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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Keynote address by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary, to the World Social Forum on Migration, 5 December 2014, Johannesburg

5 December 2014

It is especially appropriate that this very important discussion in migration is happening here in Africa, and on a very special date, a year to the day since we lost our great liberator and leader, Comrade Nelson Mandela. There could be no finer role model for this gathering to follow. He, better than anyone, showed us how to resolve difficult and complex challenges, bringing people together, building unity from division and delivering peace from conflict.

“Workers of the world, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains”, the famous slogan from the Communist Manifesto, is probably more relevant today than at any time in the 166 years since it was written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
The world economy and labour market in the 21st century has become global. Multinational monopoly companies move their investments all around the world, to where they can make the biggest and quickest profit, while millions of workers pour into other countries to find a job and feed their families.
Both employers and workers are becoming less and less tied to any one country but are in a very real sense becoming citizens of the world. Ideally this ought to work to everybody’s benefit, opening up new opportunities for the world’s poor to escape to a better life and for strengthening the unity of the workers of the world.

All too often however when they reach their destination migrant workers are confronted with ruthless exploitation by employers, racism, xenophobia, sexism and discrimination, and can end up even poorer and less secure then before they left home. And racism and xenophobia also opens up the huge danger of the workers’ organisations becoming more divided rather than more united.

Here in Africa we have a long history of migration - but certainly not a happy one – characterised by the slave trade, the migrant labour system, forced labour, colonialism, wars and racism.
For centuries nearly all the Africans who migrated did so without any choice – abducted at gunpoint and sold as slaves, or forced by dire poverty to work far from their home in mine, farms and factories run by imperialist companies. Our continent was carved up by colonial powers, with no regard to existing ethnic or cultural community boundaries, with the sole aim of exploiting our natural resources and cheap labour.

In South Africa big business and the colonial and apartheid governments recruited workers from all over Southern African. Internally, policies like the Hut Tax, the 1913 Native Lands Act, the 1937 Aliens Control Act and the Pass Laws were used to force migrant workers to leave their rural communities to work in the mines and farms and live in segregated areas.
Even today, migration around Africa continues unabated, as many foreign-owned companies find ways to exploit migrant labour, which is still the bedrock of the mining industry and poverty drives millions to move to find work and an income.
And in other parts of the world too, migrant labour is rocketing. In the Gulf state of Qatar - which incidentally has been awarded the 2022 football world cup - an incredible 94% of the workforce are migrants; of a total population of 1.7 million, only about 390 000 are native Qataris.

And all the same problems as in Africa have reappeared there. “Migrant workers in Qatar have no labour rights, wages are exploitative and occupational health and safety risks are extreme,” says International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow.
West European countries are also seeing continued immigration from their former colonies and, increasingly from Eastern Europe. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that the foreign-born population in the US, the UK, Germany and France in 2011 is between 11% and 13%.

This has led to the rise of right-wing racist parties in France, Britain, Italy and Sweden, which are pushing policies to curb immigration and stirring up divisive racial conflict by blaming ‘foreigners’ for workers’ genuine problems around jobs and public services.
In South Africa, since 1994, there is also worrying evidence of an undercurrent of anger being misdirected to non-SA workers, and foreign-owned small businesses. At a time when the country has experienced massive unemployment, the country has experienced a high influx of immigrants, either legal or undocumented, causing some people to put the blame for their predicament on foreigners, particularly those from other African countries.

This creates a big danger of ethnic divisions, leading to the kind of violent xenophobic conflict that we saw a few years ago, which have the potential to shatter the unity among workers and the poor which it is so vital for us to defend and strengthen.
The key to a solution to this problem lies in understanding the basic reason for its existence in the first place – the appalling levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality here and around the world, made worse by employers who callously get rid of jobs in one part of the world while they seek out the cheapest labour elsewhere.

Unemployed workers meanwhile are so desperate that they are prepared to move to wherever they can reach to earn some money, which in turn makes workers in the countries they move into to feel that their own jobs are under threat.
The immigrant workers then become scapegoats for frustrations arising from persisting socio-economic ills and the lack of an understanding of the root causes of the crisis facing people from other countries, which can then dangerously take the form of seeing “them and us”.

That is why it is so urgent to develop ways to work together to confront the crisis afflicting our common existence, across borders which, especially in Africa, are not natural boundaries anyway, but artificially imposed creations of colonialism which now act as a barrier to the movement, interaction and unity of our people who have always shared a common history, culture, heritage and destiny.
That is why we need migration policies which will combat and ultimately eradicate xenophobia and racism, but combined them with socio-economic policies to tackle the underlying structural problems which give rise to these evils in the first place, because fundamentally our struggle against xenophobia is inseparable from the struggle against the capitalist system.
It is a system constructed on extreme and growing inequalities - massive poverty for the majority and massive wealth for the few, with inevitable social tensions and profound crisis and more importantly, the centrality of class struggle.
This economic crisis is compounded by the continued existence of undemocratic regimes, coups, civil wars and human rights abuses that also force people to migrate to seek asylum elsewhere. The African Union must timeously and decisively intervene in such situations to avoid further massive migration of people as a result.

