Evaluating a multi-year multi-union project demands open discussions based on an advanced sharing of information. It’s not always an easy task, but it’s crucial step if progress is to be achieved. Both factors were present and they made the Evaluating Meeting of the IUF Global Sugar project in East and Southern Africa quite a relevant experience.
Twenty delegates from six unions met from 18-20 April in Durban to evaluate the IUF Global Sugar project, identify achievements and challenges, and discuss longer-term sustainability of activities.
The Evaluation Meeting comprised two sections. The first dealt with the South African sugar situation; the second with regional processes and project-related issues. In the first, the delegates, which included participants who attended a workshop for Women Workers held immediately before the Evaluation Meeting, heard a presentation on the National Bargaining Council for the Sugar Manufacturing and Refining Sector, a review of the sector’s situation and outlook by the South African Sugar Association (SASA), and a description of the Information Technology Program of the South African Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), host union to the meeting. The agenda also included a visit to the Durban Sugar Terminal, reckoned as the largest in the African continent, with a listed storage capacity of 525,000 tonnes.
The Sugar Bargaining Council comprises employers and employees and is a forum for sector-wide negotiations. The Council includes three unions, which represent the employees, with FAWU as the majority union and the workers’ spokes-organisation during negotiations. The SASA is a bipartite organisation of cane growers and sugar millers, which provides assistance along the production chain: from agricultural services to the exportation of raw sugar from the Durban Sugar Terminal. From among the unions participating in the IUF Sugar project, FAWU has a well developed IT program, as corresponds to a union with over 110,000 members, with offices in eight provinces of the country, as well as smaller facilities in rural areas.
The second part of the Evaluation Meeting was successful in identifying achievements and challenges, and union initiatives to sustain the work once the project ends.
The Evaluation Meeting was preceded by the writing of national evaluation reports, an opportunity for the unions to assess the impact of the project on their work and the improvement of the service to their members. This step was important because the project has been under implementation for the past four years, involving eight unions from eight countries in the region. Given the diversity of experiences, a decision was taken early in the process (regional meeting, April 2008, Maputo) for the unions to choose a topic of national interest with regional relevance. While most of the unions decided to pursue electronic communication and the use of the Internet, a relatively new area for unions’ ongoing work, some other areas of concern included Occupational Health and Safety, and Women Workers and Gender Issues.
An important factor in any evaluation exercise is for participants to contribute their candid assessments. They agreed to the so-called Chatham House Rule, which encourages participants to share and use the information provided in a meeting but, at the same time, they do to attribute such information to any organisation or individual in particular. Given that participants came from different levels of union membership and staff – from grass-root membership to the union local branches to national leadership, such discussions provided plenty of insight information for the final evaluation of the IUF Sugar project.
The meeting identified achievements in three areas: Network, Occupational Health and Safety and Women and Gender Issues.
Network: Creating a successful and ongoing network depends on several factors, among them, the unions’ understanding that a fluid and reliable exchange of information can improve service to their members, and that this requires developing skills (organisational, human and technical) to be able to gather and interpret an increasing amount of information that is available at a quicker pace.
The project focused on this two-prong approach: information management through several means (e.g. field visits and union exchanges, web site, electronic newsletter) and training activities coupled with equipment acquisition. Positive results were achieved, particularly in terms of information relevant to wage negotiations. The long-term task is for unions to assume ownership of the network and utilise the global expertise of the IUF to advance their national work.
Occupational Health and Safety is one area where unions and the IUF jointly work to improve protection to workers. The project concentrated on the policy aspects of OSH that refer to how an enterprise should be run for the benefit of everyone involved, and OHS as a workers’ mobilising tool. The project stressed basic OHS notions (i.e. the primary goal is to eliminate hazards), the formulation of sensible recommendations to improve conditions and follow-up on implementation, and to engage management on the general improvement of working conditions. Some concrete results were achieved, such as construction of new ablution blocks in sugar factories, while the basics for a long-term work to influence the decision-making process on the use of company OHS resources were laid out.
On Women Workers and Gender Issues, the project focused primarily on Maternity Protection and documented the women’s presence in the sector. Gradually the project moved to other areas, particularly on creating job opportunities for women, which was the topic of the workshop held immediately before the Evaluation Meeting.
Project’s figures show that in the 2007-2011 period, some 519 persons participated in the project’s activities, with 178 of them being women, a 34.3 percent. Women presence increased on a sustained way: in 2007, they comprised 20 percent of participants; in 2011 they reached 41 percent. Increasing numbers in the project’s activities was a first effort to contribute to Gender equality in the workplace. The challenge is to effectively build a union perspective on Gender, in a sector where permanent and skilled jobs are predominantly taken by male employees, and women are usually employed in the non-skilled and precarious agricultural jobs, specially affected by outsourcing and casualisation, and in clerical/service areas of a sugar estate. (Read report on Women Workshop here.)
Long-term sustainability is a goal sought by any project, which by definition is a limited intervention. Participating unions have indeed been developing initiatives that combine with, and take advantage of, achievements in the IUF Sugar project. For instance, some unions now have Occupation Health and Safety as a major training component in the company’s regular activities. Other have started a stronger program for women workers, allocating own resources, and have launched a organising drive of agricultural workers. Not to forget that improving technical skills in electronic communication has benefitted other groups working with the unions and not directly related to the IUF Sugar project: unions are now able to maintain timely contacts and prepare reports in much easier way than before.