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To tackle inequality, trade unions need to strive for justice for all workers, not just their members

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

Perhaps we should use Workers’ Day to think about how we can increase the slice of our economic pie in order to be more inclusive and provide more employment opportunities for everyone.

We are all workers. Anyone who wakes up every day and contributes to the economy and building of our country is a worker, yet our solidarity and discourse do not reflect this. For some reason we tend to differentiate ourselves from “the blue-collar worker” represented by trade unions.

While I was growing up I used to hear the slogan Viva abasebenzi, viva! quite often. The direct translation of this is “long live the workers, long live!” This was particularly said about or to people who were seen to be manual workers belonging to trade unions.

The role and importance of the worker was brought out of relative obscurity during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when essential workers were valorised and all of a sudden made visible because of the role they played in either saving people’s lives, such as doctors and nurses, or making sure that people were kept informed of the latest developments, such as journalists and broadcasters – people in what is thought of as more white-collar jobs.

These workers, however, are considered to be living out their life’s purpose more than a blue-collar manual labourer, whose work is far less revered.

However, blue-collar workers and the protection of their rights are often the ones referred to during May Day commemorations that acknowledge trade unions’ role in the struggle for the liberation of South African people from apartheid.

There is another kind of worker, however, who is left out of trade union negotiations, and they are the informal and seasonal workers such as gardeners, informal street traders and farmworkers, who work unprotected yet are also doing their best to make a living for themselves and their loved ones, and to contribute to the economy.

Having a job and work gives people a sense of self-determination as well as dignity. Covid-19 has threatened this, as it has stolen people’s jobs, leaving a trail of uncertainty and a shrinking job market. So, this year’s May Day reflections are even more urgent as people scramble to get by. The decrease in employment opportunities has also seen the opportunistic fuelling of the xenophobic targeting of foreigners said to be stealing low-wage jobs in South Africa. The anthem “workers of the world unite” is no more, instead replaced by a narrow nationalism and hatred of the other in a scramble for any kind of employment opportunity. However, what has further been exposed is the exploitative labour practices of employers towards foreigners who are desperate for work and who are not part of trade unions.

Perhaps we should use Workers’ Day to think about how we can increase the slice of our economic pie in order to be more inclusive and provide more employment opportunities for everyone.

Trade unions themselves need to re-evaluate whose needs they are serving by going back to the ethos of attaining social justice for all, as envisioned by Karl Marx, and not just members of their unions.

As Nobel Prize laureate and economist Joseph Stiglitz said, it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that a country has a full-capacity workforce, which will start to bridge the inequality gap. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

 

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  • Focus on how you increase the size of the pie rather than on how to increase the share of the existing pie.
    Seeing those who have the skill and ability to create and grow businesses as the enemy, is precisely why we have a shrinking economic pie. Karl Marx was a dangerous idealist and look how that turned out for the Soviet workers!! As you correctly say, having a job not only brings income, it also brings purpose – we do not have the luxury of being able to compete with other economies with higher wage costs.

  • In theory, trade unions serve their member’s interests. I say in theory, because of course they may serve their own interests. But this isn’t the only problem. Serving member’s interests may not be serving broader worker interests or indeed interests of those who are unemployed. Take the 10% wage increase being demanded in the public sector which will necessarily reduce the demand for labour even with record unemployment levels and dismal public sector service. Unions have been not, in my view, been vocal enough about corruption going on in the country. When I last attended a union meeting Tony Ehrenreich was talking at length about all the problems of Helen Zille even as the Zuma presidency was gutting the country.

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