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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi at the COSATU National Gender Conference

7 July, 2003, Randburg Towers JHB


We are meeting barely two months away from the 8th National Congress. This conference is being organised to take stock and assess our existing gender policy adopted at the 7th National Congress.

Our task is to check whether we have indeed moved away from slogan to practise as demanded by the congress.The forthcoming 8th National Congress has to be different from other before it.We are billing as the perhaps the most important congress of COSATU in our new dispensation. It is a watershed Congress for two reasons.

First, it is a moment to pause and reflect on our experience in the last nine years of democracy. Second, we want to use this congress to unveil a long term plan towards our 30th anniversary. The coming national congress will emerge with a programme to take us to our 30th anniversary in 2015.

The programme will rest on two pillars, the first pillar would be building the working class power and the second pillar is the decent jobs. Everything we do should be how we strengthen the trade union movement.Obviously a trade union movement that does not address women oppression and discrimination is not a strong movement.

A revolutionary trade union must ensure that women workers are empowered at the workplace and in the union so that they can play the role that traditionally in our patriarchal society are reserved for men.

The conference meets at the time when we are moving rapidly towards the celebration of ten years of our liberation which is also a year to renew a mandate of the ANC led government. As we assess these 10 years we ought to start afresh and remind ourselves of the strategic objectives of the NDR.We are involved in a protracted struggle to liberate black people in general and African in particular.

Our NDR recognised all three contradictions – that our freedom would not be freedom unless we simultaneously address the national question, the gender and working class oppression.Ours is the radical NDR that analyse problems we face from a class perspective.

Looking back, we can say that the working class have gained a lot in the last nine years of democracy. From a gender perspectives we can claim that black working class women have also gained from democracy.

Some of the gains include access to basic services, a democratic dispensation; progressive gender legislation, policies and establishment of gender institutions; new labour laws, and so forth. We have also noted that these gains have been offset by rising unemployment, poverty and inequality.

The policy we adopted in 2000 and the policy proposals that would emerge from this conference must make a contribution to that liberation of women from their triple oppression.So, we are not just looking at the gender question isolated from the NDR.

Our last national Congress, in 2000, emphasised the need to elect more women as leaders, especially at shop steward level; to empower women leaders; and to put more emphasis on negotiations around women’s issues.

The Gender Conference aims to analyse our successes and weaknesses in achieving these aims, so that our upcoming Eighth Congress in September can improve our work in this area. Thus it is important that gender transformation forms part of our long term plan. To that end, the resolutions of this conference must find expression in our organisational renewal plan.

Discrimination against women is still a problem in our country, including in the workplace. That is why women need unions more.

On the shop floor, women’s work is still systematically undervalued and underpaid, especially for black women. Industries where women workers predominate - such as government services, retail, clothing and food production and domestic labour - still have relatively low pay and bad conditions. And women still find it harder to get promotions and training opportunities, and are less likely to get promoted to supervisory positions and management.

Furthermore, working conditions generally ignore family responsibilities. Since in most families, women end up doing most of the work to maintain the family, this imposes a particular burden on them. Most of our workplaces do not provide childcare or flexitime; and time off for family responsibilities and maternity is minimal.

These problems have become worse with the spread of HIV/AIDS. Women almost invariably end up looking after family members with HIV, which means they need more time off – and that often puts them into conflict with their employers.

COSATU has long demanded that employers do more to take women’s needs into account. Skills development and employment equity plans must do more to increase the opportunities available to women, especially black women.

Women also face problems outside the workplace. Above all, they are hardest hit by unemployment. Again, African women bear the brunt of the problem.

If we include people too discouraged actively to seek work, the unemployment rate for women as a whole is almost 50%, compared to 34% for men. For African women, however, the rate is even higher, at 53%. And an astonishing 75% of African women under 30 years old are looking for work.

Because it is still harder for women to get jobs, African women make up only one in five formal workers – but they are half of all the unemployed.

The situation has been aggravated by the virtual freeze on the public service since 1994. For decades, nursing and teaching were almost the only way African women could gain a professional career. But this career path has been largely closed for almost ten years. As a result, only 6% of African women under 30 have professional jobs, compared to 12% of older women.

We sometimes hear that unemployment results from low skills. But according to government’s September 2002 Labour Force Survey, African women in the labour force have a higher average education level than African men – but they also have a much higher unemployment rate.

