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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Zwelinzima Vavi`s input to the Daily Dispatch/Fort Hare Dialogues

5 September 2012

Thank you very much to the Daily Dispatch and University of Fort Hare for inviting me to speak at this dialogue.

It is a particular honour to be able, for the second time this year, to join my comrade of so many years, Emma Mashinini, one of the living legends of our revolutionary workers’ movement, and to have the opportunity once again to urge everyone to read her excellent book - Strikes have followed me all my Life.

Let me also greet Richard Pithouse, one of our most progressive academics who has never shied away from confronting some of the harsh realities of capitalism in South Africa.

Throughout her life, Comrade Emma has never stopped fighting for the trade unions, democracy and justice, and to liberate all South Africans from the chains of colonialism, apartheid and capitalism.

She began as a shop steward for the Garment Workers’ Union in 1959, and went on to help form the shop-workers’ union CCAWUSA in 1975, the forerunner of today’s SACCAWU.

These were amongst the most exploited and abused workers then, and I am sure that Ma Emma would agree that, despite the advances we’ve made since 1994, those two groups of workers still face challenges similar to those she confronted in those years.

Clothing and textile workers face constant threats of retrenchments, with the relentless flood of cheap imports from Asia, produced by workers who are even more ruthlessly exploited than in South Africa.

The employers keep cynically using the threat of Chinese competition to try to push down wages even lower level than the pathetic amounts they are paying now, as little as R150 and R280 per week. Some are already blatantly refusing to pay the wages negotiated collectively at the bargaining councils.

SACCAWU members are bearing the brunt of another huge challenge to the labour movement - casualisation. 42% of jobs in retail and hospitality are casualised.

Many are employed by labour brokers, these modern human traffickers, who have waged war on decent work. They have driven down workers’ wages and conditions of employment and robbed thousands of any job security. They do not create employment but replace secure jobs in their ‘client companies’ with temporary and casual workers, who they can get rid of through a phone call to the labour broker.

Shop, hotel and catering workers toil for all sorts of anti-social hours, struggling to get to work early in the morning and risking travelling home late at night - and all for poverty pay. The minimum wage in the wholesale and retail sectors ranges from R2006-R2299 for a general assistant to R4469-R5489 for a junior manager.

Yet recently retired Pick n Pay CEO, Nick Badminton, left the company with R18, 643,400 in his pocket, and in 2010 Shoprite CEO Whitey Basson took taking home a staggering R627 530 000 in salary, perks and share options, the highest-ever monthly earnings ever recorded in a single year.

As comrade Emma will know, in both these sectors women form the majority of the workforce and suffer the lowest pay and most difficult lives. She did more than anyone to expose the reality of the triple oppression of African women, based on class, racial and gender.

Strikes have followed me all my Life paints the most graphic picture of the lives of black working women under capitalism, racism and patriarchy. Although it is now against the law to discriminate on grounds of gender, there are insufficient checks, resources and sanctions to enforce these laws.

Indirect discrimination stems from the different value placed by society on jobs or tasks mainly carried out by women and those mainly carried out by men.

What makes it worse is that after a hard day’s work they’re expected to hurry home to put food on the family table, do the washing and ironing, and in the worst cases endure the blows inflicted by abusive husbands, after which they must cooperate to engage on the third shift in bed.

Next morning, exhausted and emotionally drained, they must be the first to wake up and make a nice cup of tea for the very husband who sits reading newspapers, before they get kids ready for school.

Comrades and friends

Today, 18 years into democracy, far too many of these problems still confront the South African working-class We have become an even more unequal society than before, with the highest gap between poorest and richest anywhere in the world.

Education, healthcare, housing, transport and the provision of basic services operate on a two-tier basis, with world-class private services for the rich, still mainly white, minority and appalling levels of service for the overwhelmingly black majority.

Here in the Eastern Cape, the crisis is even worse than the country as a whole. Unemployment in the province is 27.1% according to the narrow definition and over 40% according to the expanded definition. In some municipalities, such as where I come from, it is higher than 70%. Youth unemployment is most extreme; more than 60% of young people in the province between 15-19 years are neither working nor studying.

