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PROFILE: Divided we beg, united we bargain, says Eswatini union

14 December, 2021Some of the pillars that are key to building a strong union are workers unity and collective bargaining, says the Amalgamated Trade Union of Swaziland (ATUSWA) which is affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union. The union organizing strategy is anchored on fighting for the unity of workers, workers’ rights, and living wages. In that sense, the union is living up to its slogan: Divided we beg, united we bargain.


From Global Worker No. 2 November 2021

Country: eSwatini

Union: Amalgamated Trade Union of Swaziland (ATUSWA) 

Text: Elijah Chiwota

Formed in 2013 from a merger of three unions including the Swaziland Processing and Allied Workers Union (SPRAWU) and MQAWUS, ATUSWA has 4,000 members, 65 per cent of whom are women. 

After a turbulent foundation, ATUSWA, is beating the odds, and continuing to grow its membership by organizing more workers in the textile and garment, and other manufacturing sectors. 

A typical ATUSWA recruitment and organizing drive involves going to factory premises, waiting for the lunch break, and then persuading workers to join the union. Although this strategy is limited in a Covid-19 lockdown situation, the union is adapting and using other methods that include mobile apps and social media. For instance, the union has developed an app that links workers to union documents and core labour laws. Further, the union successfully campaigned for the payment of benefits to workers who were retrenched because of the pandemic. This resulted in over 20,000 workers benefiting from the Eswatini National Provident Fund.

The union says it visits workplaces regularly to investigate and confront employers when workers report violations. Xolile Dlamini from Swazi Africa Textile who has been an ATUSWA member for five years explains why joining the union is one of the best decisions she has made:

“Non-unionized workers are ill-treated and insulted. The employers put us under a lot of pressure to meet targets that sometimes you feel like crying. And the union is the organization to go to when you feel abused. Every so often the employers tell you that you will do whatever they ask you to do. But once we become union members, we are able to tell them to stop the verbal abuse and to respect our rights.”

As a tactic to attract and retain members, the union is campaigning for permanent jobs, and against the employment of workers through labour brokers. Additionally, the union want minimum wages of at least E3500 (US$229), rental housing policies that protect workers, and unemployment benefit funds against Covid-19 job losses. 

“The workers of Eswatini must unite and fight for a living wage and decent working conditions. As we campaign for living wages, we are demanding wage increases that cover the increasing cost of living and price hikes,”

said ATUSWA secretary general Wander Mkhonza.

Retaining members is not always easy as some workers join the union and leave after a few months. To deal with this the union is considering increasing its benefits to members and negotiating agency shop agreements that benefit all workers. This can attract those workers who are reluctant to join the union.

Although there is potential for the union to increase the membership often it faces resistance from some employers. For example, after organizing 1200 workers at Juris Manufactures, the company only submitted dues for 482 members. The employers behave this way even when the union has signed recognition agreements. 

ATUSWA also supports labour law reforms that will protect unions from union busting and bashing by employers. According to the union, Taiwanese-owned FTM Garments continue to violate trade union rights especially the right to organize and collective bargaining, while other employers are dragging the union to the courts. Currently the union has five pending court cases on recognition agreements whilst other cases are at the Commission for Mediation Arbitration and Conciliation. According to the union these cases are an attempt by employers to bankrupt the union as they take long, and the legal fees are expensive.

Currently, the union’s collective bargaining forums are not centralized, and the union would like to change this. In proposed amendments to the Industrial Relations Act, the union wants the collective bargaining forums to be centralized as this is beneficial to workers.

The union sees workers education as fundamental to trade union development and the capacity development of its members. To this end the union has trained four educators and intends to increase the numbers to commit at least 20 per cent of its funds to education.

ATUSWA is part of the unions and civil society organizations that are demanding democratic reforms and an end to Africa’s last absolute monarchy in Eswatini which is ruled by King Mswati III. The union believes the struggles of the community are also the struggles of workers.

“ATUSWA is demanding change. We want democracy, freedom, and equality. Pro-democracy MPs, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who are facing ‘terrorism’ charges must be released and freedom of expression respected. National wealth cannot be in the hands of the king alone, but must be shared equitably,”

says Jabu Chauke, ATUSWA, 1st deputy secretary general and senior shop steward at garment manufacturer Fashion International Swaziland.