SEWU (Self Employed Women's Union) is a new trade union
for self-employed women in South-Africa. It was started
a few years ago because the interests of
self-employed women were not addressed within the
In recent years a feminization of the labor force has taken
place in South Africa. Women predominate in low-wage, less
secure jobs and in the informal sector. Even in the
informal sector they are crowded in the low-income,
low-skilled jobs. This has a number of reasons: women tend
to have problems in access to credit and educational
facilities, women have an inferior legal status, and women
tend to take greater responsibility for raising children.
Women tend to work in the invisible sectors of the economy;
that is casual work, piecework, seasonal work, home-based
work. These sectors of the economy are subject to
super-exploitation. The workers have a weak bargaining
position, as they tend to be isolated and unorganized.
Research in Kwazulu Natal showed that the majority
of self-employed women are running small shops. Other
activities include tailoring and hairdressing.
Our aims are to support women who are self-employed and help
them acquire recognition for the work they do. Therefore,
we train women in leadership and lobbying skills, so that
they can address relevant persons and organizations with
their interests and needs: credit, childcare, legal
issues, etc. We provide women with legal advice and
access to other organizations offering facilities for
training, credit, health, counselling.
We have 1000 members based in Kwa-Zulu Natal. More than half
the membership is made up of street vendors. We also have
home-based workers. This is quite different from the
European experience with home-work. One important
distinction is how self-employment came about. In the
North women who have their own small-scale business are
entrepreneurs. That is, they usually start their business
voluntarily. In S.Africa however, self-employment is
rarely a choice, but a need. Women have no other option
than to start up their own business, as this is the only
way to generate an income.
Because we are membership based we go to the streets of
townships and organize women. This is not very easy. In the
early stages we met a lot of resistance, as hawkers and
the self-employed have been robbed by many organizations
promising them many things. However, we regarded this
resistance as a challenge. It didn't dampen our spirit.
Home-workers are even harder to get in touch with than
street vendors. We get to know them through our street
We have established relationships with the City Council and
local authorities. They recognize us as a party to negotiate
with. The City Council has now agreed to set up a
childcare center for vendors. We have managed to provide
the vendors with a place to sleep, so that they no longer
have to sleep in the streets.
We have achieved recognition by the government. We are
lucky in that we were formed at a time when the government
was prepared to listen to the people.
We have established good relations with NGO's and other
trade unions. They are very sympathetic and co-operative.
Unions like Cosatu even support us in helping to raise
The aims of SEWU:
- build unity between women whose work is not recognized
- develop negotiating skills so that women can negotiate
directly with the City Council, police, small contractors
and middle-men, civic and political organizations, through
their own representatives
- assist women with legal advice
- assist women in solving problems, such as lack of
childcare, credit, maternity- sick- or disability benefits
- develop lobbying skills so that women can organize to
get laws changed if they are not suitable to their needs
- develop leadership skills among women who work outside
of formal sector
- provide access for women to other organizations which
offer facilities such as skills training, credit and loan
facilities, legal assistance, health advice and counselling.
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