The key problem is that insufficient and diminishing numbers of jobs are being created in the formal sector, while the informal sector is too small to impact meaningfully on joblessness and poor livelihoods. About 71% of the provincial population still live in the former Bantustans, where more labour-intensive manufacturing was wiped out as a result of increased foreign competition and trade liberalisation after 1994 and the removal of apartheid era wage subsidies to “border industries”. Today the conditions for private sector investment are not conducive.

Other problems contributing to economic decline include a failure to adequately educate and skill our workforce. As a result an excess of unskilled and semi-skilled labour continues to co-exist with an insufficient supply of skilled labour, due to insufficient access to skills, entrepreneurship, markets and capital.

Poverty is the Eastern Cape has come down over the past 10 years from 60% to 50% - but is still unacceptably high. It is also expressed spatially. GDP per capita in 2010 was R20 988, ranging from R3 172 in Alfred Nzo to R52 147 in Nelson Mandela Metro.

The global jobless rate for young people stands at 12.6%, in South Africa 35.9% while in the Eastern Cape in 2011 more than 60% of youths between 15 and 19 years and more than 50% of youths between 20 and 24 years were unemployed.

In 2011, 75.22% of the unemployed were youths, and 72.79% of the discouraged work seekers were youths. 46.86% of people employed are young.

Transformation challenges in the departments of Education and Health have not been adequately addressed. The current backlog in school infrastructure amounts to R27 billion, and 1483 schools in the Province have one or more mud or clay constructed classrooms.

We are pleased that after the national government took over the provincial department, we are starting to see progress being made with the Turnaround Plan adopted by the Executive Council in February 2011. However, there are still challenges on the redeployment of excess educators, amalgamation and rationalisation of schools, poor spending on infrastructure, etc.

In healthcare about 88% of the EC population is serviced by the public health sector; medical aid coverage is only 9.2%.This results in heavy demand on medical services in public hospitals which are already understaffed and dysfunctional.

Comrades and friends

The shocking levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality lie at the heart of the increasingly violent protests we are seeing in both workplaces and communities. It is creating what until recently COSATU has called ticking bombs. After the events at Marikana on 16 August 2012 we now must talk of exploding bombs.

That outrageous massacre must be a wake-up call for us all. In the worlds of our founding General-Secretary, Jay Naidoo, it “is a deadly body blow to the democratic social fabric”.

We must wait for the Judicial Commission of Enquiry to reveal precisely what happened on that fateful day and the period leading up to it - who did what and who must be held responsible. But already we must start looking at some of the issues which are raised by Marikana.

At the heart of the matter is the labour relations regime which we inherited from the apartheid era, which remains largely intact with all its challenges, despite the political gains we have made in South Africa since then. The trade unions have won important improvements in pay and working conditions, though not without many bitter struggles. Yet the basic architecture of the apartheid regime’s labour relations structures remains intact.

In the mining sector a handful of huge multinational mining monopolies make billions of rands of profits, extracted from the labour of workers who toil in the most wretched, unhealthy and dangerous conditions kilometres underground, for wages that come nowhere close to the value that their labour creates for their employers.

The rock-drill operatives (RDOs) at the centre of the dispute perform a more dangerous, unhealthy and difficult job than anyone else in the world. They face death every time they go down the shafts. Yet their monthly earnings are just R5 600!

Just compare that to the earnings of Lonmin’s Financial Officer, Alan Ferguson - R10 254 972 a year or R854 581 a month, 152 times higher than an RDO!

And we must never forget that most of these workers share their pay with up to 12 dependent family members, which makes the income gulf between the workers and their employers even greater.

Then there is the role of the police. COSATU has been concerned for years about a pattern of a "skiet en donner" response by the commanders of the police, especially the immediate resort to firing live ammunition.

We must specifically demand answers to allegations that workers were shot in the back while running away, contradicting the police statement they faced an armed, frontal attack. We need to know why the police made no attempt to meet the workers before the violence erupted and try to reason with them.

Why were the police not equipped with riot shields, tear-gas and water-cannons, which most other countries use in similar crowd-control situations? Equally we must move away from a culture where workers take the most dangerous weapons such as pangas and spears to the demonstrations, and we must address superstitions and elements of backwardness on the part of workers themselves.

