JANUARY 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 1
Textile unions protest Canadian shoe company in South Africa
by Patricia Perkins
A 5-million member labor federation is mounting a protest against the world's largest shoemaker, Bata International, because of the company's labor practices in South Africa.
At its annual convention held in Tokyo in November, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation moved to denounce conditions at Bata's Kwazulu shoe plant near Durban.
About 700 workers at the plant, all of them black women, are paid wages of only $12-$18 per week. This amounts to "about 300'/0 of the rates recommended" by the International Labor Organization, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Canadian government, says the South African union representing many of the workers.
The Toronto-based Bata has refused to recognize the South African National Union of Textile Workers. And according to the union, the company has engaged in a number of other objectionable practices: union activists have been assaulted by plant managers; employees have been compelled to work unpaid overtime or forfeit lunch breaks as "punishment," and Bata has refused to pay sick leave benefits.
In February 1982, workers at the plant went on strike to protest the firing of a woman employee. The grounds for firing: "she had stated in a union meeting that her foreman had burnt her arm with molten rubber," according to a union statement.
The following month, a union organizer at Bata was arrested by police and detained for five hours. During his confinement, "he was struck on the head with the butt of a gun, kicked several times in the ribs, forced to stand on one foot until he collapsed and then threatened with being shot on sight if he was ever found in the area again," the union said.
After the South African union complained to the Canadian embassy in Pretoria, an embassy official visited the Kwazulu plant in May. The official "found nothing to disavow the alarming reports," according to the Canadian press.
Bata International owns 66% of the Kwazulu plant, with the remainder owned by the Kwazulu Development Corporation, an agency of the South African government. South Africa represents Bata's third largest production site and market, behind India and Pakistan. Worldwide, the company produces 250 million pairs of shoes a year, operating in 95 countries and employing about 85,000 people.
Bata disclaims responsibility for the labor abuses at its South African plant. "I don't think we can put any pressure on" the local management, says Sergio Cesari, a Bata executive. "If something illegal has been done there, surely someone will bring it to the attention of the local authorities."
The International Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers may attract the attention of more than just "the local authorities." The federation, through its Canadian affiliate, has contacted Bata headquarters in Toronto. If the company does not respond favorably to the union's complaints, the federation is considering imposing an international boycott on Bata.