Spotlight interview with Thulile Motsamai (SACCAWU)

Our Message to Women is: "Take Your Own Decisions"

Thulile Motsamai, trade union representative at the Birchwood Executive hotel in Johannesburg, is one of the key players in the "Decisions for Life" (1) campaign in South Africa. She explains how this ITUC campaign is helping young South African women gain awareness of their rights and develop within the South Africa Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union, SACCAWU (2).

What is the "Decisions for Life" campaign?

It is a campaign aimed at young women, it informs them not only about their rights in the workplace but also in their homes, at school, etc. It is not only aimed at working women, but young mothers, for example, some of whom leave school at a very early age. We take our campaign to supermarkets, cybercafes, to the streets, children’s homes, shelters for women who have suffered domestic violence, etc. We set up a table with leaflets in public places and approach passersby to talk to them about the campaign; in some cases we invite them to a campaign workshop or meeting. We make sure there is a bit of fun at these events, otherwise young people would soon lose interest if faced with nothing but long speeches.

Approaching people is not difficult: we are young people talking to young people; we don’t talk about Nelson Mandela or other people who live completely different lives from theirs, we speak about our own situation. We distribute postcards that refer to the campaign’s "My Wage" website where they can find all kinds of practical information on how to prepare for a job interview, places to look for a job, etc. We are trying to reach as many young people as possible, because if your CV shows that you have no work experience, employers see you as easy prey, as a person they can underpay and exploit to the hilt. When you are aware of your rights it is different.
We receive some very interesting feedback by email and telephone, etc.

Do you also take the campaign into schools?

Yes, the campaign is also aimed at students, as they have to take important decisions about their future as soon as they complete their studies. We try, for example, to raise their awareness about sexual harassment, to help them gain self confidence and teach them to say "no" by making them realise that this harassment can lead to many serious problems such as HIV, desolation and even suicide. They have to take care of themselves before they enter the labour market, so that when they do they are strong women who know their rights and know what can and cannot happen.

One of the specific aspects of "Decisions for Life" in South Africa is the campaign to promote female condoms, which are not available in sufficient numbers. We have observed that condoms for men are more common, and that women are not always in a position to negotiate protected sexual relations. And yet we are only able to find female condoms in a few clinics. Our campaign is calling for a female condom for every male one.

We have started campaigning for female condoms in schools and universities because students are people at risk. Some give up their studies due to early pregnancy, HIV or even sexual harassment in educational establishments; there’s a whole host of problems linked to sexual conduct.
We are also targeting unemployed women, as we know that some of them decide to sell their bodies. We cannot stop them from doing so, but they should at least do so safely.

"Decisions for Life" is therefore addressed at a larger public than trade union members...

Yes, but we also take the opportunity to inform young women about the benefits of being unionised. The image people have of trade unionists is usually that seen on television: middle aged or older men and women, hardly any young people. We try to change this perception, to show them that they have a place in the trade union movement, that their points of view can be heard, that they are just as important as everyone else, that age is of no consequence.

Our message is really to say to women: "Take your own decisions", be it about moving house, starting a family, having sexual relations, getting married or not, etc. When we are capable of deciding for ourselves, we are capable of doing it in all other areas, such as choosing a job.

What does your involvement in this campaign bring you, on a personal level?

Happiness! My involvement has awoken a part of me that I didn’t know existed. I have a diploma in management and marketing. It’s not easy working as a chambermaid, but I have to do it to feed my three children. Thanks to the "Decisions for Life" campaign, I am a new person and I do not even dislike my work as a chambermaid any more.

The experiences we exchange through the campaign have helped me understand that we should not be afraid of men or of anyone. We have to support each other. Before, I didn’t like speaking to other people, especially about things that really affect me, but a South African union activist, Thabisa Sigaba, who is now sadly deceased, has been a great inspiration to me. She was the youngest and the first woman full-time shop steward; she radiated a fantastic energy and even though she was younger than me, I learnt from her example that we could become anything we wanted to be.

Has the campaign had any impact on your union?