We cannot however avoid examining what lessons Marikana holds for the trade unions as well, and ask what we ourselves could have done better to avert such a tragedy.

Of course we must totally reject the ignorant attempts by opposition parties and opportunist demagogues to try to put all the blame for Marikana on to ‘the unions’.

The DA has for years been lambasting unions for being too militant, and workers for being a greedy ‘elite’, who use their unions to protect their ‘privileges’. Now suddenly they hypocritically blame COSATU and the NUM for ‘weakness’ and inability to defend the underpaid and exploited workers of Lonmin.

The real motives of these bosses’ parties, who are also backing splinter ‘unions’, is to divide and weaken the unions, and leave all workers in danger of being exploited even more, and suffering even lower wages and worse conditions.

Splinter unions and politicians who promote them, offer the world but can deliver nothing. They undermine the need for unity and strength. “United we stand – Divided we Fall” is not empty rhetoric, but the key to transforming workers’ lives, and building a better world.

But while denouncing the false and irresponsible propaganda of oppositionists, it would be a serious mistake for our National Congress this month not also to reassess whether COSATU and its affiliates are operating in the best way to defend the workers and cut the ground from beneath bogus breakaway ‘unions’.

COSATU’s membership now stands at 2,191,016, up by 230,000 (11.7%) since 2009, the highest growth between Congresses since 1997. But we are not near the 10% a year target set in our 2015 Plan and it is a result of a general membership increase, rather than a systematic, co-ordinated recruitment campaign. We can and we must recruit more, especially the most vulnerable and casualised workers.

Comrades and friends

Today’s shop stewards and organisers can learn a lot from Ma Emma’s book. Being a union organiser in the grim days of apartheid was never easy. Recruiting workers to join a union could often lead to attacks by police dogs, batons, prison, torture, and even death.

You had to wait outside the factory gates in the rain and cold to collect subscriptions before the days when employers deducted these for you. If we are serious about recruiting all the casualised and ‘atypical’ workers, we have to revive those traditions which Comrade Emma personifies, of selfless commitment to the workers’ cause, listening to the workers, getting a mandate from them and always reporting back.

We must also do everything we can to streamline and improve the quality of delivery to our members - increased democratic participation, education and providing better service and benefits.

There are pockets of organisational excellence, but some worrying trends emerging which need to be seriously examined and addressed, even if these are exceptions:

  • Growing social distance between union leaders and members. Different lifestyles and material realities are creating a leadership not fully in tune with what members are facing. Crises faced by working class communities in dysfunctional hospitals, the Limpopo textbooks saga, the winter electricity cut-offs, pre-paid water cut-offs etc, do not appear to be taken up by our unions in those sectors with the same vigour as if there had been a problem with wages. If they were, we could expect strikes, or high profile campaigns, around some of these crises.
  • Focus on the traditional organisation-building culture of the Federation is diminishing; only a quarter of union members in the 2012 workers survey had participated in a union educational programme. Just over half had attended a union meeting in the past year.
  • Distance of leaders from the membership is graphically illustrated in the Survey by the fact that only 6% of the members knew who their union General Secretary or President was.

We need to develop targeted strategies to address the areas where the unions are weakest and where the working class has been hit hardest - youth, women, atypical workers, migrants, vulnerable and unorganised workers.

We can now add the RDOs and other super-exploited mineworkers, who we can now see were seething with anger at their low pay and believed, even if wrongly, that their union was not doing enough for them.

Our responsibility is to maintain workers’ unity and direct their anger and frustrations to those who keep wages low and their working conditions unbearable - the bosses. Our enemy is the capitalist system that exploits workers and robs them of the surplus wealth that their labour creates.

The new generations of trade unionists today can learn a lot from Strikes have followed me all my Life, which is essentially about an enduring desire to serve the working class and the oppressed in this country, with no thought for personal reward.

Emma Mashinini was forged in the struggle against apartheid. She endured torture, torment and trauma at the hands of the apartheid security apparatus. There is no finer role model for young shop stewards and organisers in our movement today.