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Cabinet can’t fence-sit on labour forever

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

I kind of feel sorry for Cabinet. They had no choice but to climb into the finance minister and the national planning minister for daring to misspeak on labour. But then I remember who is supposed to be providing leadership on issues such as labour and unemployment. Pity quickly transmogrifies into exasperation, then rage.

Some day I will cover a violent strike. That day wasn’t 19 August 2011, where a clutch of seriously unhappy journalists spent the morning following around a disappointingly small crowd of South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) marchers from Pieter Roos Park in Parktown to the South African Local Government Association (Salga) offices in Braamfontein.

The organisers on the day dared the media to report honestly on the march. Since I’m nothing if not an obedient scribe, here’s my assessment: it was a spectacular flop.

Samwu’s management in Gauteng seemingly couldn’t get its act together for long enough to show Salga that they were dead serious about the 18% pay hike. 

However, this column isn’t about jeering in Samwu’s face. I’m not going to revel in oily self-satisfaction at watching the middle class’s public enemy number two fail so humiliatingly.

Samwu’s Johannesburg misadventure is but one small anomaly in an otherwise unbroken trend: the unions have the government by what Geoffrey Chaucer would call their “nether ye”. They generally get what they want each and every time.

And yes, the economics of it don’t make sense (if you’re not a trade unionist). We’ve gnashed our teeth often enough over that.
Last week Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan came out of the woodwork to back his idea proposed in his February national budget speech, that of a youth wage subsidy. He said that if government were to achieve its employment targets, looser labour laws would be required. He was probably only speaking about the hiring of young, inexperienced people who would be taken on by companies under more relaxed labour regulations and pay structures, and not the labour market in its entirety, but that still didn’t prevent the labour unions from going into anaphylactic shock.

After national planning minister Trevor Manuel agreed with Gordhan’s comments, and probably after a few heated phone calls were made from Cosatu House to Pretoria, the rest of the Cabinet issued a loud rebuke, saying that labour matters were ultimately the responsibility of the labour department. “Cabinet wants to place on record that the Department of Labour is the lead department on all labour matters and as far as Cabinet is concerned, the only labour law amendments being considered at present are those being processed by the minister of labour through Nedlac,” the statement said. “Cabinet reiterates that SA’s labour laws are in compliance with the International Labour Organisation.”

Nedlac (the business, government and labour forum) is negotiating four proposed labour bills and the mooted three- year, R5 billion youth wage subsidy, according to BusinessDay.

It seems to me that if the government ever got to the point where it had to choose between jobs or unions, where picking one would mean being at loggerheads with the other, they will rather stick with the unions.

The sickening irony here is that these unions were militarised to the extent that we see today in response to the apartheid government’s refusal to protect black workers. The ANC actively encouraged this aggression, until it became the government and discovered that the unions were quite happy to turn this militancy on the new government. Much like the Maoist rebels in Nepal, the problem of reintegrating unions back into society – though in our case it’s just a matter of letting them think of the needs of other people, not just their own – seems to be intractable.

The unions want the government to extend the welfare state (not a bad idea), to aggressively expand the industrial sector so that we become a manufacturing economy and they don’t want the government to outsource services anymore, yet these things are almost impossible to achieve because of union obstructionism of one sort or another.

The welfare state will fail unless we can expand the tax-paying middle class. The best way to do that is to give more people more formal employment. Guess who is making that impossible to do?

South Africa won’t become a manufacturing economy until we become a globally competitive country in terms of labour. Guess who will never agree to let our labour laws match those of South-East Asian countries?

Why is the government outsourcing so many functions? Is it because it discovered that it is a better proposition to simply give out tenders than to have to deal with union problems?

Unions have every right on earth to exist. They should be able to negotiate better working conditions and remuneration for their members. And when they don’t get what they want, they should be able to strike. But that power must be balanced – and in our case, it’s not. The result is that government can’t do much to alleviate poverty, because the employed won’t let them. It’s properly ridiculous.

When will Cabinet realise that unions are clearly not interested in being reasonable? Is it not better to suffer under the wrath of unions for a few years after labour laws are relaxed to reflect South Africa’s reality, than to have the unemployed rise up in anger in our own version of the Arab Spring? DM



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