Trade unionists share lessons across borders

Unia members showing how it's done in Switzerland on Labour Day. Unia

Trade unionists in Switzerland and South Africa have much to learn from each other, a South African labour relations expert told swissinfo during a recent visit.

This content was published on May 8, 2006 - 16:53

Sahra Ryklief is director of South Africa's Labour Research Service (LRS), an NGO which works to strengthen the collective bargaining capacity of trade unions.

Ryklief has just wrapped up a week's visit to Switzerland at the invitation of Swiss Labour Assistance (SLA), which runs a "Solidarity" programme in South Africa.

In a speech on Labour Day (May 1) she said all Swiss had a responsibility to make sure their investments in other countries did not undermine local firms and lead to the privatisation of public services.

Ryklief's trip comes ahead of a planned exchange between youths from Switzerland and South Africa to learn how union work is undertaken in two very different economies. The Swiss visit is expected to take place in late June/early July, with a reciprocal visit by South Africans planned for a later date.

The SLA programme in South Africa is funded by Switzerland's largest trade union, Unia.

swissinfo: What's the point of the proposed youth exchange project for Swiss and South Africans?

Sahra Ryklief: The Swiss will get some exposure to grassroots work carried out by the SLA. The youths will meet South African trade union representatives, will visit townships, and will meet the South African Unemployed Youth Forum. The goal is to strengthen their collective bargaining skills.

This is also a chance for union members to see what solidarity work is being carried out in South Africa. The flipside of this program is that South African unionists can actually learn quite a few things here.

swissinfo: What are the South Africans hoping to learn from Unia?

S.R.: One process we are interested in is about organising youths, which Unia says it has done successfully, and our unions have yet to start doing.

Unia is also trying to change the nature of its organisation so that it becomes what it calls a platform for self-organisation [helping non-unionised employees affected by labour disputes to organise themselves].

swissinfo: How do you strike a balance between keeping down the cost of employment and protecting workers' rights?

S.R.: Anybody who comes to South Africa wanting to keep down employment costs should go back home because we have one of the lowest-wage economies in the world.

Our Labour Relations Act regulates workers' rights. What the South African government should do is to move from fostering an export-oriented economy towards strengthening the domestic economy. It can do so by working with neighbouring countries.

swissinfo: In your Labour Day speech in Zurich, you were reported as saying that if South Africans can't eat, the Swiss can't sleep. What did you mean?

S.R.: Actually I said that just as finance is global, human rights and an understanding of development is global. I think that if you come from the global capital of the world like Zurich, you understand that finance is global.

Your companies are going to Southern Africa and other developing countries and earning money from our people. It's a two-way street: if you're an ordinary citizen of Switzerland, make it your business to ensure that your government and your companies do not contribute to the privatisation of social services and the displacement of local enterprises in poorer countries.

swissinfo: Is Switzerland viewed as an exotic country in South Africa?

S.R.: It's just a big bank. And high mountains and lots of chocolate.

swissinfo-interview: Mike Chudacoff

Key facts

Swiss Labour Assistance is a relief agency based in Zurich. Its programmes focus on improving the organisation of workers in the so-called informal economy (self-employed, street vendors, household employees as well as unemployed unskilled workers).
Unia is the largest trade union in Switzerland with an estimated 200,000 members.

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In brief

Sahra Ryklief is the director of the Labour Research Service (LRS), a research institute for trade unions in South Africa, established in 1986 to strengthen the collective bargaining capacity of trade unions.

Almost half of all South Africans were categorised as living below the poverty level in 2002. Unemployment is estimated at 40% (source: LRS).

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