That private club of super-rich men, the World Economic Forum (WEF), was back in town this week. In Cape Town to be exact, to persuade, buy up and bully politicians and opinion makers to adopt policies that many trade unionists say are based on the myth that there is no alternative to the present crisis-ridden economic system.
Even the latest WEF slogan — “Delivering on Africa’s promise” — was seen as unintentionally ironic. Delivering to whom? was the obvious question. From a labour perspective this was merely a matter of the WEF dressing up further continental rape as consensual marriage.
Which is not to cast aspersions at the members of the WEF and their motives; they are merely very good at behaving in exactly the blinkered manner the system demands. So they are very good at maximising profits while generally failing to see or admit responsibility for the often horrific results of this single-minded pursuit.
For this reason, the labour movement has long disparaged the WEF — and there seems no reason to change this. After all, in 2008, the year that the ongoing economic crisis began seriously to be felt, the WEF slogan for its annual meeting was: “Improving the state of the world.”
To say that this has not happened would be a gross understatement. And South Africa’s problems, despite much talk of upticks and promise are particularly acute in a number of areas.
Take the official employment statistics released this week: they reveal, yet again, that the country is in deep trouble. But these figures and what they mean, socially and economically, should not be seen in isolation: they are part of a global trend.
It is a trend that has seen bottom lines squeezed and the super rich accumulating even more — and faster — in the face of looming instability. All of this at the cost of horrendous suffering to millions of men, women and children the world over.
And it is not only through lack of jobs that the suffering arises: companies, under pressure in a world of surpluses to maintain or increase profits, are cutting costs. Safety measures are being sacrificed in often desperate attempts to remain competitive in a cut-throat marketplace.
At one end of the developmental scale, the the recent explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas provides a classic example. It received widespread coverage around the world, but little — if any — mention that it might be a victim of the present crisis. Yet it almost certainly was.
In a remarkable display of ignorance some reports noted that it could not be understood how a fertilizer plant could explode. But that plant in Texas stored tons of ammonium nitrate, the compound used in the infamous 1995 Oklahoma bombing. It is also the explosive of choice for a number of guerrilla and terror groups.
But the United States safety authority had not checked the plant for years. To cut costs, “self assessment” was introduced and, as late as last year, the factory owners assured the authorities that there was no risk of an explosion.
Self regulation also applied in Bangladesh where an estimated 662 garment workers died when an eight storey sweat shop collapsed. The factory owner insisted that workers continue to work in a building declared unsafe, because he was under pressure to meet orders. He was also feeling the pinch because Bangladeshi workers, in a series of protests last year, managed to nearly double their monthly minimum wage to the equivalent of R360.
In what the labour movement has termed a manic race to the bottom, Bangladeshi workers are ahead of South Africans. Workers in the US are generally somewhat behind. But all are entrants drafted into the same race.
Facing this reality, unions should heed an important lesson preached this week at the WEF gathering: the need for integration. From a WEF perspective this means turning Africa into an single marketplace in an already brutally competitive world of surpluses.
This could lead to hastening the race to the bottom, not only in Africa but globally, unless the labour movement responds adequately. To do so will mean ensuring that workers as workers are everywhere united in defence of decent wages and conditions while insisting on the provision of jobs for all.
To even begin to achieve this will require considerable introspection and the will to go back to founding principles. Because, in spite of all their faults, trade unions can be — and often are — democratic standard bearers of a just society and the bulwark against gross exploitation. As such they are more important now than ever.
But it will be a long haul to achieve just a small part of such goals. South Africa, for example, has 196 registered trade union and four federations, one of which is virtually moribund.
Accurate figures are impossible to come by, but it is likely that the three functioning federations, Cosatu, the Federation of Unions of SA and the National Council of Trade Unions, between them organise up to 2.3 million workers. Add large and small independent unions and the figure is probably close to 3 million out of an officially employed workforce of 13.7 million or less than 25 per cent of those in work.
Many of these unions, including larger ones that are affiliated to functioning federations, have also failed to file the legally required, annual, audited financial and membership statements. Some have not done so for years and, strictly speaking, should be deregistered.
Internecine feuding also continues, especially within Cosatu, with the National Union of Mineworkers accusing the National Union of Metalworkers of “poaching” members. And, in spite of evidence to the contrary Cosatu continues to claim that it has more than 2 million members and is growing.
It is clearly time for a reality check by all unions. For the South African labour movement movement alone, there is a long way to go. But unless the journey is embarked upon, there is no hope getting out of the race to the bottom.