Building trade union effectiveness through human rights and the law

The relationship between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade unions is very important in that their joint impact on social and political issues can be very powerful when they work in sync. In the same light, when their joint agenda fails, it can be a setback for both parties.

Both NGOs and trade unions provide important assistance to the communities which they serve. They have more things in common than not, and the most important way they can contribute to democracy is through the improvement of civil society and ensuring that the dignity of those they serve is restored.

With that being said, it is important to note the circumstances under which NGOs and trade unions can co-operate, the various obstacles they may acquire and the conflicts of interests that may arise.

Trade unions have a long history and so do NGOs. It may seem that, due to globalisation, NGOs may have gained a wider scope and reach than trade unions and the impact of trade unions remains domestically focussed, despite the globalisation of the market space.

Trade unions have identified with the struggle of human rights since apartheid. We can see the rich history of activism through the growth of worker rights, but also as workers are now being recognised as part of society. In fighting for workers, trade unions have liberated those who were dependent on them.

In the early 2000s, trade unions became a key component of democracy as agents of social change but that role has since evolved, with the spotlight falling largely on NGOs. Trade unions have not been completely silent, and we see their stern presence in the courts and in key judgments that have shaped the labour market and labour law.

One thing we can be certain of is that trade unions will not be phased out any time soon. Despite the greater political influence, they still play a key role in the workplace and the market.

The status quo of trade unions after the Marikana massacre changed and led to the breakaway of members to form their own unions, such the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The aftermath of Marikana showed how workers had lost faith in trade unions because leaders focussed on the pursuit of political gains instead of the wellbeing of their representative workers. Through this distress of workers, we have seen a breakthrough in NGO interventions through having trade unions held accountable as representative bodies of workers and employers implementing effective suitable work standards.

In South Africa, it is not easy for an employee who is not part of a union to seek help outside the scope of options made available by legislation, that being the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and trade union structure. This means that it not easy for NGOs to assist workers to assert their rights unless all avenues have been exhausted. That means that the employee may be helpless to assert their rights, to a certain extent. This is where the cooperation of NGOs and trade unions is needed.

NGOs and trade unions should have worker rights at the heart of their work and cooperation between the two is the only way we can advance the landscape of worker’s rights. If they fail, they will fail to unshackle the restraints of migrant and casual labour and will not be able to overcome the violations of human rights that continue to occur; such as unfair dismissals and non-payment of benefits, worker exploitation.


Bathandwa Xhallie – 2017 Bertha Justice Fellow

The Annual Bertha Convening is supported by the Bertha Foundation. We would like to thank them for their support of the next generation of young human rights lawyers. Read more about the Bertha Foundation and Bertha Justice Fellows here:


Women’s Month 2016: Child marriages in South Africa

Child marriage affects girls in more ways than one. They are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers at the age that they get married. Child marriage results in girls being disempowered, dependent on their husbands and deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety.

The health of a child bride diminishes from the date of her marriage, as she “becomes a woman” before her body has been allowed to develop naturally. As a result of her age, she is less able to negotiate and articulate her rights to bodily autonomy. Access to healthcare and sexual reproductive healthcare, in particular, is difficult in the rural context and is exacerbated within the context of a rural girl child.

She stands a greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and during childbirth. Her exposure to HIV/AIDS infection, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases, increases. In the context of poverty, where she is reliant on her husband and her in-laws to care for her, she is at greater risk of having her rights to healthcare denied.

Many girls suffer domestic violence from their husbands and even from their in-laws. Her ability to protect herself and to have her bodily integrity respected is ignored. In instances where her own family has consented to the marriage, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave her abusive husband.

Child marriage usually means the end of a girl’s formal education. Once married, girls are burdened with their new responsibilities as wives and mothers and often stay at home as a result. A girl child’s husband or in-laws may not be supportive of her education and burden her with new adult responsibilities, leaving her no time to attend school. She may become entrenched in the cycle of poverty because, with little access to education, her opportunities to seek employment outside of the home diminish.

What can be done?

Government should set clear and consistent legislation that establishes 18 as the minimum age of marriage and remove any laws which allow for parental consent, for the following reasons:

  • Setting the legal age for marriage at 18 provides an objective, rather than subjective, standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready.
  • The existence of laws which prohibit child marriage is an important tool to help those working to dissuade families and communities from marrying off their daughters as children.
  • It is imperative that children are recognised in the law as being children and are afforded the full protection of the law. When a child does not have the right to vote or enter into other contracts before 18, why is marriage allowed?
  • Ending child marriage is not only the right thing to do, but is also an economically practical decision for empowering young female leaders who can support themselves and uplift their communities.

This post was developed as an informative tool for women. Please visit your nearest LRC office for further advice and assistance. Written by Naushina Rahim

Women’s Month 2016: What to do if you are raped

What is rape?

Forced sexual penetration of a person’s (male or female) genital organs, anus, mouth, or any other part of the body with a penis or an object that can be used for sexual penetration.

Who can be raped?

Any person of any age: this includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons, as well as men and women.

Who can commit a rape?

It can be anyone: a stranger, a friend, a family member, someone you know, a boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife or partner, or a group of people.

What should you do if you are raped?

Find a safe place and tell the first person who you trust what happened, especially if you need medical attention.

If you want to report the matter (but you don’t have to)

1. Go to the police station as soon as possible. If the police do not allow you to report the rape, DO NOT GIVE UP. You have a right to report the rape, so speak to the Station Commander, or go to another police station. Later on, you can make a complaint against the police officer that didn’t help you.
2. If you are hurt, first go to the hospital or doctor. Tell the doctor that you were raped so that you can get appropriate treatment. The police must also take you to the hospital so they can collect evidence left on your body/clothes.
3. If you want to report the matter to the police, then it is best not to shower/bath before you have been examined by a doctor. Do not throw away or wash the clothes you were wearing, as it is evidence of the crime.
4. If you change your clothes, keep the clothes you were wearing when the rape happened in a paper bag or wrap them in newspaper. Do not put them in a plastic packet as this can destroy evidence.
5. Do not eat or drink anything or take any medication before the doctor examines you. If you did, it is important that you tell the doctor who examines you what you have eaten or what medication you have taken.

Get the following from a doctor (even if you do not report the rape to the police)

1. An HIV test and Anti-Retroviral Treatment within 72 hours to prevent HIV infection. This treatment is called Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).
You must go back to the doctor for further HIV tests and take tablets every 28 days so that the treatment works properly.
You can ask that your rapist be tested for HIV/AIDS and that this status be disclosed to you.
2. Antibiotics to prevent you from getting Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
3. Morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy.
4. Clear instructions on how and when to take the different medications.
5. Referrals for support and counselling.

This post was developed as an informative tool for women. Please visit your nearest LRC office for further advice and assistance. Written by Sally Hurt

16 Days: The Vulnerability of Child Migrants

During 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, the Legal Resources Centre will be sharing the stories of survivors of gender based violence who fled their countries to seek asylum in South Africa. Many women, children and sexual and gender non-conforming persons endure horrific hardship, sexual persecution, assault, rape and discrimination in their countries. When they arrive in South Africa their hardship does not end. Some women experience sexual persecution while crossing the border, while others may experience oppression, intolerance and discrimination while trying to create a life in South Africa. When they enter the asylum seeker process, they often endure further persecution. These are their stories.

The vulnerability of child migrants

G was born in Malawi. She lived with her mother who is unemployed and very sick. Her mother could not take proper care of G, who would miss school to look after her mother; sometimes for more than 2 weeks at a time. Her father was working in South Africa and providing money for the family but it was not enough to cover the family’s basic needs. When she was 15, G’s father sent for her and her sister. She now lives with him in South Africa.

In January this year, G and her sister went back to Malawi to visit her mother; a trip that her father had arranged with the help of a truck driver. On their way back to South Africa, the truck driver made a stop at a garage to rest for the night. While her little sister was sleeping, the truck driver made advances at G who rejected them. The truck driver then tried forcing himself on her and she started screaming. This woke up her little sister, who hit him, which made the truck driver let G go. After that incident, the truck driver refused to give the sisters food or water and refused to stop the truck when the sisters wanted to use the bathroom. They did not tell anyone about this incident because the truck driver had threatened to kill their father.

A study of unaccompanied minors travelling across the border conducted by Save the Children in 2007 found that children are the most vulnerable group of people and more likely to be exploited by “guides”. More recent reports by UNICEF, operating in the border town of Musina, indicate that this vulnerability is ongoing. Their reports indicate that the dangers faced by unaccompanied children include being targeted by criminals and being vulnerable to sexual violence on the border. Guides were commonly the perpetrators of violence against the children and were the most likely group to elicit bribes from the children. The study found that 14% of children had been assaulted whilst attempting to cross the border.