Victory for retail union in Malawi negotiating parental rights

Zanele Chakela

Victory for retail union in Malawi negotiating parental rights

The Commercial Industrial & Allied Workers Union (CIAWU) members at Game Stores in Malawi.

Trade unions in Malawi have made significant strides in the struggle for worker’s rights. In 2023, The Commercial Industrial & Allied Workers Union (CIAWU) led negotiations to address the conditions of service concerning maternity and paternity leave policies. The union achieved positive outcomes for their workers, who saw an increase in their previously allocated maternity leave benefits. Previously, workers were only entitled to three months of maternity leave, but through negotiations, the maternity leave period was extended to four months, marking a 30 per cent increase. In addition, non-birthing parents are now entitled to one-month paternity leave whereas previously, these parents were not granted leave. 

Malawian working parents have faced burdens due to inadequate parental leave policies. Parents often struggled to balance their professional responsibilities with their parental duties due to insufficient leave provisions. This can cause unnecessary anxiety. Parents found it difficult to build strong connections with their infants due to too little time off work. This can lead to a premature separation from their babies, which is not ideal for parent-child bonding. In addition to this, the unequal distribution of caregiving responsibilities further entrenched existing gender disparities within worker households where, in many cases, the burden of childcare fell unfairly on working mothers. This unequal division of labour perpetuated traditional gender roles. 

Non-birthing parents, such as fathers, faced the challenge of taking time away from work to care for their infants and to assist their partners with parental caregiving duties. The lack of paternity leave meant that many non-birthing parents struggled to find a balance between their professional lives and their desire to be actively involved in their children’s lives from the beginning. 

Unions in Malawi were aware of the added burden placed on their members due to the absence of adequate parental leave policies. Recognising the significance of addressing these challenges, unions negotiated with companies in the country. Through these efforts, they successfully advocated for improvements in parental leave policies, marking a pivotal moment in Malawi’s labour sector. This victory represents a significant step forward in ensuring that working parents have the support they need to balance their professional and caregiving responsibilities.

For the past 18 years, UNI Africa, in collaboration with the LRS, has convened the African Retail Shop Stewards’ Alliance, which brings together retail unions in sub-Saharan African countries to share their experiences and insights These unions represent thousands of workers employed by South African multinational retailers such as Shoprite, Pick n Pay, and Massmart. The information sharing encourages solidarity amongst member unions. Each participating union has the opportunity to report on their activities, successes, and challenges in bargaining and organising efforts.

The LRS provides company-specific research and information at the alliance meeting. This assistance enables unions to develop effective bargaining strategies tailored to the specific context of each company. Additionally, unions draw inspiration and learn from the strategy employed by other member unions, furthering their respective agendas. Historically, the LRS has advocated for gender equity and parental rights in the world of work, recognising that women constitute the majority of retail workers on the continent. As part of this advocacy, the LRS has produced valuable resources, such as the publication “Bargaining for Gender Equity,” which highlights the importance of gender equality in labour negotiations.

Moreover, the facilitated information sharing allows unions to benchmark their demands, particularly concerning parental rights. For instance, SACCAWU, South Africa’s retail union represented at the meeting, presented its model parental rights agreement and in so doing, inspired confidence among other unions in their efforts to fight for parental rights. This collaborative approach strengthens the collective bargaining power of unions and contributes to the advancement of workers’ rights across the African retail sector.

Malawi Massmart, Game, Shoprite and CIAWU representatives after an online meeting addressing parental rights

Reflecting on CIAWU’s journey with parental rights, Elina Nzumwa, Vice Chair Lady of CIAWU at the Women’s Desk, emphasised the importance of proactive advocacy:

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