Monday 12 April 2021
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The case for women in trade unions

A comparative study on “the status of women in trade unions in Africa” compiled by Hilma Mote, Kwabena Nyarko Otoo and Trywell Kalusopa has found that trade unionism on the African continent is largely associated with masculinity.

Furthermore, for the Namibian case Immaculate Sechogele contributed that “Gender representation and women’s empowerment within the trade unions in Namibia remains a challenge.

The trade unions structures are still male dominated, although the numbers of paid up members are estimated to be more women”.

The Patriot reached out to Mote who is a Namibian woman now living and working in Lome, Togo as the Founding Executive Director of the Africa Labour Research and Education Institute (ALREI). Established in 2014, ALREI works to strengthen trade union work all over Africa through relevant and innovative research, training and education, and the dissemination of labour, economics and development related information.

Mote is the former and first female director the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) in Namibia and has published widely on conditions of workers in Namibia including uranium mining, private security, farm workers as well as workers in the hospitality sector.

However, what profiled her most was her work on domestic workers especially her report titled ‘Born in poverty and dying in poverty: the living and working conditions of Namibia’s domestic workers’ published in 2008.

This work led to her appointment as a Wages Commissioner for the Ministry of Labour and Employment Creation to recommend minimum conditions of employment and minimum wages for Domestic workers.

She also served on the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Advisory Council as well as the Africa Labour Research Network steering committee member since 2007.

In January 2018, she completed a one-year secondment with the World Bank’s Jobs Group in Washington DC where she was advancing the African labour perspective in the Bank’s work on informality and the informal economy.

She has since worked on two papers ‘extension of social security to informal workers (co-authored with World Bank Staff) and her independent paper on ‘Collective bargaining: rethinking wage setting mechanisms in the era of high informality’.

Mote identifies as an organic scholar and public intellectual who make an intricate link between research theory, practice and labour struggles.

TP: What is your personal story as a woman involved in trade unionism research?
HM: I entered the trade union work with a lot of naivety about many things. I did not know how politically complex trade union work is, especially in a context like ours where there are strong links between the biggest trade union federation and the ruling party. Regardless, I have learnt a lot from trade unions as they are the only civil society organizations that have global, regional, sub-regional, district/province/workplace structures.

The solidarity that trade unionists show each other across the world is unparalleled. I would not have been so knowledgeable about politics, economics, development and issues that confronts workers across the globe had it not been for the exposure I got through trade union work.

Trade unions build and sustain networks across borders irrespective of religious, political and sexual orientation.

TP: Why is the involvement of women in trade unions important?
HM: Women make up over half of the world population; a significant number of them are workers.

Women may not be occupying the highest positions in politics, business, and academia and even in trade unions, but they, as workers are found in most work places.

Furthermore, women face unique challenges, both in the broader society and in the work place, which men do not face or cannot understand.

Examples range from pregnancy and child bearing, breast-feeding, menstrual pains which are uniquely female experiences. Hence if women are not involved in trade unions especially in collective bargaining; the issues that they face will not be tabled.

This is because unfortunately, most trade union bargaining agendas are not always reflective of the diversity of the work force i.e. women, youth, disabled people or racial and ethnic minorities.

TP: Can you elaborate on the features of collective bargaining?
HM: Most collective bargaining teams are male dominated even in sectors where women predominate as workers such as health, education, hospitality etc. While gender equality training has been taking place over time, we are still a long way from realizing true gender equality.

Men are not in the best position to understand the challenges facing women even if they have the best intentions.

It is thus in the best interest of any organization be it a trade union or not to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.

TP: What are the obstacles/challenges experienced by women in trade unions?
HM: A few years ago, when I was the Director of LaRRI, I led a continental study on ‘The state of women in trade unions in Africa’. Namibia was one of the country case studies.

The findings were not surprising since trade unions reflect what happens in the broader society. We found that most women do not make it into leadership positions in trade unions resultant of where they are structurally placed in their work places.

Men tend to occupy leadership positions in corporations and other organizations and there was a wrong perception, interestingly even harbored by women; that men are ‘born to lead’. Nobody is born to lead. People become leaders because they have access to opportunities.

Furthermore, men in the trade unions support each other into leadership positions and women remain marginalized.

Other challenges that women in trade unions face include limited time for union activities due to family responsibilities. Sexual harassment; often female trade union activists get harassed by their male counterparts and they have very few services for recourse.

TP: How do you view the culture of Trade Unionism?
HM: The culture of trade unionism is masculine; to the point where I know of a situation where a male trade union leader was very supportive of women’s empowerment and his fellow comrades used to call him names such as ‘woman wrapper’.

This is a mere reflection of the fact that while much work has been put into gender equality education, the lack of education has left many men behind; with many not understanding the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Behaviors, attitudes and perceptions are changing at very snail pace.

TP: What is your stance on gender equality?
HM: I believe that gender equality education should target both men and women as well as start as early as possible, from home and pre-school.

The home should be the center for gender equality education.

If a man or woman believes in gender equality they should practice that at home so that the children emulate their behaviors.

“Catch them while young”, because most often we try to teach 50 years plus people about the importance of gender equality, not that there is anything wrong with that, but the point is that it’s too late. We target mostly old women and men in power and forget about the children.

We teach gender equality in Universities, Colleges, trade union workshops, but we are not taking the education to the little children.

Thus, if we want to transform societies and communities in the long-term, we need to take gender education to the private space and the most elementary education levels.

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