Unions strive to level the playing field for Africa’s 34 million migrant workers

Unions strive to level the playing field for Africa's 34 million migrant workers

Today, nearly half of all migrant workers are women, with the feminisation of migration increasing in Africa over the past few decades as women seek to support their families.

(Jemal Countess/Solidarity Center)

Seventeen years ago, Chris Muwani migrated from Zimbabwe to South Africa, where he works on a tomato farm. If he does not fulfill his daily quota, he is not paid for the day. So to complete his workload, he often does not walk the long distance to access the toilet or fresh water.

On a nearby banana plantation, France Mnyike, a migrant farm worker from Mozambique, also says fresh water is hard to access.

“Some people even faint out of dizziness because of lack of water,” he says, speaking through a translator. “Two ladies fainted and eventually died because of dehydration.”

Both men shared their testimonies at the Solidarity Center’s conference on labour migration, which was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, between 25 and 27 January 2017.

More than 130 union leaders, migrant worker rights advocates and top international human rights officials from nearly two dozen countries met to discuss strategies for improving migrant worker rights in Africa.

Throughout the conference, Achieving Fair Migration: Roles of African Trade Unions and Their Partners, union leaders and migrant rights advocates explored the xenophobia, racism and sexism migrant workers face, and sought to increase vital connections between unions and civil society organisations to campaign for laws and policies to level the playing field for migrant workers.

Some 34 million Africans are migrants—the majority are workers moving across borders in search of jobs that can support their families.

But xenophobia and racism are embedded in their daily economic and social realities.

“The world is witnessing a growing level of intolerance against foreign labour migrants, refugee and asylum seekers,” says Joseph Rudigi Rukema, a sociology professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The exploitation of migrant workers begins with their outward journeys, as labour brokers and others take advantage of their precarious situation, according to Rukema.

After migrant workers arrive in their destination countries, they experience “racism in terms of their working conditions”—such as employer exploitation, he says.

Migrant workers also are subject to daily harassment by police, frequently inhumane treatment by officials when seeking work permits and lack of access to banking institutions.

“If you look at most of migrants, they flee economic conditions in their home countries,” says Rukema. He called on unions to play an important role by advocating for the creation of conducive economic and political condition in migrants’ home countries.

Feminisation of migration in Africa

Although labour migration from Africa has historically been a male-dominated phenomenon, the pattern has changed significantly in recent decades.

“African women are leaving their countries of birth to create new lives elsewhere. Economic opportunities are primarily available in child care,” as well as domestic work, says Mondli Hlatshwayo, a coordinator with the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg.

Today, nearly half of all migrant workers are women, with the feminisation of migration increasing in Africa over the past few decades as women seek to support their families.

Yet in terms of exploitation, “the situation is worse for women immigrants” who face some of the most challenging situations due to their gender, according to Hlatshwayo.

Praxedes’s story is typical of many female migrant workers. She moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa to give her children the chance of a better life than she had. “There is nothing for me there [in Zimbabwe], she says. “A lot of employers take advantage of that.”

Praxedes says she has worked for more than five years as a domestic worker, and employers have refused to pay her overtime, and shortchanged her pay—even as her transportation costs take up a third of her wages. “My cellphone has to be off at all times. I have three kids. If anything happens to them, I will not know.”

Dangerous working conditions

As around the world, migrant workers in Africa are cheated of wages (which is a modern form of forced labor) and coerced to work in dangerous and unhealthy working conditions.

“We use a chemical to spray grass but you don’t have rubber boots or a respirator but you are working with poison,” Muwani, the tomato picker, told delegates. “If you protest about safety conditions, many people are fired.”

When Mnyike broke his leg at work, his employer at the banana plantation did not provide medical aid and his leg remains fractured. Even if his workplace offered emergency care, he said that his employer would deduct the cost from his salary.
Both men also described how they experience xenophobia at their workplaces and in their communities.

Muwani often is called derogatory names because he is from Zimbabwe, and says: “Even my kids are discriminated against. The kids tell them, ’We will not play with you guys, you are not worthy of us as friends.’”

Far from his wife and children, who remain in Mozambique, Mnyike continues working on the planation to support them, despite treatment so brutal that “those who die on the farm are thrown in the midst of the bananas,” he says. “They are not buried.”

Conference participants, including leadership from the South African Farm and Agricultural Workers Union (FAWU), responded by noting that unions must continue to organise and help workers beyond xenophobia.

Union leaders also pointed to the need to step up efforts to ensure their governments ratify international conventions, especially the International Labor Organization Convention 143 on migrant workers, and develop comprehensive strategies to ensure migrant workers are represented by labour unions.

This article is a composite of several stories that were originally published on the Solidarity Center website.