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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of COSATU, to the National Congress of the Communication Workers Union

23 September 2014

I bring comradely greetings from the National Office Bearers and 2.2 million members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and best wishes for a successful National Congress.

You are meeting just a few weeks before COSATU’s 2014 Central Committee, our second highest democratic structure, which will meet from 10-12 November 2014. Its role, laid down in the Constitution, is to “adopt general and specific policy measures which further the aims and objects of the Federation by means of resolution between meetings of National Congresses”. I shall return later to some of the key questions the Central Committee must resolve.

Your members work in one of the world’s fastest growing sectors - information and communications technology (ICT) - which is developing at an astonishing rate. Worldwide spending on ICT is forecast to reach R40.3 trillion by 2018. South Africa`s cell phone market has been the fourth fastest-growing mobile phone market in the world. The internet is revolutionising the way in which we communicate.

Logically therefore it ought to be a sector creating lots of new jobs and rising prosperity for all. Sadly, but not surprisingly however, the reality is that it is an industry with all the worst features of older capitalist businesses. It generates vast profits for a few super-rich big multi-national monopolies, while leaving workers, especially in the developing world, with a few crumbs.

A letter signed from the ITUC and 163 other trade union and civil society organisations in 2013 expressed its concerns about a new Information Technology Agreement (ITA-II) which, if agreed, will remove protective tariffs from more ICT products than those already covered by the earlier ITA-I.

ITUC warn that this “will likely benefit mainly multinational enterprises that control patent monopolies and impede technology transfer. It could further harm workers, particularly in developing countries, that have yet not benefited from the previous agreement, and possibly deteriorate the developmental prospects for those which participate”.

“The information and communication technology (ICT) sector, said the letter, “has enormous capacity to contribute to domestic industry creation, employment generation, and technological development. Unfortunately, claims of the ITA’s potential benefits have failed to materialize for the majority of workers in participating countries.

“Instead of promoting industrial capacity, job creation, and technological diffusion, the ITA has eroded policy space for the majority of developing country participants. Experiences with the ITA indicate that from the point of view of developing and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), irreversible and binding commitments under the potential ITA-II could likely damage their present and future growth potential.”

Your members have experienced exactly what the ITUC was warning against. Far from sharing in the wealth being created in your industry, you have been embroiled in bitter battles to stop retrenchments and fight against the exploitation of the workers.

This is to be expected with private cell-phone companies, whose role it to make profits. But we face exactly the same problems with state-owned enterprises - the Post Office, Telkom, and the SABC - whose mandates are to serve the wider interests of the country and development, but which are run as badly, or even worse than, private companies as they struggle to maximise profits at the expense of both their workers and the community.

What is even worse is that the resulting crises of maladministration and labour disputes are then used as propaganda by business to support their call for privatisation, which we must keep fighting to stop, especially as the private sector is already gaining ground in all the sectors in which your members work, with the increasing dominance of cell-phone companies, courier services, and private TV and radio stations.

Telkom

We totally agree with your statement on Telkom in May, which “noted with disgust the ill-informed and extremely insensitive intention to retrench close to 1000 employees in managerial and specialist ranks beginning with 700 managers in the first phase... [which] defeats and goes against the grain of government’s objectives of job creation and job retention.” We could not have put it better.

As you say, Telkom “has already shed thousands of jobs during earlier rounds of restructuring and cannot afford another major jobs bloodbath... Our country still lags behind in terms of telecommunications infrastructure and resources which are so crucial for a growing modern economy”.

Rather than seizing the opportunity to recruit more workers and expand into this mushrooming sector, in line with the government’s, and Telkom’s own, developmental policies and targets, they are acting as we would expect a private company to act, with policies dictated purely by the need to maximise profits.

Let us remember what the RDP said Telkom should provide: “universal affordable access for all as rapidly as possible within a sustainable and viable telecommunications system; to develop a modern and integrated telecommunications and information technology system that is capable of enhancing, cheapening and facilitating education, health care, business information, public administration and rural development.”

How well has Telkom complied? These are some of the damning quotes from a 2012 Presidency Green paper on Compliance of State-Owned Entities to the Government’s Transformation Agenda (my emphasis):

- On management control: “All the SOEs with the exception of Telkom have achieved a good score”

- On employment equity compliance: “The SOEs that scored badly (below 10%) are Armscor, CSIR, PetroSA, SAFCOL and Telkom”

- On skills development compliance: “SOEs that have scored badly (under 10%) include Armscor, City Power, SAA, SABC, and Telkom”

- On enterprise development compliance: “Telkom performed worst in this element”.

