On 4 August, a meeting with the Ubombo Ranches branch of the Swaziland Agricultural Plantation Workers Union (SAPWU) resumed the working contact in Swaziland, following a visit with the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) in Manzini the previous day.
The IUF Global Sugar Coordinator, accompanied by Julia Mapepa (Mozambique’s SINTIA) and Ali Mduli (South Africa’s FAWU) visited Ubombo Sugar, an Illovo Sugar subsidiary, and met with the recently elected local committee. There are about 5,000 workers employed at peak time in the estate.
The meeting’s main objective was to integrate SAPWU to the African project of IUF Global Sugar, and also served to develop bilateral/trilateral contacts between the participating unions, urgently needed given the sector’s rapid growth, corporate strategies, international developments, and the geographical closeness of the sugar areas in the three countries.
The IUF Global Sugar coordinator introduced the regional project to the Ubombo Ranches branch, explaining some of the main areas of work, such as Occupation Health and Safety, Women Issues, labour practices (outsourcing and casualisation) as a basis for a sugar network to support the building of negotiating skills and improve working conditions.
The Ubombo branch of SAPWU described some working conditions in the estate related to the objectives of the project. For instance, dust is a major challenge in Ubombo , but it seems that little is done; HIV/AIDS programs must be part of OHS work given that Swaziland is one of the countries where the pandemic has hit the population very hard: the Swazi sugar adaptation strategy says that, as a result of the pandemic, life expectancy fell from 57 years to only 39 in the seven years between 1997 and 2004.
Work on Women Issues is gaining importance because of the increasing number of women being hired under precarious conditions, while the practices of casualisation and outsourcing drive the increase in the number of workers hired on a seasonal basis, consolidating the company’s policy to replace permanent workers with seasonal ones. Such move usually means that workers lose social benefits. Another area of change comprises technological innovations, such as the mechanization of field operations and changes in the irrigation system – using central pivots, which have displaced a significant number of workers, and have a negative impact on union membership. On the other hand, the Swazi sugar sector implemented a major restructuring process from 2003 to 2006 which, some sources estimate, reduced the labour force by about 45 percent. A new wave of restructuring is expected.
A member of the Ubombo branch, Barnes Dlamini, had taken part in some sugar activities implemented by the IUF Africa and is a member of the Swaziland’s steering committee dealing with the financial assistance from the European Union, in the context of the so-called “sugar adaptation strategy.” On the latter, the IUF Global Sugar Program is working towards an evaluation from the unions and workers’ viewpoint of the impact of the EU financial assistance on the ACP sugar producers and exporters. The drafting of the ACPs sugar adaptation strategies has seldom involved workers and unions, even when the EU required at the start of the process that the strategies should be elaborated with the participation of all sector’s stakeholders. In this evaluation, for instance, the focus on improved health and safety conditions should be integrated as part of the process of adjustment and be one of the indicators for the release of the second tranches of EU assistance. Aiming and attaining high OHS standards strengthens the cane and sugar sector’s performance and helps building a stronger basis for national development.
On union networking, Ali Mduli, FAWU sugar coordinator based in Durban, said that the African project should give ongoing support to bilateral/trilateral contacts among the unions. He said that, from FAWU’s view point, it is important to strengthen these links because, on one hand, Illovo Sugar, a main player in the South African sugar sector, appears to be moving away from South Africa and investing in other African countries (e.g. expansion of production in Zambia and Mozambique, new investment in Mali, etc.); and on the other, he said that FAWU is aware that working conditions enjoyed by South African workers employed by Illovo depend on the performance of other African operations, to the point that that the recent 10.5 percent rise in wages and salaries in Illovo “has been paid with money that (the company) makes in other countries.” Such disparity should not exist, and workers in the regional sector should enjoy comparable conditions.
Finally, all levels of SAPWU were in agreement that a review of their affiliation to the IUF is in order, as to better represent SPAWU’s sugar segment in it, and fully and actively participate in the regional sugar project.
A delegate from SAWPU was invited to attend the IUF Global Sugar/FAWU workshop, held from 6-8 Aug. in Durban, some five hundred kilometres from Ubombo Sugar.