Representing workers on a mandate


Long-time NUMSA trade unionist, Christine Olivier, has just been elected the assistant general secretary of the 50 million-strong global trade union federation, IndustriALL. She is the first African woman to hold this position. Neo Bodibe spoke to her.

Congratulations on attaining this position.

I don’t want this thing to go to my head. I don’t even want to think about this position, what it is, how big it is, all that I want to think is about what the congress said we must do. The position that I occupy now should not be like a ‘black African woman making history’. It should become normal for women and particularly black African women to occupy these kinds of positions.

On Facebook recently your caption was: We need African countries to industrialise, to create jobs, to build manufacturing, a just transition. Coming from Africa and being an industrial union, what do you think are the challenges that face Africa as they industrialise?

We’ve got the mineral wealth, we export our raw material and then we import the products that have been made but we can do it here ourselves. 

You look at Nigeria. It’s an oil-rich country but they don’t even have refineries, they used to have but it’s not there anymore, it’s not working. And then you look at the energy crisis. You look at what’s happening in Mozambique with foreign MNCs going there to extract their natural resources at the expense of the people of Mozambique.

And that’s why those young people say, ‘we don’t belong to ISIS, we don’t know why people are saying we are part of ISIS. We are young Mozambicans who are unemployed, who are suffering but we have this gas, minerals, we have these minerals in our countries and these MNCs like Total they come and they extract at our expense. We don’t even share in the profits, a few government officials are sharing the profits or getting the benefits from those big companies. That is what we are fighting against and our government is so corrupt they are not listening to us and what must we do when we have talked and talked and no-one listens. We’ve decided to take up arms and we’ve decided that Total will not come into our country.’

And that’s the reality of Africa. Africa is so dependent on the west and on Europe.

Let’s talk about you as one of three assistant general secretaries of IndustriALL. What’s your role? What are you in charge of?

I’m in this position for the past 2 months so what I’m currently working on is to really look at the mandates that the congress gave us. The congress adopted an action plan that’s built on four strategic pillars: building strong unions, defending workers’ rights, confronting global capital and building sustainable industrial policies. I am responsible for the sectors, so we have about 14 sectors. And then I’m also responsible for women, youth, white collar workers, global framework agreements (GFAs) and campaigns.

Why the focus on white-collar workers?

Workplaces are changing, new technology is coming in and the work that blue collars used to do is now more scientific and more technological and that’s why we are changing from having more blue-collar workers [to] now having more white-collar workers in some countries. And I know it’s going to be difficult because we know that white-collar workers don’t believe in trade unions, they don’t want to join trade unions. They only come to trade unions when they are really having challenges. So what is important … is to look at what would attract white-collar workers to trade unions.

The same with young workers – you need to adapt to the challenges that young workers are confronted with but also [look at] what would attract [them] workers to trade unions. Like when I addressed the young workers of South Asia two days ago, I said to them that you are the future of IndustriALL global union, we need to build you, we need to build second tier leadership because if we don’t build second tier leadership, when we die or when we retire, IndustriALL will totally collapse.

And it’s very difficult because if you look at the leadership in trade unions, especially in Africa, you will see the leadership is older than 50. And they are clinging to the positions that they occupy, they are clinging to power and they don’t want to create the space for young workers,  … [or] white-collar workers and of course women.

What will be the approach around women workers?

Women have been in trade unions for years and years, but the space for women has not been created and not because women are not capable to lead but men just don’t want to create that space for [them] to take their rightful place in unions… If you look at our industries, many of the industries have not been totally transformed, to accommodate women. We really need to look at how do we make sure that we organise more women into the trade union.

And the one thing when we had a discussion around women in IndustriALL, I said to the women’s coordinator, I want us to move a little bit away from gender-based violence and sexual harassment, not that it’s not important, but also look at other areas of work that affect women like … collective bargaining. When unions negotiate with employers, they don’t look at what are the issues that women are confronted with and negotiate [these] with employers. [And issues like] health and safety, science and technology and now with this transformation where are the women? Would women be able to adapt and be able to be reskilled in this new way of working because women always occupy the low paid jobs in the workplaces?

Because this transformation it’s scientific, there’s a lot of technology that is taking place and women might struggle to adapt… we really need to focus on education and training for women so that they are able to move with this transformation that is taking place… [W]hen we talk about just transition, we usually talk about reskilling, upskilling but we talk about it generally. We don’t talk about the role of women and how we need to pay special attention to [them in this just transition].

