explore how they seek to build a more equitable future, one inclusive of all workers as the COVID-19 pandemic upends structures, systems and societies.
‘Tears of Joy’
In the first episode, Modise shares how she and women unionists around the world campaigned for adoption of an International Labor Organization convention (regulation) on ending gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work, and how they are moving forward the campaign by pushing their governments to ratify Convention 190.
“We need to put more effort as the women in South Africa to make sure that whatever that you have were fought for is going to be realized in South Africa and be incorporated into our own legislation and make sure that it is implemented. We should not only have beautiful legislation, but we should have implementable legislation that we can be able to monitor and evaluate.”
As Modise heard an audio clip of women unionists singing and clapping the moment Convention 190 was adopted in 2019, she reflected on her experience.
“It was a breathtaking moment. We all shed tears. It was tears of joy because remember, when you went into that room as workers of the world, we knew what we wanted, but we didn’t know if the business constituents of the world understand where we are coming from.
“It really feels great, even though the bigger work has not yet started. We really want South Africa to ratify the convention. The work is not going to be ending at ratification. It’s also going to go in terms of after ratification, what next, and that’s where the bigger role and our activism is going to be needed.”
This podcast was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under Cooperative Agreement No.AID-OAA-L-16-00001 and the opinions expressed herein are those of the participant(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID/USG.
Just as the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the massive global economic and social inequality around the world, with workers in the informal economy and supply chains, and migrant workers—many of whom are women—especially marginalized, so, too, does it offer the potential to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global challenges.
Around the world, unions and worker associations are taking the lead in championing worker rights and in doing so, demonstrating a path forward through collective action to achieve shared prosperity and sustainability. As the novel coronavirus spreads, unions are demanding safe and healthy conditions for workers who must remain on the job, and that they be compensated during forced worksite closures. The following is a small sample of union actions around the globe, reported in large part from Solidarity Center staff in close contact with union partners.
In Haiti, where garment factories were among facilities closed to prevent spread of the virus, workers were asked to return to pick up paychecks (for the days worked prior to the closures) in staggered stages so as to prevent crowding and potential contagion. It is standard practice for workers in Haiti’s garment industry to receive their wages in person, in the form of a cash, because most earn too little to maintain a bank account for check deposits, and paychecks are immediately consumed on basic goods.
Despite a government order to distribute pay to groups of 10 workers at a time, one factory employer simultaneously convened all 2,000 workers to collect their wages, despite the danger. In addition, some factories now are reopening to make masks, in large part for export to the United States, a move that puts at risk workers, their communities and the country’s already fragile healthcare system.
Although some factories have announced measures to protect workers’ health and safety at the factory, they do not adequately address risks workers face going to work as they walk through congested areas and travel up to an hour on crowded tap-taps (covered trucks serving as public transportation). Solidarity Center union partners will play a critical role in monitoring the enforcement of these measures and advocating for additional safeguards.
Four Haitian garment-sector unions, all Solidarity Center partners, issued a joint proposal to President Jovenel Moïse calling on the government and employers to respect International Labor Organization (ILO) protocols on COVID-19 in the world of work. The coalition also called on the government and employers to adhere to Haitian labor code stipulating workers receive pay when the government closes workplaces, and urged government and employers to pay workers the equivalent of the daily wages they earned on average in the three months prior to factory closures. The coalition also recommends the government provide support to informal workers, cease collecting income tax and reallocate funds from the country’s cancelled Carnival event to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The unions include Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haïtiens (CNOHA), Confederation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), Confédération des Travailleurs- euses des Secteurs Public et Privé (CTSP) and ESPM-Batay Ouvriye.
Palestine General Federation of Trade Union members are fanning out to 12 checkpoints along the Israel-Palestine border to address the health needs of the tens of thousands of workers returning home to the West Bank and Gaza as their worksites shut down in Israel, a large-scale movement that is exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
Iman abu Salah, a member of PGFTU’s organizing team at Bartaa’h barrier near Jenin city in the West Bank, told Solidarity Center staff that three organizers are stationed in two shifts, connecting with between 100 and 200 workers per shift. Union members assist returning workers in completing detailed forms to ensure accurate reporting of health issues, and the unions share their reports with emergency health committees in each district. PGFTU members also are providing workers with information on protecting against the virus, as well as with union contact details in their city or village. Unions and health teams joined together to provide sterilized buses to take workers directly to their home city, village or refugee camp.
In Myanmar, as around the world, garment workers are especially hard hit by the #COVID-19 crisis as global retailers cancel orders, with factory employers laying off workers without pay, firing union supporters and forcing nonunion workers to remain on the job without safety protections, according to union leaders. Garment workers and their unions are mobilizing to demand that factories close for their safety and are seeking full pay for time off during the closures. Unions are pushing for employers to sign agreements that factories will recognize the union when they reopen and maintain all previous wages and benefits.
Unions representing garment workers in Lesotho, where more than 45,000 workers make jeans, T-shirts and other goods for export, are calling on the government to provide full wages to furloughed workers during the 21-day government-imposed lockdown to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. The unions are also demanding that those required to work be provided with free transport in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Workers have “sacrificed their lives for the country with meager wages and are continuing to keep the economy going as essential workers during this time,” according to the statement by the United Textile Employees, National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers’ Union and the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho. They “not only contribute to the GDP, but support numerous families, unemployed relatives and poverty-stricken families with their wages.”
The Albanian telecommunications union won a four-hour work day for those not teleworking, as well as company-provided masks, while in Kyrgyzstan, the union federation is urging the government to include remote work standards in the labor code. Unions in Albania, Kyrgyzstan and Montenegro have released statements calling on governments to improve social, economic and public health policy to protect both their membership and society.
In Thailand, Solidarity Center’s union and migrant worker partners are communicating with workers via social media, as unions set up an online Labor Clinic to create and post videos on worker rights and benefits during layoffs and plant closures, and are providing instructions for applying for unemployment and social welfare benefits. Unions are hosting live Facebook forums enabling workers to send in real-time questions and comments. Unions in the aviation sector are calling on the government to protect full-time permanent and subcontracted workers, and provide health and safety measures in line with international labor standards at all workplaces. Migrant worker organizations also are reaching out to migrant workers in Burmese with information on preventing and identifying COVID-19 symptoms and with information on locations to access health care.
The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) supported the launch of a regional isolation center for workers, and unions throughout Ethiopia are driving anti-stigmatization conversations that seek to encourage workers to report cases of infection and are negotiating with the government to ensure workers are protected on the job during the pandemic.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear to workers, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce. Additional Solidarity Center partners—the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA)—are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public.
Indonesia factory-level unions are negotiating masks and other safety protections for workers, and while they are achieving success, a shortage in personal protective equipment is hindering efforts. For example, 60,000 workers, members os National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner, successfully negotiated with their employer to receive masks, but the company is unable to procure such a large supply. The company recently agreed to allocate some production line to produce the masks to protect workers. Indonesian unions are urging the government to provide support for informal workers, who comprise more than 60 percent of the working population in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
Led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), unions in South Africa established labor law helplines for their members to address employers’ increased abused of worker rights during the crisis.
In Morocco, where hotels have been turned into hospital facilities, the Federation Nationale des Hotels, Restaurants et Tourisme (FNHRT) is assisting hotel workers in collecting unemployment benefits and maintaining contact with workers across the sectors who have lost their jobs. The FNHRT is affiliated to the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT).
Through individual case studies and legal analysis, When the Job Hurts demonstrates the need for domestic workers in South Africa to receive the same coverage under the country’s job safety and health compensation law as other workers.