Many women also have to spend huge amounts of time on household labour, because they still don’t have basic services such as electricity and water, and because they have look after people with HIV/AIDS. According to the Labour Force Survey, in 2002 one in ten African women spent at least five hours a week fetching water, and one in seven spent that much time collecting wood.

Finally, many women still face oppression, even violence, in their families. This situation is aggravated because they face such high unemployment, which makes it hard for them to leave oppressive homes.

At the recent Growth and Development Summit, and in other policy engagements, COSATU has tried to ensure policies that will address these joint problems of unemployment, poverty and poor basic services. In particular, the agreement on expanded public works – including community services such as childcare – and sectoral strategies are critical to generate more employment.

COSATU is still working to ensure that these agreements are implemented strongly – and that women get a fair share of the new opportunities they create.

Privatisation poses a particular problem for women. Current proposals for restructuring Eskom and Telkom seem likely to reduce the access of poor people to basic infrastructure, especially electricity and telephones. That will increase the burden of household labour, which is still borne mainly by African women.

HIV/AIDS also sets particular challenges for women. In many cases, women with HIV still face unbearable discrimination. They have to worry about their children, and they often have to care for spouses. For this reason, COSATU has called for massive education and prevention campaigns – and for anti-retroviral treatment for all our people.

COSATU is proud to have contributed to the decision to provide treatment in the public health system to prevent transmission of HIV through rape and from women to children. These programmes use targeted treatment with anti-retrovirals. Now we have to expand these programmes so that all women have access.

This Gender Conference must reflect on our efforts in all these areas. But it must also address the problems that COSATU itself still faces in empowering women. Above all, our shopstewards and leadership are still disproportionately men.

Even unions whose members are mostly women still have mostly men leaders. And then there is the “deputy” phenomenon. That is, almost all our affiliates have elected women in national positions; but almost all of the positions are deputy presidents, or treasurers. The main decision makers are still almost all men.

The problem starts at the shop steward level. Our last Congress agreed to focus on ensuring that more women are elected as shopstewards, to represent members in the workplace. This is the first step in building women leadership in the unions. We need to evaluate how far we have come in achieving the goals set in this area, and how we can strengthen our efforts.

Still we should not lose sight of the visible progress that we have registered in the last few years.Certainly there are now more women in the COSATU CEC than was the case in the past. This shows that slowly women are making it into senior leadership structures of the union.

Our test is to sustain and improve on the progress registered in the last few years.  This also requires a brutal assessment of our organisational practices, particularly the extent to which we have systematically addressed barriers to women’s participation and changes in male attitudes.

In 1997, the 6th National Congress adopted a policy on measurable targets. This was a compromise between those demanding adoption of a quota system as the policy and those who were opposed to it. The measurable targets meant that taking into account the percentage of women workers in the federation we would over a period of time ensure that we can measure whether our structures are representative or not.

That was six years ago, the measurable targets are no longer good enough, we need a quota system adopted as the policy so that the movement can be forced to deal with the challenge at hand.That policy cant be just applicable at the federation level it must be forced at each an every affiliate of the federation.

If women dominate the teaching and nursing profession, the union structures must reflect just that. If men dominate mining industry, the union structures must reflect just that. The office bearers were defeated in this position in 1997, but now we working with all of yourselves have to win this position.

We want to build the unions into an even stronger bulwark for women, as workers and as members of our communities. We must become a source of empowerment and protection for women workers, in particular. Our Gender Conference should form a milestone in achieving these aims. We need to invest resources and conscientise political leaders to provide consistent leadership on gender issues. Unfortunately, on both counts, progress across the Federation has been uneven.

As part of our organisational renewal strategy, we need to address organisational strategies to gender issues, including allocation of resources; establishment of gender infrastructures, and a conscious strategy to push women demands in our bargaining agenda.

However, for these demands to be realised, women must take an active part in the organisation and engage in struggle to change gender relations in our organisations, the workplace and in broader society. Without struggle nothing will be gained!

On my behalf on behalf of the National Office Bearers and the CEC I wish you the best ever conference and looking forward seeing you working hard inside your unions to ensure that the relations of the conference get adopted by unions so that they can be debated in the floor of the National Congress

You have to succeed for the sake of ensuring that our NDR remain true to its true objectives