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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Addresses by the COSATU 1st Deputy President, Joseph Nkosi at the SACTWU Conference

3 March 2006 Cape Town

Dear Comrades and Friends,

It is a great pleasure and honour to be asked to speak at this bargaining conference. We know you are meeting at a particularly difficult and challenging point in your industry's development, and therefore that of your union. Like any period of stress, this period holds both threats and opportunities. This Bargaining Conference must come up with strategies to ensure that the labour movement, your union and your industry expand and grow stronger in the coming years.

Just this week, the ANC won the local government elections across the country with a renewed two thirds majority. As always, COSATU played an important role in ensuring this victory, which we see as critical for the working class. After all, the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, has long made weakening the rights of workers a cornerstone of its overall elections platform.

We are, however, disturbed by the fact that the ANC could not maintain and consolidate the gains it made in the 2004 national and provincial elections in the Western Cape. All of us will give our reasons why this is the case. Chief amongst the reasons that would be advanced by many is the infighting within the ANC as well as management of the list conferences.

Workers, even though some of them may have voted the DA, must realise that the DA has only on agenda and that is to deliver to capital. The DA has made it clear that it will reduce workers' protections and make it much easier for the employers to fire workers.

They believe in reducing tariffs at all costs - they will do nothing to protect vulnerable industries like clothing and textiles.

The context for negotiations is also set by economic policy. The Presidency launched the so-called Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative for SA - shortened to ASGI-SA - explicitly to ensure that the majority of South Africans benefit from the current growth spurt, which is based essentially on a combination of high commodity prices and low nominal interest rates. Clothing is a priority sector in this context, in line with agreements we reached in the Alliance.

Real shared growth would require a substantial restructuring of social programmes and the economy in four ways. We have to support labour-intensive activities, like the clothing industry, that can create decent employment on a mass scale. We must ensure more equitable access to capital and productive assets, especially through agrarian reform and transformation of the financial sector. We need to improve government services to the poor, with greater efforts to ensure they open up employment opportunities and stimulate the economy. Finally, we have to invest in human capital to enable young people in particular to take advantage of economic and social opportunities.

Judged against these requirements, ASGI-SA falls far short despite its laudable aims. It reflects the recognition of all the major actors in society, including much of business, that the current inequitable and exclusionary growth is not sustainable. But it attempts to bring together contradictory recommendations without imposing a coherent strategy.

ASGI-SA combines some contradictory elements. It includes COSATU's demands for economic transformation based on sector strategies and driven by a strong state with increased public investment. But it also incorporates the demand from business for deregulation, including some weakening of the labour laws, and lower costs for government services. In clothing, in particular, it explicitly calls for support for outsourcing to CMT enterprises - the notorious sweatshops that take away decent work from our members.

COSATU's position paper on ASGI-SA can be made available to comrades. In effect, COSATU has recognised the virtues of some elements in ASGI-SA, but has demanded that the state and the Alliance embark on a development strategy as a context for ASGI-SA. Neither the Alliance nor the state has so far made any effort to set up processes to achieve this aim.

Finally, we have identified two major threats to the labour laws: the efforts to reduce protection for workers in the name of deregulating small business, and the potential elimination of the labour courts through the Superior Courts Bill.

The Presidency in particular has essentially bought into the contention that labour laws, together with tax and health regulations, impose excessive burdens on small business. Its own research, however, shows that bargaining councils do not impose undue burdens on small and micro enterprise. Nonetheless, based primarily on a "think piece" by Halton Cheadle, it is currently exploring measures that would make dismissals easier for small enterprise and limit workers' access to redress for unfair labour practices. Because so many clothing employers have less than 50 workers, they would largely fall under these proposals.

So far, the government does not have fixed proposals to change the labour laws. However, it is obviously important that COSATU and SACTWU engage strongly to protect workers' rights.

A more immediate problem is the threat to eliminate the labour appeals court, at least, as part of the restructuring of the superior courts in general. Clearly, specialist knowledge of labour law and the national jurisdiction of the labour courts are critical for a functional labour-relations system. Nonetheless, the state has argued that the Constitution does not provide for more than one appeals court. Yet the Bill provides for other specialised appeals courts, for instance for taxation.

The Bill is now before Parliament, where COSATU will engage strongly. In addition, the CEC decided urgently to approach the Presidency and the relevant ministries. If necessary, however, we will have to resort to power.

Comrades and friends,

The current controversy over the labour laws points to three important conclusions.

First, it underscores the importance of building and strengthening bargaining councils in all our industries. Here, we know that SACTWU has taken a lead. The development of modern sectoral negotiations in the industry is a major gain for all workers, and one that we must protect strongly. In particular, we need to discuss how we can ensure representivity across the country, and on that basis enforcement of agreements throughout the industry.

Second, it points to the need to come up with real solutions for vulnerable industries like clothing and textiles. Otherwise, no matter what the laws on the books, the flood of imports forces workers into a race to the bottom. We cannot expect South African workers to compete with the worst-paid, most oppressed workers in the world. We cannot and will not give up decent conditions and job security for our members. We need strategies in the workplace but also for the industry, working with government and if possible employers, to develop vibrant and growing industries in order to protect our jobs.

In this context, COSATU is disappointed with the government's failure to introduce safeguard measures and a plan to develop the clothing industry further. The agreement with China was worked out by officials without adequate consultation and communication with stakeholders. We need to claim our right to participate in determining the future of our industries.

Our Central Committee last year discussed an industrial strategy that will grow decent work and ensure greater equity. This bargaining conference should consider how the ideas debated there can shape our engagements at sectoral level.

Finally, the threat to the labour laws points up the importance of building the labour movement and solidarity. As always, our only protection is to organise the unorganised and ensure militant defence of our gains - in the factories, in the industry and across the economy. Central to achieving these aims is the process of organisational development, which must ensure worker control, internal democracy and improved service to members.

At the same time, as SACTWU itself has demonstrated, we must take forward our recruitment strategy so that the restructuring of the economy does not lead to a decline in workers' organisation and unity.

We know that the clothing industry remains one of the worst paid sectors in the formal economy. Workers in clothing fall into the lowest paid in the union, even if they are skilled and experienced. At the same time, workers face persistent insecurity about their jobs. It is only through defence of the labour laws and a real development strategy for the clothing and textiles industry that we can win a better deal for our members.

Comrades and friends,

COSATU has resolved to revive the living wage campaign. That means we have to fight to set new goal posts, not only for wages, but also for benefits like healthcare and pensions as well as support for people infected and affected by HIV. We hope you will take these issues into account in your deliberations.

The clothing workers have proven through decades of struggle that they can take forward the claims of the working class. This bargaining council must address a host of difficult issues. But we are confident that you will define claims, strategies and tactics that will advance our cause.