Trade union cooperation: women tannery workers organise in Dakar

The “Social and Solidarity Economy in the Informal Sector” Project, launched in 2013, is supporting the unionisation and training of workers in Senegal. It has provided 35 women with an opportunity to explore alternative ways of managing their economic activity. The CFDT’s international cooperation institute Institut Belleville is co-financing the programme.

Relegated to outskirts of Dakar, the women tanners of Daroukhane are ready for work. For ten hours a day, they repeat the same movements, passed on from generation to generation. Ndéye Fatou Aidara (photo) started working on what are considered the least hazardous tasks, soaking and drying the skins, at the age of 10. “There are injuries resulting from the handling of the knives. The lime causes respiratory diseases and the sulphur affects our eyesight. As for our hands, they get harder over the years,” she explains.

The younger workers, having seen how tanning has affected their elders, have started to buy protective boots and gloves, out of their own pockets. Like the millions of others in the informal economy*, these women work outside of any kind of legal, social or fiscal framework. There is no social protection here, and no guarantee of a wage. Nor is there any guarantee of work. “In the wet season, the terrain becomes impracticable. It’s a nightmare working in such conditions, but some women have no alternative and agree to work with floodwater up to their wastes, knowing the risks,” underlines Astou Doucouré, one of the tanners. She herself has been forced to do so in the past, and now suffers from chronic bouts of malaria as a result.

Reaping the rewards of hard work

In Senegal, where the informal sector represents almost 80% of the economy, the trade union centre Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes du Sénégal (UNSAS) has taken on the task of organising and training its workers. “The informal economy is a crucial job provider in areas plagued with unemployment. And women, who constitute the majority in this sector, invest heavily in making their activity a success. But the lack of information and appropriate management tools mean they are struggling to reap the rewards of their hard work. The social and societal solidarity they are accustomed to has not found expression in how they organise their work life,” remarks Mame Saye Seck, head of the “Social and Solidarity Economy in the Informal Sector” Project at UNSAS.

Understanding the workings of the solidarity economy and the benefits of unionising
The women at the Daroukhane tanneries work in a group, but each one them has developed the habit (following the example of their elders) of going and buying their skins and products individually, at the highest price, although a group purchase would enable them to cut the costs of their raw materials. One of the aims of the project, launched in 2013 with a vast campaign to recruit informal economy workers, was therefore to “make the participants understand the workings of the solidarity economy and the benefits of unionising”, explains Ndéye Ngoye Lo, a training officer at UNSAS. The three day course, held in September 2014 in the trade union’s headquarters, brought together 35 women working in five different sectors (tanning, fish and cereal processing, pottery and street vending).

Ndéye Fatou Aidara, a new member and volunteer, appreciates the combination of economic and trade union expertise. Having known nothing else but the tanneries, she confides: “I never thought that one day I would learn that there’s another way of doing my job, different to that which has been passed on to us. The talk on cost sharing was a real eye opener.” The training was a success in terms of all the areas covered (contribution of trade unionism, understanding cooperativism, and the development of social and solidarity economy management tools). “Because they were able to identify the limitations of the administrative and financial management of their own organisation, the participants decided to set up five cooperatives (one per sector),” explains the coordinator Mame Saye Seck.

Training, managing, repaying and saving

To assist them, a solidarity fund of 200,000 CFA francs (€300) was allocated to each group. The beneficiaries have been reimbursing 30 euros a month since December. “It is up to them to reflect on how to manage their money and develop a saving culture, which should enable them to invest in materials or a place where they can store or sell products,” explains Martine Roy of the Institut Belleville. By the time the first fund repayment was made, in Dakar, on 13 December, in the presence of representatives from the Institut Belleville (which is funding the project together with the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux du Québec), the five groups had already managed to make their monthly repayments and to save. “We have learned how to work collectively. The management training has helped us to use our money better. Now we are making real profits from the sale of our skins and are managing to save thanks to the solidarity fund,” says Astou Doucouré.

The project has undoubtedly contributed to changing the image of trade unionism, which is often seen as the reserve of a small elite in the formal sector. “The women used to think of female trade unionists as aggressive, unmarried women,” says Mame Saye Seck with a smile. “Now they have seen that this is not the case.” The 35 women who took part in the course have joined UNSAS and are encouraging their colleagues to do the same.

The project has also given substance to the trade union demands and proposals presented to the authorities. “What we want to do now is to promote this project as a benefit of our type of trade unionism and to become a reference among informal workers, because this sector needs to be structured.” Thanks to media coverage of the project, “The state now considers us a legitimate partner on the issue of the informal economy and has asked to meet with us,” rejoices UNSAS. It is a positive first step towards the development of social dialogue specific to the sector.

*The informal economy refers to all economic activity undertaken outside the framework of state regulation or oversight.