With men still dominating the trade union arena in Namibia, labour expert Herbert Jauch says it is pivotal that trade unions develop gender policies to bring women on par.
Jauch said gender equality in trade unions still needs to be achieved.
According to Jauch, internally, unions will need to develop their own gender policies based on an analysis of what prevents gender equity and what the union will do to change this. He also said some of the patriarchal culture of unions will have to change to fully accommodate women in trade unions.
“Secondly, unions need to mainstream gender issues in all their activities.
This includes prioritizing issues that are critical for women workers including sexual harassment,” he said.
Namibian trade unions are essentially male dominated and this was also reinforced by the migrant labour system of the colonial era.
Even today, many unions are still shaped by patriarchy which makes it difficult for women to play an equal part.
Women have long played an important and critical role in the labour market, said Jauch, adding that they constitute the majority of workers in several industries.
“It is therefore essential that they play an equal role in trade unions and that trade unions change towards gender-sensitive organisations that accommodate both male and female workers,” he said.
Jauch underscored the importance of women in trade unions saying patriarchal tendencies have often relegated female workers to a second class status.
“Trade unions have to represent workers in the various industries and if women do not play a full and equal role in trade unions, their representation of workers is incomplete.
Female workers are often the most exploited ones and thus their concerns need to be taken up by unions,” he said.
Some affiliates have made progress but in others there is still a long way to go, he said.
“MANWU and NANTU are two unions where women are holding (or have held) key leadership positions but overall Namibian trade unions are still dominated by men.”
Jauch was particularly concerned with the challenges experienced by women in trade unions.
Previous studies have shown that women often experience domestic challenges by their male partners who show little understanding if their wives/partners are active in unions and thus have to attend meetings after hours or over week-ends.
“Within unions, women are often given the classical female positions like being secretaries or treasurers while most of the key political leadership positions are still held by men.
Women’s leadership capabilities are often doubted while men do not face such skepticism,” Jauch said.
Jauch thinks trade unions are not doing enough to evolve with labour markets.
“Unions have historically focused on the permanently employed workers at larger companies and in the public sector.
This has left out many workers at small employers, at subcontractors, at outsourced entities as well as the casual workers.
This needs to change if unions want to remain relevant for the majority of workers and thus unions need to develop new strategies to reach those workers that are currently outside their reach,” he said.
Namibia currently has two trade union federations, namely National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) and Trade Union Congress of Namibia (TUCNA).
Unsurprisingly both TUCNA and NUNW have significantly higher percentages of female paid up members. Their estimates percentage wise of male and female members were as follows:
• TUCNA: Male (20%) and Female (80%)
• NUNW: Male (48%) and Female (52%).
Women representation on the level of the affiliates shows that the shop floor representation and the branch executive structures have more women in the structures.
However there is a great variation across federations their affiliates and the respective structures. At the federation level male dominance is still the norm.
Marianne Erastus is on record that generally women do not understand the role that they can play in trade unions. Women are only concerned about what the unions can do for them, and in most cases after registering; some women only come to their union offices when they have problems in the workplace. This is clearly calling for more sensitizations about the role of trade unions among female members.
Meanwhile, in a chapter in a book called ‘The status of women in trade in trade unions Africa’ Namibian author and researcher Immaculate Sechogele identified some issues that are hampering women from making their mark in trade unions.
Below is a short summary of what some respondents say are reasons why women are not participating in trade union structures:
• Lack of understanding of what role women can play in trade unions.
• Women do not vote for each other, similarly women who serve in trade unions structures, prefer to work with male comrades, they do not build up their female resource base.
• Cultural and religious perspectives about the construction of womanhood have lead to situations where women are not trusted by other women and by men as “competent leaders”. In the eyes of most men, although they embrace the principles of gender equality and women’s empowerment, majority of men, would not spearhead the process of gender mainstreaming, because they believe that culturally and religiously, males are leaders.
• The time that trade unions are organizing is mostly during the evening or over weekends when women have household chores to take care. Juggling between household duties and union activities is a challenge for most women.
Similarly, women’s traditional roles of child rearing and household chores are overburdening thus leaving women with very limited time to participate in trade union activities.
• Women lack self confidence (do not speak in front of men and in big gatherings)
• Not enough female role models, to encourage young female trade union recruits to follow suits. Hence in the eyes of most young female recruits trade unions is portrayed as a male domain.
• Most women have low level of education and thus do not feel confident enough to participate in public discussions.
• Language and style of meetings are male dominated and are perceived as hostile, threatening by majority of women.
• Most women and men believe that men are better leaders, because men are perceived or nurtured to be leaders, while women are nurtured to be subordinated to their husbands and sometimes to men in general.
• Most women would rather honor their marital vows, in particular when their husbands are not in support of their involvement in trade unions, which are activities that are male dominated.
Future of unions
Regarding concerns over the declining union membership, Jauch pinned such declines mostly on retrenchments in industries such as construction.
“Also, practices such as outsourcing and employing workers though labour brokers (labour hire companies) has reduced union membership.
Sometimes, youthfull workers seem to question if unions are still relevant and thus are reluctant to join. This points to the need for unions to regain their credibility,” he said.
There has been a proliferation of unions in Namibia in recent years, Jauch expressed concern over the number of unions in the country.
“We certainly have many unions (over 30 industrial unions) and they operate as rivals to each other.
This undermines attempts to build unity in the interest of workers.
Having many unions does not necessarily translate into a stronger labour movement and our unions will still have to learn how to work with each other based on common interests,” he said.