Collective bargaining and gender equality in South Africa

Nosipho Twala

Collective bargaining and gender equality in South Africa

nosipho twala_LRS

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is the term used to describe the process of negotiation between workers and employers and their representatives concerning any issue related to terms and conditions of employment or any other matter of mutual interest to the workers and the employer.

C154, the ILO convention concerning the promotion of collective bargaining, defines collective bargaining as follows:


 …the term “collective bargaining” extends to all negotiations that take place between an employer, a group of employers or one or more employers’ organisations, and one or more workers’ organisations, for: (a) determining working conditions and terms of employment; and/or 
(b) regulating relations between employers and workers; and/or
(c) regulating relations between employers or their organisations and a workers’ organisation or workers’ organisations.


Why is gender important in collective bargaining?

Men are more likely to be in paid employment than women in South Africa. According to Statistics South Africa,
44 in every 100 employed individuals are women and the statistics haven’t changed much over a decade. Still, women are far better off today than they were 63 years ago when they marched against unjust pass laws and their contributions at work should be valued.

In addition to other strategies, unions can tap into collective bargaining to promote equality at the workplace. Collective bargaining can address many of the deep-seated misconceptions about the role of women workers. The collective bargaining agendas found in many countries contain an equality agenda that incorporates women’s concerns. However, the equality agenda is often restricted and narrow. The predominant focus in such bargaining agendas is on women’s reproductive role, or, more broadly, work-family reconciliation (Kravaritou 1997). When it extends beyond this, the measures designed to ‘assist’ women, for example, skills training, are more likely to get on or stay on the bargaining agenda than the measures to tackle gendered structures and wage discrimination. Consequently, approaches to equality may reflect a ’female deficit’ model, which leads to a short equality agenda that’s seen as requiring ’women-friendly’ provisions to overcome ’women’s disadvantage’ and to help them to adapt to and maintain an imperfect status quo.

In contrast, a longer equality agenda as described by British academic and feminist, Cynthia Cockburn, calls for the transformation of organisations. This requires changes in organisational and occupational structures, cultures, practices, norms and value systems in order to accommodate women. ‘Adding women on‘ to existing agendas encourages a focus on ’women’s measures’. In practice, women’s measures can be double-edged for gender equality. Some measures might, for example, reinforce the premise that women have and should continue to have primary responsibility for childcare and other dependent care, and consequently a ‘less committed’ attachment to employment than men. On that analysis, enhanced maternity or childcare leave for women, although facilitating women’s continued participation in waged work, may be problematic for equality. Provisions targeted at men, for example, paid paternity leave, which could help foster a greater sharing of social and occupational responsibilities and help challenge the ’male norm’ in the organisation of paid work, might be considered to potentially offer more in terms of gender equality. Measures which don’t focus on the parent as the problem, but rather focus on the problems posed can have a similar impact.


Bargaining for gender equality – Gender equality should be central to everything we do 


  • Collective bargaining can be used as an equality tool for promoting equality bargaining. Collective bargaining and gender equality should be interlinked in key documents such as labour laws and codes of good practice, collective bargaining agreements, equality clause and anti-discrimination legislation.
  • Collective bargaining can be a powerful means to narrow the gender pay gap, address low pay, upgrade the value of women’s work and provide arrangements that allow for balancing work and family life.
  • Promotes dual and targeted approach to equality bargaining: Gender-specific topics and agreements, for example, equal pay for work of equal value, maternity protection and gender-based violence, can be mainstreamed in all collective agreements.
  • Freedom of association is a key gender equality issue: Feminisation of unions and employment, including precarious work, is the key to equality bargaining because it means that trade unions matter to women.

What will it take for trade unions to make collective bargaining a mechanism for the active promotion of gender equality at work?


Trade unions can play an important role in improving the conditions of women and advancing gender equality in employment. Union bargaining agendas have traditionally been on male-biased priorities, but with more women entering the labour market, unions began to recognise the importance of engaging with their concerns at the workplace. This wasn’t just in the interest of gender equality, according to Professor Linda Dickens of the University of Warwick, but also as an essential element of union revitalisation strategies.

Harnessing collective bargaining as a mechanism for the promotion of gender equality implies a radical change in the traditional platforms and approaches of much collective bargaining and poses challenges to the existing nature of many trade unions.

The nature of the challenge is going beyond “adding on women”. Collective bargaining is an additional tool for the promotion of equality. It requires a more radical transformation of unions than simply adding women on to existing bargaining agendas and as union members.



Collective agreements
Assess whether gender equality is strongly supported by collective bargaining in your workplace. What do you need to do to have a collective bargaining agreement that responds to all the needs and interests of women workers in your workplace?
Identifying gender issues in the collective agreement

What are the issues that affect female workers in your workplace? Are these issues different from those that affect male workers? Do they affect a large number of workers?

Bonus tips 

  • Promoting gender equality in employment doesn’t end with the signing of a collective agreement. Follow up to ensure the awarded rights are implemented.
  • Ensure that the negotiated policies, rights and benefits are communicated to all workers, including non-permanent workers.
  • Collect data regularly to monitor the number of women and men that are hired, promoted and dismissed, as well as the number of workers in all job categories, salary levels and training programmes.
  • Regularly monitor the implementation and effectiveness of collective bargaining policies, rights and benefits. Think forward to what can be achieved during the next round of collective bargaining.
  • Deal with equality issues in education and training programmes.
  • Publicise the work done your union has done on behalf of women as an organising strategy. Also, publicise the union’s objectives for bargaining and the strategies for achieving them.

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