International migration policy in Africa therefore must be part of a broader, comprehensive development plan for the continent, to reverse the persisting problems of underdevelopment and growing inequalities and human rights violations that deepen poverty and social crisis.
Our aim must be to work towards a future which ensures peace between and within nations, poverty alleviation, full employment, economic integration, access to education and the free movement of people within the continent. Only then will we reduce the pressure on people to migrate in the first place and cut across divisive attitudes of blaming people from elsewhere for their problems.

Already African countries have signed a number of international and regional treaties and conventions on migration, but unless we tackle the basic underlying economic crisis and back this up with legislation to give effect to the rights enshrined in such treaties, and build strong trade unions and civil society to enforce these treaties will remain just pieces of paper.

For African trade unions the most important principles to defend are continent-wide minimum standards of workers’ rights: to form and join unions, to have the same labour protection under the law, and the same minimum wages and conditions, regardless of national origin. The aim must be to level up rights and conditions of workers, rather than levelling them down to the lowest prevailing standards of poverty.

In the long run however workers’ rights depend on sustainable socio-economic development in Africa as a whole. Otherwise we will face continued high unemployment and underemployment, and the consequent danger of racism and xenophobia.

I propose that the following principles should guide international migration policy:
1. Migration policy must not compromise the interests of workers on the basis of where they come from. Migrant workers must have the right to join trade unions without any hindrance, be able to transfer their wages and benefits to their home countries without restriction; insurance, pension and provident fund payments must be guaranteed even after migrant workers return to their countries of origin; all states must agree to the effective enforcement of labour standards by governments throughout the continent.
2. Governments and trade unions must integrate migration policies into a broader regional economic development plan. Africa’s history of destabilisation by colonisation means that it has inherited a legacy of poverty, insecurity and skewed development. An appropriate migration policy requires that we put in place a strategy informed by a long-term vision of how Africa is to overcome its problems and improve the living conditions of all who live in it.
3. By enforcing effective legal guarantees of equal wages and working conditions for all, regardless of their origin, migration policy must avoid a situation where the employment of foreign workers leads to a de facto erosion of labour standards and a deterioration of the conditions of workers in the countries they emigrate to. We must fight any potential for the entrenchment of the two-tier labour market – dividing ‘legal’ and ‘undocumented foreign’ workers.
4. There should be fair and proper control of the entry of migrant workers into, including the drawing clear distinctions between traders, tourists, migrant workers, job seekers, students, etc. Migration policy must ensure humane treatment - informed by constitutional commitment to human rights - and must promote the formalisation of migrant workers coming from other countries.
5. In the short to medium term, an agreed number of migrants from neighbouring countries should be allowed access to countries’ labour market and penalties should be imposed on employers who employ undocumented migrants in order to exploit them. This should be reviewed on an ongoing basis so that, in the longer term, we shall achieve freedom of movement, residence and employment throughout the continent.
6. Immigration policies aimed at attracting skilled workers must not jeopardise the priority of developing skills in the local workforce and we should not compromise the programmes for improved skills training on the basis that attempts are being made to attract skilled labour from other countries. Education and skills programmes should be extended to migrant workers.
7. While migration needs to be regulated and undocumented immigration prevented, the greatest care should be taken to ensure that this is done in a way which does not promote xenophobia. Members of the Immigration and Police Services should be properly trained in order to avoid xenophobic behaviour in their dealings with foreigners.
8. Labour laws, as here in South Africa, must apply to ALL workers, including foreign, whether undocumented or documented. This is unusual and should be emulated by other countries. Although this doesn’t provide protection against deportation in the event of winning a case of, for example, unfair dismissal, it does provide some protection for cross border migrant workers.

So what practically must we do now?

1. Trade unions should recruit and organise cross-border migrant workers, regardless of document status. COSATU has taken concrete steps in this direction, in particular the organisation of cross-border migrant farms, domestic and hospitality workers – all sectors of high levels of precariousness
2. Build popular consciousness against xenophobia, racism and sexism through community and workers’ education programmes, to challenge racist, right-wing and sensationalist interpretations of the issues, particularly false alarms such as associating rising crime levels with foreigners
3. Build local community structures to unite workers and communities against all and every form of discrimination, particularly xenophobia, and creating community dialogue forums where experiences are shared on each other’s background and history;
4. Organise meetings where such issues can be openly discussed and confronted in our communities, and develop special support and legal assistance to deserving asylum seekers in order to regularise their situation and that of their families
5. Create capacity for conflict resolution and mediation, particularly early warning and monitoring systems that will include a hotline or call centre where incidents or even suspicions can be reported before they become major occurrences
6. Urge political parties to make racism and xenophobia a critical issue in their campaign manifestos and commit to take decisive action against those involved in fermenting tensions against foreigners in communities
7. Popularise and promote African heritage in all our communities, including such affirming and positive values of ubuntu, to deepen and celebrate the rich history of struggle, unity and shared values amongst the people of Africa in general
8. Work with all organisations involved in this and other struggles for social justice in order to promote co-operation and unity in struggle. Draw into active participation all trade unions, faith-based organisations, youth and student structures, NGOs, social movements, academics and other role-players to build effective joint programmes towards this end.

Above all we have to fight relentlessly against attempts to shift the blame for poverty and unemployment on our fellow African workers and make them scapegoats. We must link the dangers of racism and xenophobia to the underlying social crisis and turn people’s anger against their real enemy – the capitalist system of production, distribution and exchange.

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
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