The campaign has helped us recruit new members, as young women come to realise the benefits of being unionised. Those who are still studying come to the same conclusion and when they enter the world of work, they will make sure they have a union behind them.

And in the same way as they take part in decision making within the "Decisions for Life" campaign, young women members also want to have their say when it comes to trade union decisions. Women account for 80% of my union’s members, and yet the leadership is dominated by men. But things are starting to change.

Was it hard to convince the leaders of your union to change the way they do things?

It is hard to convince everyone. Even the women fail to support each other; we have a tendency to pull each other down. When elections are held, we vote for men. Prior to the launch of the campaign, women never put themselves forward for leadership positions as they thought they would never be elected, and they preferred not to try at all rather than taking the risk of failing. We always turn towards men, thinking they can make everything possible; we forget that we too can be leaders ourselves. We can be peace negotiators, mothers, wives, sisters, colleagues, but we don’t believe it ourselves. I’m not saying that men shouldn’t be given any credit, but our own work should come first.

There are some leaders who, still now, show very little interest in "Decisions for Life", even within my union. But the fact that we as women have been able to unite in support of this project has forced men to accept the situation, as they have no other alternative. In the past, the women would leave one of their colleagues who had a good idea to manage on her own with the men, but now we support one another more.

Has the campaign changed things at the hotel where you work?

Tremendously! When we want something, we have to do it ourselves. We cannot really expect men to negotiate for our rights. The campaign has helped build our self confidence and to demand our place as stakeholders in collective bargaining negotiations. Ever since we started taking part in the negotiations ourselves, we have been able to raise the points that interest us the most and have our demands adopted. We have succeeded in negotiating a policy on parental rights, the signing of a policy on sexual harassment, a policy on health and safety, another on HIV, and have secured a commitment from the company to reimburse 50% of medical costs (which we are trying to push up to 75%). Similar results have been achieved in several other companies thanks to the campaign, as the women are more involved.

Could you tell us more about the policies negotiated within your company?

The policy against sexual harassment involves a strengthening of the complaint mechanism. That on parental rights covers maternity leave, the leave that can be taken if a child is ill, preventative measures to stop pregnant women from being overburdened, etc. Some of these points were already provided for in the national legislation, but the management only respects these rights if they are laid down in the collective agreement it signs. The same is the case with HIV: the legislation stipulates that people affected by the virus should not be discriminated against at work, but we have negotiated the assurance that this will never happen in our hotel. We have also secured an agreement whereby a person infected with HIV can take up to eight months sick leave, with half of her salary paid by the company and the other half by social security, and that she can return to her job and to the same position in the hierarchy, when she is better. This is an added gain relative to the legislation.

Has your perception of the union changed?

Before, I lived with the apprehension that as a woman, and even more so as a young woman, what I had to say would not have any impact, even if it made absolute sense, simply because I am a woman.

But I now know that we do not have mothers within unions but mentors, people who want to share their knowledge with us. It was these older women trade unionists who presented us with "Decisions for Life", teaching us to head the campaign ourselves, whereas before we simply did what we were told to do. They helped us to understand that the project’s success depended on us. It is also the more experienced women unionists that taught us how to identify sexual harassment. The campaign is now ours and we can, in turn, act as mentors for other young women.

How do you see your future in the trade union movement?

I don’t want to be anyone very high up, but I want to change something in the lives of young people, something to ensure that their views are heard and acted on. I would like to reach out to as many young people as possible. There are so many young women suffering, who are tired of their lives, young mothers faced with huge problems when the fathers take off. I would like to bring a ray of hope into their lives, show them that there is a life in spite of all these problems, but it depends on them, they can choose to continue down the same path or to lift their heads up high again and do something with their lives. It is the only way to build a better world.

Interview by Maria Tsirantonaki and Samuel Grumiau

(1) Decisions for Life Campaign supports and empowers young women, individually and collectively, to make well-informed decisions about work, career and family, have access to secure jobs, earnings and social benefits, demand equal opportunities at work, and improve their leadership and negotiation skills.

(2) South Africa Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union, affiliated to COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions)