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: http://berthafoundation.org/