It is commonly accepted that skilled or factory-type jobs in sugar is the realm of male employees. Not only in Africa but in several cane-based sugar producing countries as well. These jobs are usually permanent positions, although recently they have also come under pressure by outsourcing and casualisation practices, as job precariousness becomes common to all economic sectors. On the other hand, visible employment for women has been usually offered through clerical occupations and in service areas, like cleaning and food preparation.
However, as any visit to the cane and sugar complex will witness, a number of women work in field operations even though they are not usually counted as formal employment. In part, this is because of the seasonability of the task, along with the fact that cane-cutting, usually performed by men, is the focus of attention when agricultural work is under consideration, in detriment of other tasks as planting and weeding, where women workers are usually found. When this traditional approach is combined with the introduction of outsourcing and casualisation, the result is an under-representation of the actual number of women working in the sector. By IUF Global Sugar estimations, formal employment for women appears to hover around a maximum of 15 percent of the total labour force.
The IUF Global Sugar Program has focussed on Maternity Protection as a workers’ right that specifically highlights benefits for women, although the benefits of such protection are not confined to the mother and child, but extend to the family, community… and the human species as a whole. The IUF Global Sugar Program has started to focus on policies for the creation of job opportunities for women in the sugar sector. Not an easy task because of the several factors which negatively affect the creation of any opportunity for decent jobs, but also because of the traditional sugar mind-set mentioned above and the social constraints placed on women. The Durban workshop has in fact been the first attempt at tackling the issue.
The Workshop for Women Workers in the Sugar Sector focused on union work towards job creation. It was held on 16 & 17 April in Durban, South Africa, and attended by fifteen delegates from six unions from the region. The workshop was hosted by the sugar membership of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU), under the IUF Global Sugar project in East and Southern Africa.
The first activity of the workshop was a visit by the women delegates to the Shukela Training Institute, established by the South African sugar industry, which provides technical skills for the regional sugar industry, as well as other economic sectors. Delegates observed and learned first-hand about the training facilities available and the possibilities open to women in the field. It was a valuable experience as delegates found that most trainees were young people, which goes against the belief that the Youth are not attracted by a challenging job in sugar and, as well, by finding that many of them were women, giving an alternative view to the even more entrenched belief that there’s no place for women in factory-type of jobs in sugar.
Following the visit to Shukela, which left a positive impression in the delegates, the workshop heard reports results of an exercise by the delegates to gather information on the workplace and their community. The empirical, and most of the time anecdotic, information provided by the delegates in their reports was rich in details: they talked about the sort of jobs performed by women in the workplace they labour in, what people in their community, e.g. friends and relatives, think about women applying and taking a job in sugar, whether there are facilities offering training for women, whether their unions encourage women to take a job in sugar.
The exercise was complemented by recommendations made by the workshop, which can be grouped in two areas: the first relates to empowering women in the workplace through union programs on education, sensitisation, training and organising, which relates to a second area highlighting women as role model for the community, through union activities such as visits to schools to educate children on job diversity irrespective of gender and by influencing the hiring policies of companies. The delegates committed themselves to maintain communication with the IUF Global Sugar Program on this initiative.
The information provided by the delegates and their efforts to focus the workshop discussions on what unions and unionists can do to encourage the creation of decent job opportunities for women in sugar are a basis for the IUF Global Sugar Program to launch a second avenue for its work on Women, in addition to Maternity Protection.
The participating unions were KUSPAW from Kenya, NUPAAW from Zambia, SAPWU from Swaziland, SINTIA from Mozambique, NUPAW from Uganda, and FAWU from South Africa.