By Bongani Dlamini
Last night the rain spoke to me slowly saying:
“Oh yes construction is for women.
Through pain, harassment and discrimination—these our members.
They are marginalised in the workplace, community, society but they are our members who are loyal, honest and obedient.
O, yes construction is for women
Did they join the trade union to find fun?
They are a powerful resource to liberate other women
Yes, this can bring some change and new life
Yes construction is for women
Sometime in November 2013 something interesting happened in the office. Two strong women shop stewards checked with the senior officials where the gender coordinator was. They wanted information on the reasons why work to advance gender equality was not happening in the union. These two shop stewards are from an Eskom Power project of 5000 workers in Kusile, outside Witbank. They had attended the Gender at Work/ LRS peer learning workshops with a team of about 10 women.
Our union’s involvement in the Gender at Work peer learning process was through the LRS, and involved interaction with other trade unions, NGOs and CBOs. After attending the peer learning workshops, the level of consciousness of these shop stewards from Kusile seemed to immediately shift. Their understanding increased and that they managed to make some changes in Kusile. They realised that some of the standard workplace practices that should be implemented in a workplace were not being practiced in their workplace. For example women were stuck in cleaning jobs and making tea. Casual workers, many of whom are women, were not given protective clothing. They used the space created in the peer learning workshops very well. They used the knowledge they got from these workshops to raise their voices, their issues and to demand better jobs and higher wage levels.
Among the changes they were able to make was the election of more women shop stewards in the different departments. This meant that these women now have a voice, they are asking relevant questions like why women are not doing jobs like fork lift driving and why the branch executive of the union is made up only of males. These women showed character in a rough male dominated industry. They are now representing the voice of women, the voiceless members.
What happened in these workshops?
When the women started discussing that jobs done by men can also be done by women there seemed to be a light and their consciousness was raised. They discussed the rights of women at work and the problem that some women workers did not have formal employment contracts. From the workshop they decided to approach management, but management had no answers for them.
The workers together with the union organisers then took the process forward. When a dispute was declared at the CCMA, management realised that they had to save face by addressing the problems they had created. This further encouraged women members and the newly elected women shop stewards to think of themselves as making a difference. They realised they have the power but that they are not aware of how to use it.
Another example of the shift in consciousness was when a leading shop steward from the Johannesburg central district came to see me for information about being an entrepreneur. This leading shop steward noticed that the contractors coming in and out of her workplace were black owned small businesses. She knocked at my office to investigate how she could set up a business. I suggested a cooperative business. I got business forms and we filled them in and all the necessary documentation was submitted to the authorities. I provided guidance but the shop steward was responsible for filling in the forms. She registered her own cooperative with her daughters. Her thinking was that there were no jobs for young people, and that she needed to create employment for her daughters and for other young people. An initiative such as this was not in our plan but we realised people can stretch their minds when there consciousness has been raised.
(to be cont...)
Bongani Dlamini is a participant in our Gender Action Learning process in South Africa. This is part 2 of a two-part blog post. Read part 1 here.