[By Dirk Dragstra / Wage Indicator] - Female trade union officials and activists on both union and confederation levels in Southern Africa and Brazil over the past year have strengthened their positions. They say that this is due to the so-called Decisions for Life-project. This project aims to reach young women workers in the services sector to help them make better informed decisions about future employment/career, family building and work/life balance. In some countries, notably South Africa, Zambia and Brazil the project has become part of mainstream trade union policies within a matter of six months. The women involved consider this achievement a unique event in their trade union history. The project gives them a chance to put working women’s problems and needs centre stage for the first time within their unions.
The project is funded by the Dutch Foreign Office through ITUC, UNI and the Wage Indicator Foundation. 40 representatives of trade unions and national WageIndicator web teams from Southern Africa plus Brazil got together in the Mozambican capital of Maputo from 22 till 26 of March 2010 for training, coordinating their activities and to exchange experiences with the Decisions for Life-project at midterm, 18 months since it started in October 2008.
Mainstreaming the Decisions for Life-project has strategic significance. Because then it can have impact throughout the whole trade union movement. This is exactly happening now in South Africa’s COSATU, says Theodora Steele, its national organizing secretary. In November 2009 the COSATU national congress decided to integrate the project in its program for the next 3 years. Since then the Decisions for Life-project has been filtering down through all the COSATU-affiliates. So it can be said that it is no longer restricted to the services sector, organized by affiliate SACCAWU, but its outreach permeates all of the economy where women find employment and are reached by the trade union movement.
In the meantime Decisions for Life has reached 67 percent of SACCAWU’s female members, estimates Sisanda Mbokotho, legal counsellor of SACCAWU. Since the service sector union has a membership of 150,000, of which the majority is female, some 75,000 working women have been exposed to the project and its aims. These women work in catering, casinos and the hospitality industry. Especially in catering exploitation is crude. Normally they don’t get a salary at all, not even the minimum wage, only tips and fees of customers. Here young working women are the most vulnerable. Working hours are 'unsocial': long working days combined with the demand to be flexible, usually at inconvenient times. Many girls experience sexual harassment on the job. If they want to keep their contract they have to abide by the manager's invitation to go out with him. If they refuse, he does not prolong their contract. Amongst other activities, the Decisions for Life-project organizes special sessions to talk about these embarrassing experiences, thereby hopefully preventing them from happening again.
In South Africa the project maybe advanced most in its implementation, but in all participating countries the focus is recognized as highly relevant by working women in the unions. Decisions for Life is rolled out in 14 countries. These are in alphabetical order: Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Botswana, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Ukraine, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In each country a web team of WageIndicator provides relevant information online, for use by trade unions in their campaigns to reach young women in the services sector. A follow up report will be published soon, highlighting the development of the project in India and Indonesia.