ITUC OnLine – August 28, 2007

Spotlight on Marie Josée Lokongo Bosiko, Vice President of the UNTC (National Union of Congolese Workers)

Brussels, 28 August 2007, (ITUC OnLine): Marie Josée Lokongo Bosiko is the Vice President of the UNTC (National Union of Congolese Workers) (1). She talks about the obstacles in the way of Congolese women trying to assert themselves in the workplace and the trade union movement, and shares her formula for overcoming them. She also tells us about how the UNTC is fighting AIDS and attracting informal economy workers to the union movement.

What are the main difficulties faced by Congolese women wanting to become trade unionists?

The first obstacle is gaining acceptance from men, who believe that a woman’s place is in the home, not a trade union. I got involved in the trade union movement when I was very young. We were afraid of men back then. But we have to work together to ensure that women can take their rightful place in unions. People have to understand that a union with many women members is a strong union, because having women taking part in union activities and recruiting other women is a huge asset..

Unequal access to trade union education and training is another problem facing women workers. Most training opportunities are given to men, without the 30% quota for women’s participation being respected. Also, married women must have advance permission from their husband to take part in courses outside the country. The Congolese Family Code requires this in its Article 448. The Family Code actually stipulates that a woman must receive her husband’s permission to do anything of any consequence. We have to teach women how to circumvent these problems. It’s important to be well organised, because if you go home after a union meeting and your husband sees that the children have been left unattended, he’s not going to want you to go to the next meeting. So we ask women to reconcile their roles as a wife, a mother and a worker. As a trade unionist who worked my way up from the grassroots to the level of vice president, I’m in a position to say that reconciling these roles is possible. We are, of course, fighting for amendment of all the legal dispositions which are contrary to the rights of women.

Do your husband and family support your trade union work?

Yes. As long as it is accepted that a woman is faithful and does her job well, there is no reason to stop her from being an activist, because her husband, her family and her community all share in the fruit of her work as a unionist. People come to me, for example, because they know that I’m in charge of the UNTC’s AIDS project. I give advice to young people, we show films to educate and raise awareness, etc. Everyone comes to ask me questions or share their concerns about one symptom or another. I reassure them. I tell them that having AIDS is not the end of the world. I encourage them to take the test and if the result is positive to come back and see me for advice and information, so that I can put their minds at ease. Once you know you are HIV positive, you can take the medication, follow the advice and still live for a long time.

What action is the UNTC taking to combat AIDS?

The UNTC is presently focusing on prevention. We have trained 45 UNTC employees to work as peer educators. They raise awareness about HIV, modes of transmission and means of prevention. They encourage people to undertake voluntary testing.

We have also trained 400 members to act as peer educators within their workplaces. They devote their lunch breaks to raising awareness among their fellow workers. They also help, by means of dialogue, to prevent discrimination and stigmatisation. Each peer educator is also given condoms to distribute during awareness raising activities, although we insist on abstinence as the best form of prevention, especially among young people, because they feel free to do whatever they like when we distribute condoms, and they don’t always use them properly.

We have also taken our fight against AIDS into the informal economy. We tell informal economy workers about the centres they can go to for testing or treatment. The UNTC peer educators can provide them with condoms and antiretroviral drugs (ARV); we explain to them that ARV drugs have to be taken for life.

How do you organise the informal economy?

We have set up women’s committees in the 64 markets of the capital, Kinshasa, to teach the workers about trade unions. The committees explain, for example, that many of the problems they have with the various authorities can be avoided by joining a union. Problems with the authorities are very common in the informal economy, where the taxes are not set according to clear rules, there are no employment contracts or social protection – in short, everything is done outside the law. Through social dialogue, we support better working conditions for the vendors.

We also try to organise informal economy workers through developing the “mutualist” culture. Through this, they have been able through their collective commitment to build up a mutual health fund. It’s vital, because for the moment they earn very little, are not paid on set dates, and don’t know which way to turn when they fall ill. By joining the UNTC’s mutual health fund they can benefit from cut price treatment. We also have our own clinic that can be attended by members of the UNTC or other unions and their families at a price they can afford.