SA Post office

At the Post Office, you rightly say that you were “flabbergasted” at SAPO’s intransigence and arrogance. Here again we have a publicly owned body acting like the worst kind of private, profit-orientated outfit, even going to court to interdict your legitimate and justified action to raise your poverty pay.

As you said, this was “a desperate effort on the part of the company to frustrate and thwart the united action of an organized working class which is resolute in pursuit of their right to better working conditions and a better life for them and their dependants.”

SABC

On the SABC, our fight is broader than defending jobs, better pay and outstanding bonuses, but to save our public broadcaster from collapsing completely into the corrupt, bankrupt and factional institution, towards which it is already sliding.

While the SABC still puts out some good programmes, it is failing to comply with the mandate to reflect all aspects of the lives and concerns of the people of South Africa, and is drowning in a succession of scandals.

That is why we welcome the statement you put out with BEMAWU, that “The SABC is in a sorry state, with repeats being broadcast, even on news, and millions of rands are pushed into new projects like the 24-hour news channel broadcast on a not free to air channel and only accessible to the few privileged who can afford DSTV subscription.”

We are fully behind your demand that the Minister of Communications urgently order a proper investigation and decisive action into the allegations made by the Public Protector in "When governance and ethics fail" which has implicated members of the board, executives of the SABC and senior management in maladministration and abuse of power.”

We are planning an Alliance march to the SABC, on the demand to reinstate the Generations 16 and all the other issues you raise in your statement.

My comrades

All these issues we are raising constitute a summary of the central challenges facing the working class, which is rampant neoliberalism that works to commodify the provision of basic services through commercialisation, outsourcing and use of labour brokers, whilst destroying quality jobs and replacing them with precarious employment. This is at the centre of the strike by labour brokered Post Office workers.

Our central message to this congress, comrades, is this. Workers have heard us a million times articulating their plight. They have heard us talking about the triple crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequalities. They know that our employment at 36.5% is a ticking bomb. They know that 23 million South Africans live below poverty line and that 13 million can`t afford to put food on the table every night.

They have heard us before speaking about corruption and crime. They have heard us before complaining about the dysfunctional tripartite alliance which runs only one campaign - elections - and nothing more.

Every time they hear us the question they ask is - what are you doing about our plight? This is the challenge we face comrades. Failure to answer effectively the central question may result in our irrelevance. Already you know that you facing splinter groupings in both Telkom and the Post Office. You know your union has not been able to respond effectively to the challenges we face in the telecommunications industry. You know your union, notwithstanding job loss bloodbaths in Telkom and Post Office, should be growing fast in the cellphone and call centres.

This is the combination of the challenge you face at this congress comrades. Let me repeat: you have to answer the question - what will you do about the plight of labour brokered workers in the ICT sector? The only way we can answer that, through consistent action, is through repositioning the union to overcome its current weaknesses whist multiplying its current strengths. This brings me to COSATU 6th Central Committee taking place towards the end of this year.

My Comrades

The Central Committee in November has to assess progress on implementing our 11th National Congress policies and decide what needs to be done to ensure that they are being implemented. Congress summarised its conclusions thus in the Final Declaration:

1. We are not prepared to tolerate massive levels of unemployment!
2. We want labour brokers banned now!
3. We will not accept widespread poverty!
4. We cannot live with grotesque levels of inequality which have made us the most unequal society on the planet!
5. Workers are no longer prepared to tolerate poverty wages:
6. Workers are demanding that the People Shall Share in the Country`s Wealth, as promised in the Freedom Charter.

Delegates mandated us “to embark on a united and radical programme of action to realise workers legitimate demands, and to engage our communities and the broader democratic movement, to support us in these efforts”, based on these four pillars:

1. Abolish the apartheid wage structure: forward to a living wage!
2. A radical socio-economic transformation: the people shall share in the country`s wealth!
3. Build strong worker-controlled unions: organise or starve!
4. Create our own Lula moment: driving the second phase of our transition!

How far we have gone to implement this?

We have had some successes. Labour law amendments have been passed which, if properly enforced, will give workers more protection against employers like Telkom, SAPO and the SABC, and speed up transformation in the workplace. Government have agreed in principle to a national minimum wage and we look forward to engaging with them on how it will work and at what level it will be set.

Overall however, two years later, too little has changed. We have not done enough to fulfil the Congress mandate. Unemployment, poverty and inequality remain massive challenges, and are even getting worse.

Unemployment is still rising; in the second quarter of 2014, by the more realistic expanded definition, which leaves out those who have stopped looking for work, it was 35.6%. This inevitably lead to more people living in poverty, not only among the jobless, but among the thousands of employed workers who have to share their meagre earnings with as many as ten dependent unemployed family members.

