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Tackling inequality in value chains

Trade unions are discussing new and bold approaches to bargaining and organising along value chains in Africa. Now that's the power of solidarity in action!
UNI Global Union in Africa coordinates three trade union networks organised around multinational retailers in Africa. These shop steward alliances include, by design, officials and elected worker leaders of UNI’s trade union affiliates in Africa. Five years ago, UNI secured a Global Framework Agreement (GFA) with Shoprite-Checkers, the largest retailer in Africa.

The Trade Union Competency Centre (TUCC), a labour focused, regional structure of the Fredrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) foundation in Africa, recognised the strategic importance of these networks and supported UNI’s efforts to build these networks on the continent from the beginning.

The Labour Research Service (LRS), a membership-based labour support organisation, acted as a resource to the UNI retail networks from inception, producing company analysis of the South African listed multinationals to inform the discussions and strategies of the networks. The primary target group of the project is UNI/Africa and its affiliates covered by the Multinational Corporations (MNC) retail networks. The three South African MNCs (Shoprite, Pick n Pay and Massmart/Walmart) reportedly employs over 250,000 workers on the continent.

The work

In addition to the partnerships already mentioned, the LRS, with the support of UNI, entered into a partnership with the DGB-BW. The theme was that of tackling inequality in value chains. The project set out to build on the potential of the three retail MNC networks by introducing the affiliate trade unions to value chain analysis. The work is concerned with developing an understanding of value chain analysis within trade unions in Africa, but more importantly, to translate value chain analysis for trade unions and to facilitate reflection on the implications of value chain analysis for two key functions of trade unions – collective bargaining and organising.

This area of engagement is unique in Africa. We aren’t aware of similar initiatives on the continent. The focus on retail is pertinent in the context of the increasingly dominant role of large retailers in value chains. The work is engaging different layers in the trade unions, from shop stewards on the ground to trade union leaders and officials. This work brings the three MNC networks together into the same space. 

The work of translating value chain analysis into a tool for trade unions on the ground, at different levels of development in their national settings, is groundbreaking. Fichter (2015) identifies three levels of trade union activity in relation to value chains; (1) the local, (2) sectoral and national and (3) the global level. He argues that it is at the nexus of these three levels that trade unions can engage most effectively with MNCs and value chains.

Our work is weighted towards building competencies and engagement at the local level, although the sectoral and global levels are present in the form of the global union, the company networks and a global framework agreement. It’s also true that value chain analysis, by its nature, prompts trade unions to question the jurisdictional boundaries, both real and perceived, that limit their vision to a sector or a country.

Our contention that the local level is a crucial arena of engagement is supported by the observation that “…as broadly-based research on GFAs has shown, the largely cooperative negotiation of such agreements only translates into effective implementation when there is trade union involvement and activity in the global value chain at sites beyond the home country of the lead firm (Fichter and McCallum 2015; Fichter, et al. 2012).” (Fichter, 2015).

There’s a complementary learning from these networks; the role of the union in the country where the company is based is decisive in securing a GFA. Notwithstanding the complexity of concluding a GFA with a large multinational, the Shoprite experience suggests that the efforts of champions in the union of the ‘home’ country are important. In the Shoprite example, UNI and the ‘home’ union, SACCAWU, actively assisted unions in other countries of operation to establish shop steward structures in the company.

It’s fair to say that the work of translating value chain analysis into a useful tool for trade unions on the ground is relatively uncharted territory. The primary application of value chain analysis, outside of academic theory building and corporate strategy development, has been industrial policy development. Value chain analysis as it was originally conceived and subsequently developed didn’t incorporate labour as an important dimension and the approach isn’t necessarily ready to wear for a trade union audience. Many of the value chain inspired campaigns to date involve leveraging large brand names located in developed countries and are driven by a mix of global and national unions and activist NGOs in the context of well-developed consumer lobbying and advocacy formations.

Early indicators of the influence of the work

Although we are only half way into a three-year cycle there are early signs of this work taking hold among the role players.

UNI Global Union is committed to the work and understands the possibilities for union building through solidarity. The focus on value chains has been incorporated into the standing agendas of the annual meetings of each of the three networks.

There is a perceptible openness to ideas about renewing bargaining and organising strategies on the part of the participating unions. This is a particularly encouraging dynamic and is not a given. As one participant put it, albeit rather dramatically:

 “It was as if we were driving on the road at night without lights and now you (this focus) has come to light the way.”

The participating unions are surfacing immense knowledge about the company and its operations. The participating unions experimented with mapping local value chains, from store level and broadening their analysis to incorporate more role players in the value chain. This is a brand new concept for many of these unions.

The participating unions are already displaying evidence of acting on this new or renewed understanding. We find that some unions have already established footholds in other parts of the value chain, while others are actively targeting new sites of organisation. Some of these stories describe very modest gains, while others suggest more substantial engagement. 

In the process of engaging with value chain analysis, an affiliate in Zambia identified a large store in the capital city, Lusaka, was a mustering point (a quasi-distribution centre) for goods being imported from South Africa into the country for onward distribution to the stores there.

An inspiring story from the union in Swaziland emerged this year. The groundwork for the organising successes which the story describes predate our work, but there is undoubtedly a linkage. The union used the existing GFA to gain access to workplaces, specifically a clause that outlines the commitment by both UNI (and its affiliates) and company management to popularise the GFA. A GFA is, of course, a response to modern value chains and the geographical spread of production and operations that characterise modern-day value chains. 

This work is providing us with a practical voyage of discovery as we attempt to repurpose value chain analysis for trade unions of varying degrees of development and trade unionists on the ground. Many of these unions operate in contexts where many parts of the value chain are often situated outside of their national borders, making the links harder to discern.


LRS Bargaining Indicators (Page 45) | Value chain analysis as a tool for renewing trade union bargaining and organising strategies