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Upon arriving to one of the hundreds of factories SACTWU represents, I was struck by how humble the workspace was. The building resembled a garage, with a metal door pushed up to the top of the ceiling revealing two tiers of concrete floors. On the first floor, no more than a dozen women were at work sewing. A few looked up from their machines as we made our way to the stairs, likely both because an organizer was here for a meeting and because two young Americans were tagging along with him. We walked up the stairs and made our way to the second floor – a balcony that could overlook the workers. This floor was divided into three sections; a small office for the supervisors, some clothing racks displaying finished pieces, and two foldable tables with plastic tablecloths.

Monay, the organizer who brought us along to shadow, handles relations between factory workers and their employees. Today, he came to the factory to hear the workers’ concerns.

The meeting commenced once all the women had made their way to the factory tables. Monay introduced us as the “American interns” and all the women sheepishly waved and welcomed us. To start, Monay asked to hear about any ongoing concerns. None of the women spoke up. He called on a worker. She shrugged. Finally, a woman raised her hand. The woman spoke softly, as if whatever concern she was raising was no issue at all. The meeting took place in Afrikaans, with Monay stopping every few minutes to explain what was being discussed. I learned that the workers’ paychecks were switched this year from weekly to monthly. But, since months vary in length, they were being shorted one week of pay on longer months. Not only that, but the factory recently laid off half the workers leaving the remaining staff to do double the work for the same pay.

I wondered how I may raise these issues if I was in their position. Their attitude toward their salary seemed almost indifferent, while internally I was enraged. I could not understand the calmness with which they spoke. Midway through the meeting, I watched as workers began to stand up and casually leave, trickling out until only one woman stayed to talk with Monay.

I left the factory confused and frustrated. A few days later while accompanying a different organizer, the workers ignored the meeting all together and we left minutes after arriving.

Are these women really indifferent to their salaries? Do they not trust the work of organizers from SACTWU? Or is there something else going on?

I realize now, what I may have first mistaken as indifference is in reality desensitization. As workers who already are mistreated with poor wages, for years or decades on end, they do not feel the same anger I’d imagine they might when discussing their concerns. Beyond that, I’ve learned that management at factories may be discouraging workers from speaking out. Fortunately, the organizers at SACTWU are persistent. Between Monay and his colleague – who are amongst dozens of organizers – they hold 89 meetings with various workers a month. I’m hopeful that even if addressing concerns yields slow or small changes, there are 89 chances a month for that change to come.