Half of all employed workers earn R3000 a month or less, meaning that most South African workers can`t afford the basic necessities of life. The crisis of inequality is summed up in the statistic that 50% of the population lives on 8% of national income and the top 5% of earners earn 30 times more than the bottom 5%. The share of workers in national income declined from 55% in 2000 to 49% in 2008.

There are specific important issues which we are still struggling for – the abolition of labour brokering, scrapping e-tolls, and rewriting the conservative, neoliberal elements of the National Development Plan (NDP). We still suffer from our two-tier service provision, where a still mainly white, rich minority can pay for top-class private services, while the mainly black, poor majority have to struggle with inefficient, under-resourced facilities.

We are still struggling to escape from the quagmire of crime, corruption and maladministration, in both the public and private sectors, and the failure to bring those guilty to justice. The latest shocking crime stats must be a wake-up call.

The CC must assess what progress we have made in implementing the 2nd Phase of the Transition, the radical restructuring of our economy. Some of these policies are already in place in paper – in the government’s Industrial Policy Action Plan, the National Infrastructure Plan and at least part of the New Growth Path.

But while some government departments and ministers – such as Trade and Industry and Economic Development - are moving ahead, their efforts are constantly being sabotaged, in particular by the business sector, the Treasury and Reserve Bank, who are wedded to exactly the opposite policies – conservative, free-market, neoliberal economic policies, which are also at the heart of the NDP.

Comrade delegates

The other key area where the Congress took a very strong line was organisational renewal. It warned us that “We cannot afford to fight silly battles against one another when the house is on fire”. It called for “all of us to go back to basics, focus effectively on workplace issues, organisation and recruitment, deliver service to our members, and implement our 2015 Plan!

“It is only through building powerful, unified organisation that workers will have an effective engine to drive the changes we want to see at the workplace, in the economy, and at a political level”. Congress mandated us to:
- Build strong worker-controlled unions, focused on issues of concern to our members, at the workplace, socio-economic and political levels;
- Organise the unorganised, particularly farm workers and other vulnerable and super-exploited workers, and bring all workers under the umbrella of this mighty federation.
- Develop a detailed 3-year strategy to systematically take forward the 2015 Plan, monitor implementation of this strategy, and present a report on progress to our 2015 Congress. We also mandate the CEC to update the 2015 Plan, in line with current conditions, and the discussions and Resolutions of this Congress.
- Set new recruitment targets for each sector, targeting young workers, women workers, vulnerable workers (very low paid, contract, part-time, seasonal etc), non African workers and migrant workers (including foreign nationals).
Although some work has been done to achieve these goals, we have tragically been diverted by internal disputes and divisions which have seriously disrupted our organisational work.

We have launched our campaign to organise vulnerable workers, but lots more needs to be done to organise the unorganised. There are many such workers in your sectors, such as call-centre staff, one of the fastest growing and most exploited groups of workers.
The Generations 16 dismissals revealed the exploitation and lack of union membership in the entire entertainment business. Another area where you should get more involved is the print media, where competition from internet news sites is leading to retrenchments and harsher working conditions.
A strong union in this sector will also help to speed up the transformation of media houses which still publish propaganda on behalf of their wealthy owners and big business in general, rather than the poor majority.
Comrades
Before the Central Committee, all shop stewards and activists must read the Secretariat Report which has been circulated in draft form to all affiliates. It will go through internal discussions before a final report is circulated on 10 October 2014 to all structures to allow for a month to discuss the challenges we face.
Everything possible is being done to resolve our internal problems, with the assistance of an ANC task team and a group of COSATU veterans, but this will be a key challenge before the CC. Unless we can heal the wounds and emerge more united and strong, we shall be struggling to implement Congress’s resolutions.
The CC must act decisively to put a stop to practices which lead to disunity and divisions within or between unions. We must say no to the alien cultures of factionalism, rumour-mongering and character assassination which sadly have infiltrated our movement and paralysed us.

COSATU must be an independent, worker-controlled and radical federation, still part of the restructured tripartite alliance, but mandated solely by the resolutions of National Congresses and by the needs and demands of the workers.

We must remain a militant fighting force, battling for better wages and working conditions, and fearlessly exposing white monopoly capitalism, greedy employers, corrupt politicians and incompetent officials, while never losing sight of our goal of a united non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa and a peaceful, socialist world.

I wish you all a highly successful Congress and look forward to meeting many of you again at the Birchwood Hotel on 10 November.

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
110 Jorissen Cnr Simmonds Streets
Braamfontein
2017

P.O.Box 1019
Johannesburg
2000
South Africa

Tel: +27 11 339-4911 Direct 010 219-1339
Fax: +27 11 339-6940
Mobile: +27 82 821 7456
E-Mail: patrick@cosatu.org.za

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