Unions challenge govt — and the opposition

Posted on March 9, 2012


The mass strike in South Africa on Wednesday, March 9, was only nominally about e-tolling on public roads and the problem of labour brokers. It was, in fact, a serious shot across the bow of government about the deteriorating conditions faced by wage earners, the poor and the unemployed.

Government responded with finance minister Pravin Gordhan firing off a barely veiled threat about the possible relaxation of labour legislation. He did so on the eve of the strike — and the battle lines have clearly been drawn with skirmishing underway.

The evident support for Wednesday’s marches showed that the trade union movement was almost solidly behind the call initiated by the largest — and government aligned—  federation, Cosatu. Only the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa), quoting fear of legal consequences, did not unconditionally support the protests.

Significantly, the independent 210 000-strong public sector union, PSA, also came out to back the demand by Cosatu to ban labour brokers. Until now, the PSA has called for the enforcement and, if necessary, the tightening up, of existing laws covering the temporary employment services provided by brokers.

This is the position also taken by Fedusa and by several independent unions. The PSA also continues to support “in principle” regulation.

“We still hold that position, but if the laws are not being effectively enforced, then we support a ban,” says Manie de Clerq, the PSA deputy general manager.

But while there may be some debate about how, ultimately, to deal with labour broking, the charging of tolls on public roads has resulted in unprecedented unanimity. On this issue the labour movement has also clearly won much wider support.

As Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, has pointed out, without cheap, efficient public transport, road tolls will raise the cost of living for everyone in South Africa. This situation is exacerbated by the recent increase in the road tax and fuel levies and the consequent rise in fuel prices and transport costs.

Labour brokers, however, remain a prime target of trade union ire, but they are, at the same time, recognised by most trade unionists as a symptom, not the cause, of the problem; they are a reaction to a set of circumstances which they did not create.

I hold no brief for labour brokers, and, like the overwhelming bulk of the trade union movement, I agree that if labour brokers could be banned it would not result in any job losses, other than, perhaps, among the brokers themselves.

It seems obvious that the only jobs these purveyors of labour create is for themselves. This at the expense of workers who are cycled and recycled through a system that requires levels of mental and manual sweat to guarantee productivity and profit.

This, according to De Clerq, amounts to “profiting at the expense of job seekers”. It is an activity that he regards as “basically immoral”.

But various sectors of the economy — agriculture is perhaps a classic example — do, of course, require additional labour at specific times during the year. There is also a need to fill temporary vacancies in various fields when permanent staffers are on holiday, or taking parental or sick leave.

And there is always the case of urgent additional staff being required in the health care sector. Because government, at provincial and national level, has not established any temporary service provision, the private sector has stepped in.

In the surgical ward of a large state hospital that I visited twice a day for a week, most of the nursing staff were “agency nurses”. They were paid the going rate for the job, but at a considerable additional cost to the hospital, the province and, ultimately, the national fiscus.

Even more worrying is the effect on the quality of care delivered. As Asanda Fongqo of the Democratic Nurses Organisation of SA (Denosa) notes: “It is actually the recycling of the very same nurses, not allowing them sufficient rest — and that has a direct impact in the quality of care.”

He adds: “Agencies are exploiting the gross staff shortages in nursing.” The problem here is an estimated national shortage of at least 46 000 nurses.

However, there are also qualified nurses without permanent work while numerous vacant nursing posts remain either frozen or unfilled for unknown reasons. Overworked in understaffed wards and without job security it is not surprising that an estimated 30 000 South African nurses now work abroad.

However, with their skills and the massive shortage of staff, nurses have work, if not job security or a clear career path. Not so fortunate are the members of the massive army of casual workers, many in the retail sector.

Among them were several interviewed Shoprite workers who effectively slunk to work on Wednesday in casual clothes instead of their uniforms. Most supported in principle the Cosatu-called action, but feared losing the little work they had.

It is in this atmosphere of fear and desperation that labour brokers thrive. But
— as has been mentioned several times over the years in this column — such purveyors of temporary employment services are compelled by law to adhere to basic conditions legislation and wage rates.

However, most labour brokers ignore these regulations. They do so because they can, in the process providing industry with workers who are not necessarily paid the going rate for the job, and who receive none of the other benefits of employment.

It is a situation that suits many employers. Since labour is often the major cost against profit, the cheaper labour can be purchased, the better for the employers and their shareholders.

This is not a moral judgement; it is a simple fact of life. It is the way of the system — and the reason trade unions have fought so hard for labour laws that declare such behaviour illegal.

Now the unions and their allies have a major fight on their hands. And it is not against labour brokers or road tolling companies; it is against those who create and support the environment that gives rise to brokers and tolls. In short, it is a battle against the government and the parliamentary opposition.