Neoliberal globalisation has had devastating consequences in Africa and other parts of the global South. The opening up of markets affected nascent domestic industries as they could not compete against inflows of cheap goods. Privatisation and commercialisation of state-owned resulted in massive job losses while the deregulation of labour markets saw the removal of important protections such as minimum wages and basic worker rights. Multinational companies increased their operations in various countries, often playing states and workers against each other, to drive down labour, social and environmental standards. Competition for markets and the push for increased profits saw a shift away from permanent workers with decent wages and conditions of employment, in favour of more precarious forms of employment without protections and benefits. In this context trade unions became weaker as they lost members due to the restructuring process. They were also exposed for lack of capacity to respond to the neoliberal restructuring processes.
The Global Labour University (GLU) programme was introduced in 2002 (2007 in South Africa) to offer post-graduate studies for trade union officials, leaders and members with undergraduate degrees. The idea was to equip them with academic, theoretical and research skills to cope with the challenges posed by neoliberal restructuring. GLU programmes have been launched at universities in South Africa, Brazil, India, Germany and the US. FES is one of the key supporters of GLU. Apart from the post-graduate studies, the GLU initiative has also introduced short-term courses under the name of ENGAGE, to cater for participants from the labour movement that do not have university degrees or are unable to be absent from work for year-long post-graduate programmes. The GLU programme in South Africa, based at the University of Witwatersrand, has already run two ENGAGE programmes in 2013 and 2015. Furthermore, the ENGAGE programme at Wits provides for participants to undertake research and other capacity-building projects upon completion of their studies, as part of transferring or ploughing back the knowledge and skills gained in the training to their unions back home. So far only one Transfer Project was undertaken in 2014, following the 2013 ENGAGE programme.
Participants from the GLU programmes – Post-graduate studies, ENGAGE and Transfer – have mostly played strategic and constructive roles back in their unions after completing their studies. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the GLU Alumni have established a research institute to provide research and capacity-building support to trade unions. In Botswana, a product of the ENGAGE programme convinced his union to set up a union training college to build capacity among trade union members. Also, through the Transfer Project, participants from the 2013 ENGAGE programme conducted research into the situation of precarious work in their countries that provided vital data and recommendations about possible strategies for enhancing organising among these vulnerable groups of workers.