Multinational corporations from the countries of the North, but also from the countries of the South (China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Morocco, etc.) have become increasingly active on the African continent over the last few years. China is playing an enormous and often negative role here when it comes to employee rights. Beyond this, markets are being regionalised in part. These trends have led to a deterioration of social standards and mounting precariousness of work and more and more informal jobs, as many of these companies and many of these markets do not place enough value on core labour standards and minimum social standards, while power constellations are leveraged in order to play off employees against one another in many countries, triggering a “race to the bottom”. Efforts to gain respect for labour and social standards thus pose an immense challenge to trade unions. The general loss in importance registered by the trade union movement and the purportedly weak position within global and regional value-creation chains along with fundamental struggles between market/profit and democracy/the common weal are continuing to weaken the trade unions, however. All these struggles are characterised by a massive imbalance in power – the trade unions are increasingly at the disadvantage. The reasons for this are predominantly of an external nature, but some are rooted within the trade union movement itself.
South African transnational companies (multinational corporations [MNCs]) often assume a dominant role on the continent’s markets. Frequently, they operate in the same sector (for instance commerce, the financial sector, tourism, food industry, construction, telecommunications) and are engaged in aggressive competition over customers spanning the entire continent. This war is waged above all by leveraging “labour” as a cost factor, in particular at the expense of the many female employees who are paid less, have worse prospects for career advancement and often face discrimination at the work place.
The aim is to use the establishment, implementation and continued development of MNC-wide employee representation bodies to put a stop to this “race to the bottom”, i.e. the war over the cheapest wages on the continent. At the same time, the conclusion of framework agreements with individual multinational companies should enable basic social and economic standards to be guaranteed for all employees – regardless of their country and gender.
A successful case of intervention, which was highly supported by the FES TU competence Centre, was the negotiation process between the management of Shoprite Checkers – a South African retail giant which operates in more than 15 African countries – and UNI Africa (from 2007 to 2010). This resulted in the final signing of a Global Framework Agreement (GFA) between the two parties in February 2010, in Cape Town recognising core labour and workers’ participation rights and establishing social dialogue. In addition to this, FES supports annual meetings with labour representatives from all countries in which Shoprite is active.
Similar structures and networks for Shop Stewards and Trade Unions were set up with the support of the FES TU Competence Centre for other South African Multinationals like retailer Pick n’ Pay, MASSMART and AngloGold Ashanti in collaboration with UNI-Africa and IndustriALL SSA (former ICEM SSA). GFA processes have been initiated or already been completed.