Inside Labour: It's time we respect our women

2014-08-14 13:45

Equal pay for work of equal value became law in South Africa last week.

But whether the law will be enforced is another matter if one looks at the record to date of the labour department.

But it is good news for women who tend, internationally, to be paid much less than men for work of equal value.

It is a step in the right direction, although a rather belated one when history is taken into account.

Because before the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955 and before the 1956 protest march by 20?000 women against the pass laws, there was a Women’s Charter that put forward an equal pay demand.

And while the 1956 march is celebrated as national Women’s Day and the Freedom Charter is loudly trumpeted by the likes of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the Economic Freedom Fighters and remains iconic to the ANC, the Women’s Charter tends to be forgotten.

Yet it encapsulated a range of equal rights now found in the Bill of Rights and much of South Africa’s labour legislation, including this week’s welcome amendment.

The Women’s Charter was adopted 60 years ago, in April 1954, when women, many of them trade unionists, came together to form the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw).

At this gathering in Joburg, they documented their demands for full equality for all people, irrespective of race, colour, creed or gender.

Along with equal pay for equal work, Fedsaw also called for equal property rights and for the “removal of all laws and customs” that deny women equality, something that remains a problem today.

As indeed do the demands made 60 years ago for “childcare for working mothers, and free and compulsory education for all South African children”.

These demands became deeply embedded in the consciousness of trade unionists, carried to the rank and file level by organisers such as Ray Alexander Simons and Frances Baard.

The echoes remained, despite police repression, when the modern labour movement emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.

The idea of equality was perhaps best epitomised, at least in principle, in unions such as the Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu) that eventually became the core of Numsa.

Elected officials were recallable by their constituencies and none received more payment than the highest-paid worker in the union.

At the same time, the gender issue was seriously addressed, with women often coming to the forefront, even in such male-dominated sectors as the engineering industry.

The feisty Rain Chiya of KwaThema was a classic example.

She was not only a leading shop steward, she became the first woman crane operator in the country.

It was Chiya who argued that while creches and childcare facilities were essential, they should not be restricted to women working in the industrial sector, and should be available to all women in all communities.

“We must not divide woman from woman,” she said.

But adequate childcare facilities are still not available, whether in workplaces or communities.

Despite the tremendous difficulties of the time, especially for trade unionists, there was widespread optimism.

And without any of the advantages of today, a number of women, for whom education had come mainly through the unions, went on to play leading roles in various fields.

Some, like the teenage unmarried mother and high school dropout Emily Mokoena, became an administrator in the Mawu office.

“I knew how to type,” says this former 12-year-old street protester of the 1976 student uprisings.

Mokoena went on to become the country’s first black woman sound operator, working on documentary films.

But listening to and recording life without being directly involved worried her, so she decided to study psychology.

In was a long road, but finally, in 2011, having completed her first two degrees with honours, she obtained a master’s degree, specialising in community psychology.

Today she works as a psychologist in the women’s section of Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.

We should salute women like these, as well as those who drew up and approved the 1954 Women’s Charter (many of whom joined the 1956 march), on Women’s Day.

But we should also bear in mind, not just for a day or a month, the principles and hopes enshrined in what amounted to a charter for all in 1954.

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