South Africa: A view to women working in the Sugar Sector

The IUF Global Sugar Program has focused its work on Maternity Protection in the sector as well as some specific topics like Sexual Harassment and Equality in the Workplace. It was under the IUF Global Sugar project in East and Southern Africa and in coordination with the South African Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) that another area of concern has been added: Job Opportunities for Women in the Sugar Sector.

In an initiative after the workshop, Sihle, a FAWU member agreed to talk to work colleagues and women in the community to collect information about women workers in Darnall; also about their views and challenges. Her information is the basis for this report.

Sihle Silinda works as a panboiler at Darnall, a Tongaat Hulett operation, some 85km north of Durban. She talked to several women, among them, Wendy, a process trainee; Bonisiwe, a laboratory sampler; Nobuhle, a process engineer, and Khanyo, human resources. When discussing the article, Sihle was also asked to draw from her personal experience and views built over the years she has worked in the industry. (All the information refers to women in the factory-type of work, including clerical jobs. Sihle did not interview women engaged in field operations.)

Sihle at an IUF Sugar / FAWU Workshop in October 2011

Women are involved in different kinds of jobs, Sihle says. They are employed in offices as administrators and managers; at the clinic as nurses; as artisans in the workshop and operators in the control room; also as testers, analysts and samplers in the laboratory, and in process they perform as panboilers and engineers.

Reflecting on the information she put together, Sihle thinks that women in management positions appeared to be more satisfied with their job than those on the shop floor, who mostly see their employment as a source of income with limited options for personal development or as a source of satisfaction in their life. In Sihle’s view, women expressed this feeling as “hav(ing) been in the same job all the time.” There appears to be an opinion among women that working in sugar is challenging for them, both from the physical viewpoint as from the position they occupied in the factory, but they are acknowledge that other industrial sectors might present more difficult challenges for women than those seen in sugar.

One way to overcome some of the employment challenges is training, of course. However, women had to deal with a prevalent idea in the sector that they might not be able to cope with the pressure of training. Without training, women miss opportunities for job promotion (or even hiring possibilities), in contrast to their male counterparts. Remembering her own experience, Sihle said: “When I started working, I had to work twice as hard to prove (myself to) my peers and superiors. I had to earn the respect and recognition they have for me now, when it comes to my job.” The limited options available to women contrast with the opinion Sihle recorded that they, the women, are able to take any training – if available to them.

Access to training is a challenge seen at two levels. The obvious one are the financial costs involved, which include not only the fees to be paid to educational institutions but also having some free time to take the training. Sihle mentions another equally important factor: family responsibilities. Most of the women she has talked to, she says, have financial responsibilities with their own family, whether nuclear or extended, and the absence of training facilities near the workplace only compounds the challenges.

In the context of an IUF Sugar Workshop on Job Creation for Women in the Sugar Sector held on 16 & 17 April 2012 in Durban, participants visited the Shukela Training Centre in Mount Edgecombe, near Durban, where they saw that many trainees were young women acquiring technical skills for jobs that, some years ago, might have been seen as an exclusive realm for male workers. It showed that there is no reason to prevent women from being employed in the sector. (See report from the Workshop on Job Creation here.)

This article is the result of a collaboration between Sihle and Jorge, IUF Global Sugar Coordinator. To her credit, most of the time Sihle accessed the Internet via her mobile phone. Sihle will take part in the training on Information Communication Technology (ICT), which IUF Sugar and FAWU will develop from 20-25 August 2012 and, again, from 26-30 September. The training is part of the IUF Global Sugar project in East and Southern Africa, supported by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW).

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    • Wendy on August 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you cde Sihle we are proud of and Jorge thank you so much. Well I am out of words but most important it’s the great job you are doing and the IUF.

    wendy nzuza

    • shle on August 18, 2012 at 8:09 am

    IMBOKODO is a strong or hard rock and we were referred as such because we kept it together. The challenges we are facing now are no longer against apartheid but sexual discrimination. It’s high time we as women took a stand & break that cycle. Thanks to the IUF/FAWU joint venture there is a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

    • Nelisiwe Nxumalo on August 19, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Viva cde Chle let us continue with the struggle soon we will be victorious!!! Amandla!!!!!!!!!

    • pravin on September 7, 2012 at 12:49 am

    Hi, Myself Pravin, researcher of IUF from India, working on sugar mill workers in India. During visit to mills across India, i found that very few i.e. less than 10 women are employed in sugar mills in India though the total workforce is ranging between 400 to 1000 employees in one mill which depend upon the crushing capacity of mill. Women are employed only in official work like administration, account. Many mills are not having even single women employee. Justification of management is lack of technically educated women in rural areas and concern about security. It is not nothing but the another strategy of management to avoid maternity benefits of women.
    From all this observation we can conclude that, Indian sugar industry is highly dominated by men. Sugar mill workers are facing problem because of changing trends in employment toward precarious employment.

    • sihle on September 8, 2012 at 12:07 am

    I agree with Pravin when he states that it’s just a strategy to avoid maternal benefits. In my factory the only reason they started employing women was because of pressure from government. I’m with the Tongaat-Hulett Group & top management positions are occuppied by men the only difference now is that it used to be white males but now other races are getting top positions.

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