Organising Women in the Informal Sector - The SEWU Experience
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 traditional trade-unions.

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 vendor members.


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 funds.

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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