Why do you think it’s important to focus on the global supply chain?

These huge MNCs don’t want the responsibility of looking after workers so it’s better for them to outsource and to have a supply chain than having direct responsibility of workers. Then you would find in the global supply chain the bulk of those workers are contract workers and we all know that when you are a contract worker, and the employer tells you that if you join a trade union, we will end your contract.

That’s why we [must] make sure that we organise the vulnerable workers, workers that are in precarious employment. When we enter into global framework agreements (GFAs) with MNC companies, we must make sure that that GFA includes the supply chain, [that it is] legally binding [and] extend[s] across borders [so that it] binds not only the MNC but also its supply chain. And employers or MNCs must make sure that their supply chains are familiar with the agreements that they sign with trade unions and that they are adhering to the provisions of those GFAs.

A screen-shot from IndustriALL’s video on Global Framework Agreements in the textile industry

And that’s the threat that trade unions are facing. As trade unions we really need to go back to the drawing board, to look at different ways of organising because we cannot organise workers in the same manner that we have been organising over the past few decades and expect to have different outcomes, and expect to have trade unions that are growing. If you look at trade unions now, trade unions are disappearing… if we don’t change the way that we organise, in a few years’ time there will be no trade unions.

How confident are you that you will achieve the congress mandate?

We have four years to work on this congress mandate and hopefully, with the kind of team and the people that you surround yourself with, you and the team will be able to pull through because if you are a leader and you think that you can work on your own and you think that you are a boss, and you think that you are there to give instructions, then you set yourself up for failure.

And that’s something that I always am very careful that I don’t fall into that trap of seeing myself as somebody else’s boss. Working with people it’s also about respecting people and respecting their views and listening to the proposals that they are coming up with and listen to what they think. [L]istening is a skill and sometimes us as leaders we don’t listen. When somebody speaks, we prepare ourselves to respond to the person instead of listening to what the person is saying. It might be small, but for me it’s important to always allow people to speak their minds.

So you’ve been in the trade union movement for years and years and years, and when you look back at the journey from being a shop steward and regional chairperson and national deputy president at Numsa and then the international officer, what do you think are the things that have prepared you for this role?

Let me first say that I don’t have any formal training. I started working in a factory in Atlantis, my father was a truck driver, my mother was a domestic worker so there was never money to send us to university or to college. So I had to, straight from doing my matric, I had to go and work in a factory, I became a shop steward representing workers, forever defending workers against the exploitation of employers.

So all my education and all my knowledge and everything that I know comes from working in the trade union movement, working in Numsa, fighting for the rights of workers. I think that’s what built me and prepared me a lot for this role because I understand what workers are going through on a daily basis. I understand the exploitation that workers are subjected to in the workplace. The union has taught us a lot how to fight, how to defend workers so I think all those years being in the factory, sitting and negotiating with employers for better working conditions for workers, dealing with arrogant employers, all those things have built us, have made us to grow and to think how are we going to deal with all these challenges that are brought about by employers who only think about making profits.

Christine Olivier presiding over a NUMSA meeting when she was NUMSA vice president (Pic: Sandra Hlungwani)

And do you know sometimes members are also very difficult. So they can deal with you, they can fight with you, insult you sometimes, that also made you strong. It also taught me to be patient and also taught me to listen sometimes to hear what are the challenges. But then it also taught you to educate workers and to make workers understand what are the issues and how employers operate and think. Once workers understand the challenges, it makes it easier for you to get workers united around the challenges that they are confronted with on a daily basis.

So all these years in the trade unionmovement has taught me about unity, about solidarity, about strategizing, about fighting, about taking workers along, about educating workers and explaining issues to workers. And always make sure that you take your mandate from the workers because many a time you will find that trade union leaders are speaking on behalf of workers, but they don’t have a mandate, they’re not consulting with workers. For me consultation with workers and taking a mandate from workers and reporting back to workers is one of the cornerstones of having a strong trade union movement and in many trade unions you would see that that’s one of the things that is missing.

And I think that one of my roles is also to build on that, to make sure that when we represent workers, wherever we are, we represent them honestly, we represent them on a mandate that we’ve got from them and we report back to workers.

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About the author

Christine Olivier

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