Do you provide any other services to informal economy workers?

Information and training. Apart from teaching them about the benefits of a union, we also offer practical training on how to manage a budget for example. We teach them how to keep their books, with the incomings and outgoings. We also encourage them to form cooperatives, to make it easier to obtain financing. The UNTC is sometimes able to provide them with a small loan, in the form of a micro-credit. We have a piece of land in the province of Bas-Congo, for example, not far from Kinshasa, and are working it in partnership with rural communities. We provide them with cassava seed and the UNTC and the workers share the profits from the harvest. The initial funding for this activity came from a small fish-farming cooperative we set up in another region.

Elsewhere, in Bandoudou, we financed the purchase of a bike by a group of informal economy workers. They are using it to offer a bike taxi service. Whoever borrows the bike has to pay a daily rental fee. S/he can keep any earnings in excess of that; if the earnings are lower, s/he signs an IOU. By applying this rental system, the UNTC will eventually be able to recover the investment made to buy the bike.

What type of action do you carry out in favour women workers?

A women’s committee is set up in every company where our union is represented. Its role is to channel all the problems specific to women workers and to discuss them in the meetings with the employers. Our best defenders are ourselves. If there is no female shop steward, the problems specific to women will not be well presented. The women’s committee may, for example, decide to set up a mutual fund within their company to help each other out in case of a birth or a death, so as not to have to bother the employer too much. The employer also benefits from having a women’s committee in the company, because productivity increases when women don’t have problems at work.

The women’s committees are also in charge of increasing the membership base. Our motto is “one for ten”: one new member has to try to recruit 10 more. The chairs of the women’s committee from each company come together to form a provincial committee. They help us to formulate national demands addressing women’s issues.

What are the main issues highlighted by the women’s committees?

The biggest issue is maternity. In the past, it was not uncommon for women to give birth twice a year, for example, in March and then again in December. The employers would complain; they didn’t want to hire women because they came with problems: the time off during pregnancy, the medical checkups, the baby’s vaccinations, and so on. Employers were fed up with it all. A solution had to be found. As a union, we teach our members about reproductive health and birth spacing. We use the four “Ts” – too early, too close together, too many and too late – to advise women what they should avoid. Disregarding the four “Ts” can be life threatening. The aim of this training, imparted by the company women’s committees, is to promote better birth spacing and better results in companies.

The union is also fighting to protect maternity rights. It is a crucial ITUC recommendation, because many people do not understand the issues at stake. We explain the importance of maternity protection for society, for the employer, in the home, for the government and for the child. It’s a message that has to be repeated to the government and employers alike, as well as to the workers themselves. We have to fight for the ratification of ILO Convention 183 on maternity. We have a female Labour and Social Affairs Minister at the moment and she is keen to defend women’s interests. We have met with her to urge her to push for DR Congo’s ratification of this international convention.

What about sexual harassment?

It’s a major problem. We urge women to report any cases of this nature. It was, in fact, the theme of our International Women’s Day campaign this year: “No to sexual violence against women”. If a man is reported as soon as he starts to harass a woman he will think twice about it, he’ll understand that it isn’t right. The perpetrators of harassment should be punished, and once they are, the problem will perhaps diminish. But women can also be harassers. We advise women how to respond when confronted with sexual harassment.

The news coverage about DR Congo in the international press is most often linked to the war. Is the UNTC present in a region like Ituri?

We are present across the whole country, through our 64 trade unions. We receive reports from our offices in these regions about cases of rape, slaughters, … but we don’t have the means to go there and to evaluate the workers’ suffering. We are communicating in writing and by phone and email at the moment, but as soon as we have the finances we’ll visit the eastern province.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

(1) The UNTC is one of the three ITUC affiliated organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.