Förra veckan berättade jag om att en av Afrikagruppernas partnerorganisationer i Sydafrika varit på besök i Namibia och där hamnat i morgontidningen The Namibian. Här kommer en artikel till från besöket:
This past week saw the visit to Namibia of one of the more unique trade unions in the region – the South African-based Sikhula Sonke (We Grow Together). The union was hosted by its Namibian counterpart, the Nambian Farm Workers’ Union. Wendy Pekeur has been the General Secretary for this uniquely women-led union since its launch 2005.
Pekeur groomed her activism in stints as a fruit farm seasonal worker and later as a shop steward at a meat factory during the late 1990s.
Through Sikhula Sonke, Pekeur has seen more than 300 dismissed farm workers reinstated and more than 100 evicted families from farm houses returned to their homes.
The union also claims credit for the role it played in the South African government’s 2006 decision to place a moratorium on farm evictions. In an exclusive interview with The Namibian’s Denver Isaacs, Pekeur spoke about her passions.
The Namibian (TN): Tell us what is Sikhula Sonke and how your union came about? Wendy Pekeur (WP): It all started with a non-governmental project we ran with women on farms in the Western Cape since 1992, called the ’Women on Farms’ Project. Through that project we were educating women on their rights, about voting, social security, domestic violence and the right not to be abused among others. But there were a lot of labour rights violations going on that, as an NGO, we couldn’t intervene. We couldn’t represent the workers. So because of that, the suggestion was made for a new formation. Initially we thought we would become a farm women’s association, but we ended up deciding to form a trade union. That is when the debate started around whether men should be allowed to be part of the union or not, and here we were challenged by legal requirements as per the Constitution and the Labour Relations Act.
TN: What were these?
WP: The (South African) constitution basically says you can’t be a women’s only union, you can’t be discriminatory when you’re signing up members. But also in terms of recognition – to be recognised by an employer, since you do shop-floor negotiations, you must have the majority of workers on your side. So at the end of the day, to negotiate for better conditions for women, we had to include men. But we needed to ensure that women’s voices didn’t become silent. We needed to ask ourselves how to become a different kind of trade union, making sure that gender is mainstreamed into everything we do, and that everything is catered to bettering the lives of women. And that is when we developed the core principle that this would be a women-led trade union. Now in the Sikhula Sonke constitution, it says that two-thirds of the leadership at all levels must be led by women. Currently, 85 per cent of our leadership at branch level are women. In the governing structures, there are nine women and one man. So that’s basically how we started as a trade union.
TN: What are some of the issues currently receiving attention from your union in South Africa, that Namibians may relate to?
WP: There are quite a number of issues. A living wage for farm workers is one. Farm workers earn the lowest wages in South Africa today. The minimum wage is R1 090 per month before deductions. This is still not enough, and when we launced our ’living wage’ campaign, we were arguing that farm workers feed the nation. They are the ones working the soil, and subsequently they are starving to feed their own families. We’ve partnered with other unions and NGOs – basically with all agricultural organisations in the Western Cape for that purpose. The minimum wage was set in 2002 and came into effect 2003.
Then you have annual increases for three years before they review it again. What we’ve found was that the 2008 increase was set on a 4,5 per cent CPI (consumer price index), and we saw that with the high food inflation and the rise in prices, that farm workers are worse off now. So we engaged the Ministry of Labour to get the 2008 wage increases revoked in November last year. That wasn’t done, but for the next year they held sectoral public hearings in August, and we’ve made joint submissions with other unions and NGOs. Evictions are another big thing, but looked at more in the context of land reform.
The SA Government has just expropriated the first church lands in Limpopo, but no private land as yet. We, off course, are against willing-buyer-willing-seller policies. To date, only about 4 per cent of land has been distributed to previously disadvantaged people. We’re now looking at a moratorium on evictions, but government is telling us that that would be illegal. During our first ten years of democracy, about 1 million people were evicted from farm lands, and more than 2 million have been displaced. But of this 1 million evicted, only 1 per cent were legal evictions, meaning the process went through the courts.
TN: What has happened to those evicted?
WP: They have nowhere to go. In most cases, you will find them in squatter camps, under bridges, on the streets, in toilets. Seventy-seven per cent of these evicted people are women and children. We’re currently looking into the possibility of class action to seek redress for those people illegally evicted, but also for those legally evicted and where the state failed to provide adequate accommodation. The Constitution talks about access to adequate alternative accommodation and of kids’ rights to shelter. But last year a family was evicted with five minor children, the baby who was five months old. We found ourselves out there in the middle of the night trying to find a place for their furniture.
They just dumped them, and we were asking what about people’s right to property? So these are all the arguments we have. Last year we put our first family back into their homes. The sheriffs came, evicted them and put locks on the doors. We broke down the door and put the family back. They went to court and said (what we’d done) was contempt of court. We had to get lawyers and advocates to support the family, but they’re still there.
TN: What is Sikhula Sonke’s total share of workers’ representation?
WP: Very little. We have 3 800 members to date. There are 1 million farm workers in South Africa, of which 200 000 are in the Western Cape. But then the agricultural sector is also the least organised sector in the country. Only about 5 per cent of farm workers are unionised, which obviously leaves a lot of workers open to exploitation.
TN: As far as your visit to Namibia is concerned, what are some of the main issues your union is looking at?
WP: The big thing is the labour hire case that was in (the High) court this week. (Labour-hire company African Personnel Services this past week challenged a clause in the new 2007 Labour Act which bans the labour hire practice). When it comes to labour brokers in South Africa, there are huge problems. Often people work without contracts of employment. Sixty per cent of jobs in agriculture are seasonal temporary, and two-hirds of those are held by women. But I mean there’s no job security, no benefits, no paid maternity. Sometimes the labour brokers aren’t even registered with the department of labour. There are just too many problems. The other thing would be the basic income grant. Many organisations in South Africa are lobbying for a basic income grant.
The discussions are on for a long time and the biggest contention is that we have a child support grant up to the age of 14. Then you have an old age pension from age 60 for women and 63 for men. If you’re between these ages and unemployed, you have no income, and we have a 40 per cent unemployment rate in South Africa. Government says it’s 26 per cent, civil society says 40 per cent, but nevertheless, more than 30 per cent of South Africans live on less than US$2 a day. So if there’s a basic income grant, it may not be a lot, but at least it would be something and people would be able to come through.
TN: Any ideas and suggestions from here you plan to take back and implement?
WP: We’ve met with the employer organisations and it was mentioned that there is a retirement fund for farm workers in Namibia. We’re very interested in looking into that and I know the unions were involved in getting that retirement fund going.
We don’t have something like that. Also, there have been so many cases quoted in the labour-hire court case that I would like to read up on and maybe get some resource material as well.