Opinionista Osiame Molefe 8 March 2012

Cosatu also exploits the poor out of self-interest

Cosatu, the SACP and the ANCYL amused us last year when they beefed over who held rightful claim to the title of “vanguard for the working poor”. Like Cosatu’s nationwide protests on Wednesday, that spat had less to do with the plight of the poor and more with who’ll have any right to claim to represent the 40% of South Africans with no jobs.

It’s getting harder to tell who “speaks” for the poor in SA, yet much is said and done in their name. It was laughable last year when the middle-classes descended on Company Gardens in Cape Town and the JSE in Sandton holding lattes in one hand and signs in the other proclaiming, “We are the 99%”.

Hardly, dears. But even Cosatu’s strike against labour broking and toll roads on Wednesday was another example of this misguidedness.

During the protest, Zwelinzima Vavi said the ANC is presiding over an “economic apartheid”. He accused the party of standing idly by as workers were forced to eke out a living off starvation wages. That’s not entirely true. The protest, intentionally, conflated the two separate issues of inequality and poverty, and glossed over how differently each affected the unions’ members.

Not all of Cosatu’s 2-million members can be considered poor or living in poverty. Among the protesters were teachers, who represent about 3% of the labour force. Their union, the SA Democratic Teachers Unions, is among the most vocal within the labour movement, yet its members earn significantly more than other groups on account of having received more education.

Public sector workers too are equally vocal and numerous. The National Health and Allied Workers Union, with estimated its 230,000 members, has been blamed for driving the public wage bill to unsustainable levels. And, like teachers, public sector workers earn more than other workers, many of them above the R15,000-a-month cut-off that would categorise them as low-income earners by most banks’ definition.

Among the unions’ members, it is teachers and public sector workers who will be most directly affected by the tolling of Gauteng’s freeways, because they earn enough to make it probable they own cars. It is also probable they will be among the freeway users who earn the least, so the flat-rate toll fee would affect their nett incomes disproportionately, so they complained, rightly so.

Sandwiched between the working class elite and the unemployed are low-income earners – miners, textile workers and factory workers. They don’t earn enough to afford cars, so are isolated from the direct impact of tolling Gauteng’s freeways, but were co-opted into Wednesday’s protest with passable arguments of the knock-on effects of toll roads.

Arguably, the Gauteng freeway tolls, which are excessive, would only serve to further increase the demand for (and investment attractiveness of) a functional, integrated mass transit system. Such a system would benefit the carless working class, who’ve been pining for it for years. This makes me wonder, how objective an argument did the unions’ leadership present to members before resolving to oppose the tolling?

Nonetheless, even low-income earners might not meet the varied and complex definitions of poverty, while unions can rightly argue that they represent those affected by inequality, they’d have a harder time proving their claim to speak for the poor. Unions represent the employed. In South Africa, poverty has stronger links to unemployment that it does to inequality.

Thankfully, Vavi does not seem to have fooled anyone into believing that Wednesday’s protest had nothing to do with Mangaung. Why else unite the workers behind an endless list of disparate issues other than to show your alliance partner that you have the power to hurt it?

By Statistics SA’s most recent estimates, almost 40% of the labour force either has no job or has given up looking. These 6.3-million South Africans are the ones forced to eke out a living on nothing.

Who speaks for them? No one, it seems.

The advocates of relaxing labour laws to allow the 40% access to jobs, any jobs, also do not speak for them, and could do with reading the UN’s papers on the decent work agenda. This is not the 1940s. The time for growing nations off cheap and bountiful labour has passed, especially in South Africa’s on-paper “progressive society”.

There’s no other way out of the stand-off between government, labour and business over unemployment and its consequent poverty. We have to innovate, not only in terms of the goods and services, but also in the way we conceptualise the resources we have and what can be done with them. DM

Read more:

  • Why do 16-million people not constitute an economy?, in Daily Maverick.

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