In what many in the labour movement see as the lunatic logic of the present system, we are being encouraged again to spend, spend, spend — all too often on credit — now that the festive season is near. Such activity, we are told, will provide a boost to the economy.
In fact, all it will do is provide a boost to banks and to the profits of importers, producer companies, wholesalers and retailers while the jobs slaughter continues. It will also deepen the debt of many households, while millions more do not even have the wherewithall to spend anything in the first pace.
But, as that old Christmas song advises us: ’Tis the season to be jolly. And there is a small minority of people who have cause to be exceedingly jolly.
They are the people whose already obscene levels of income have continued to soar. In honesty, many of them could sing of this season: ’Tis the season to rake in lolly; more and more money, from a majority persuaded that this is the right thing to do.
While the labour movement, as much as any other sector of society, appreciates opportunities to be jolly, to jol and be merry, low-paid workers in particular share with the unemployed the hollowness of circuses without bread. Their only hope lies in some change in a system that is sowing more and more sorrow and destruction.
Locally, such hope, within the labour movement, tends to be pinned on the Living Wage conference (LWC), scheduled for early next year. It will follow the Conference of the Democratic Left (CDL) in January.
The CDL comprises community groups and activists along with mainly small Left organisations, and may be in a position, along with trade union federations, to present coherent policy suggestions to the LWC. So, as we head toward 2011, the coming season could be used as a time to reflect on current realities and to consider alternatives that may be argued for.
As Cosatu spokesperson, Patrick Craven, notes, one of the realities that must be considered is the huge and growing wage and welfare gap. “It is a chasm,” he says, pointing to payments to local chief executives of more than R1 million a week.
He also points out that the global nature of capital makes a nonsense of talk about capping the remuneration of top executives. Quoting the recent Who Owns Whom report that revealed that the number of billionaires in South Africa has nearly doubled — from 16 to 31 — over the past year, he also notes that the known wealth of South Africa’s 20 richest men increased by 45 per cent in the year.
This is no localised phenomenon: it applies globally. As this column pointed out in July, the number of billionaires in India, for example, nearly doubled last year to 52 with combined wealth of $276 billion ( R1 932 billion).
The message is clear: while workers everywhere should consider what actions to take locally, they should do so only after thinking globally. Many trade unions are already doing so — and are realising that to call simply for decent jobs with decent pay and for more and better training is meaningless.
Not that such calls do not continue to be made in isolation, usually by union leaderships apparently bereft of any alternative ideas or even much awareness of the impact of the economic crisis. Like most mainstream economists, these union leaders tend to cling to any passing straw of hope that the crisis is at an end; that the system can be stabilised and made to function as it did in the recent past.
But, as US economist David Rosenberg has noted, this is precisely what happened during the depression of 1929 when “any good news triggered euphoric response”; where every mildly hopeful sign tended to be seen as a signal that the worst was over.
Overall today, even where economies are growing, the number of jobs is declining. This has led to some commentators noting that while the world economy may recover from what the Los Angeles Times has called “the Great Recession”, jobs will not; stability, it seems, will come at the cost of starving millions.
In the US, where unemployment now hovers around 10 per cent, many more millions of workers are already under employed. At the same time, corporations, some of them saved by massive injections of taxpayers’ money, are starting again to make profits — while continuing to shed jobs and to invest abroad in lower wage societies.
Human labour is still essential, albeit in fewer numbers in several industries. And, at slave-wage rates, people can often produce more cheaply than the capital cost of full automation with minimal human input.
This reality lay at the heart of the great Chinese growth spurt. But Chinese workers are also becoming restive and wage rates have increased. Companies, especially in the sportswear sector, have again looked elsewhere.
Last week, the British Trade Union Congress released details of the pay and conditions endured by sportswear workers in Sri Lanka. TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, pointed out that it would take a Sri Lankan worker more than 14 000 years to earn the R88 million a year paid to Nike chief executive Mike Parker.
It is not just Nike that is capitalising on the “even less than China” wages of Sri Lanka: Adidas is there, along with Speedo, Puma and Reebok. It is not that companies such as these are dishonest, immoral or acting illegally; they are merely following the dictates of the system, a system that includes workers and their unions.
It is a mad and destructive merry-go-round, benefiting the few at the expense of the many and, in the process, threatening the future of humanity itself. Change is clearly necessary.
So while workers enjoy these holidays, making the best they can of them, it could also be a time to for reflection, co-operation — and planning for a different and better future for all.