The IUF Sugar and Palm Oil project in 2015-2017 works to strengthen unions by encouraging women workers to actively participate in the life of their unions and proactively engaging employers on working conditions. While there are three main topics covered by the project, namely Equality, Maternity Protection, with emphasis on Child Care facilities at the workplace, and Sexual Harassment, it is the latter that has become, because of the realities of the sugar sector, a main topic of concern.
Sexual Harassment was the main topic of a two workshops, held in coordination with the South African Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) at the Sezela Sugar Estate and in Harden Heights, a sugar cane growing operation. Selecting these workplaces allows the project to deal with the different conditions in the production of sugar: the factory-type of work and farm operations. While there is a common background to both, the working and living conditions, differ substantially in many instances, particularly with reference to farm workers.
In Kenya, the project held three workshops with the Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation Workers (KUSPW): at Mumias Sugar Estate, in Nzoia Sugar and in Chemelil, which was also attended by delegates from the neighbouring Muhoroni sugar company.
Training union members on the prevention and resolution of Sexual Harassment cases is a basic task when building democratic unions that can fight for inclusive and anti-discriminatory labour practices at workplaces. In cane-based sugar industries, there seems to exist an accepted socio-cultural idea that sugar jobs are not meant for women, which tends to configure a male-dominated labour force – with the probable exception of clerical and services tasks. Such disparity appears to have a negative impact by fuelling malpractices that easily become a watershed for sexual harassment and women workers’ exploitation.
The training of union members, shop-stewards and leaders to recognise, confidentially deal and push for an expedite resolution of sexual harassment cases, also helps union representatives to build a relationship of trust with members and workers at large. They do not forget that victims of sexual harassment are, by definition, in a vulnerable situation, and that they need to muster lots of courage to come forward with complains that, in many cases, jeopardize their employment conditions.
The IUF Sugar workshops received a significant boost by a document signed by the IUF and IndustriALL with Unilever on 26 January outlining a “Joint commitment on preventing sexual harassment at Unilever”. The two global unions represent some 60 million workers around the world, while Unilever is one of the world’s largest companies involved in food processing and production of personal care products.
The IUF project untitled “Fostering Good Jobs in energy crops” is also supported by the Canadian union Unifor. It works with sugar unions in Kenya, South Africa and Benin, and palm oil unions in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon.