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Turbulent times for trade unions in a difficult economi...

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Turbulent times for trade unions in a difficult economic and political environment


Riefdah Ajam is the general secretary of the Federation of Unions of South Africa, Fedusa.

The challenging conditions that existed over the past decade and longer have certainly set back the fight by trade unions for decent work and a living wage. But hard campaigning by organised labour has brought about some positive changes in the lives of many vulnerable workers.

In the wake of May Day 2022, it is clear the labour movement is experiencing turbulent times on a number of fronts. In particular, there are the job losses in an economy made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic in a society that is already recognised as the most unequal in the world.

Trade unions too, both internationally and locally, have lost ground over a number of years. Some of the contributing factors in South Africa have been a direct result of government’s economic and industrial policies. The 1996 Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy in particular began a series of measures that led to economic growth, but where job creation was initially stagnant before the government’s ongoing trade liberalisation saw millions of workers in the industrial sectors lose their jobs.

The periods of exploitative practices by labour brokers before the amendments to the Labour Relations Act (LRA) also significantly weakened the power base of unions.

But the South African labour movement and trade unions did respond to the challenges, despite the difficult economic and political environment that existed over the past decade and longer. This has certainly set back our fight for decent work and a living wage. However, the hard campaigning by organised labour has brought about some positive changes in the lives of many vulnerable workers.

Amendments to the LRA and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) dealing with casual labour, is one example. Another is the recent introduction of a national minimum wage (NMW), which has the potential to lift many workers out of poverty. These improvements are all part of what we must acknowledge is a long process. But the potential for improvements most certainly does exist.

For example, South Africa as a country has a surplus of food. Yet food poverty at household level is widening, with the situation exacerbated since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has also caused major job losses and decimated an economy that was already in bad shape prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) believes that there is enough surplus food that can be redirected to poor and marginalised communities. According to a 2018 WWF Report, Surplus Food from Farms and Firms onto Forks, about a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. The report further cites processing, packaging, distribution and retail, accounting for a further 45% of wasted food.

While we take account of matters such as the wastage of food amid growing hunger, Fedusa is also well aware that more businesses will make use of automation and artificial intelligence to increase profits. This has already led to job losses, primarily in the financial services and administrative sectors of the economy.

The domestic banking industry is an example of where there have been retrenchments and long-term job losses due to automation. The evidence in the industrial sectors of the economy does show that in some instances automation, leading to more efficiencies, can create more economic development. Overall, however, the introduction of machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics will cause large-scale job losses, even as they create opportunities in the economy for the perhaps fewer new jobs of the future.

This calls for unwavering commitment to a just transition from the world of today to the world of tomorrow. This must be prioritised and properly financed to ensure that in a world of large-scale automation, social justice is guaranteed. In this regard, collective bargaining agreements must act as the special purpose vehicles to drive upskilling and reskilling.

Business will always seek to increase profits and will drive down wages as a key factor to increase profitability. But international worker solidarity has always been an important instrument to push back the unfair advances of capital. In this, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has an even more important role than ever to play to advance social dialogue, better working conditions and economic growth on a global scale.

On a regional scale, integration and mobilisation of workers have also now become urgent, especially with the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Together with our sister federations in South Africa, Fedusa has advocated for a “social clause” in all trade agreements to protect the fundamental rights of workers.

The battle continues, while in South Africa the issue of foreign workers remains extremely sensitive. Narratives that foreign nationals, vulnerable and exploited by employers, drive down wages and decent working conditions, must be addressed with collective wisdom.

These are among the many challenges that confront us in the turbulent times beyond May Day 2022. It is — and will remain — a long process. DM



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