Very little ‘sunshine’ for workers

Posted on October 4, 2013

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Following a proposal from the SABC that South Africa’s national broadcaster should
present 70% “sunshine news”, it seemed appropriate to look at this from a wider —
and working class — viewpoint, writes Terry Bell

Seventy per cent “sunshine news” and 30 per cent negative. This laboured, weather-based analogy can genuinely apply in many parts of the world, but only for a tiny and already rich minority. Having spent recent weeks surveying the world from a specifically British, but also European perspective, there seems little, if any, sunshine in prospect for working men and women anywhere.

As International Trade Union Confederation (Ituc) general secretary, Sharan Burrow has noted, these are the people who will have “more and more thunder hitting”. Increasingly battered by the storms of economic crisis are the youth, the NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) generation, those men and women aged between 16 and 25 or 29.

Of course, it’s not the same everywhere. In the European Union, average official youth unemployment now stands at 22 per cent, but ranges from under 5 per cent in Austria to 62.9 per cent in Greece. The figure for Greece — and for Spain, at 56.1 per cent — is at least on a par with South Africa.

It is a reflection of combined and uneven development, a concept that has been knocking around for more than a century. And the truth of this “unity within diversity” analysis of the free market has never been more clearly illustrated than today — and on a national, regional and global basis.

What it means, quite simply, is that the primitive and the progressive, the technologically advanced and the underdeveloped can exist side by side in human society; that aspects of both can be incorporated into communities that are, primarily, one or the other; that an industrialising country can leapfrog others to become an example of ultra-modern industry, albeit, perhaps in only a limited area, while others can be affected negatively.

That this is happening everywhere is a clear indication that we are, indeed, a world village, where everything that happens can — and usually does — have an influence on everything else. It also means that, for all the propaganda to the contrary, no city, state or country is an island entire unto itself.

But there is a major difference from the time when the combined and uneven development concept was first minted and how it is applied today. Originally, it applied to a time when there was a race to the top — a time of global economic expansion, a time, for example, when a feudal backwater such as Russia could house the most advanced steel works in the world.

It was also the heyday of imperialism, a time when the most industrialised and dominant nation states battled one another to gain markets and resources across the globe, a time, for all its often bloody ups and downs, of global growth and the emergence of trade unions. And it was the unions that fought generally successful, if drawn-out, battles to ensure better wages and conditions and, in some cases, full employment.

Today the unions, where they exist as relatively free and independent organisations, are fighting a generally rearguard battle to hold onto the advances of the past. They are doing so in a situation where they are under greater than ever pressure from governments, political parties and business, entities that wish to curtail or control the potential power of organised labour.

This is also a period correctly described by the labour movement around the world as “a race to the bottom” where technological advances continue and where the ingenuity of humanity and the labour of workers has created a situation of surplus production and capacity in the global village. It was this explosive growth of technology and productivity that led to a massive extension of credit that staved off, but made even more severe, the inevitable crash.

The result is steadily growing unemployment on a global scale as productive investment seeks out the most efficient, and least costly means of ensuring the best returns. Crudely put, this means increasingly lower paid workers operating more and more capital intensive equipment.

This also means austerity measures and cuts in real incomes. In Britain, this week for example, the minimum wage was increased by 12 pence (R1,65) an hour. Weighed against the existing rise in the cost of living, this increase means a loss in real terms of £1 000 (R15 000) a year for the million and more workers who have jobs at that level.

Similar reductions in the buying power of wages have been felt in many parts of the world — and South Africa is no exception. At the same time, as politicians the world over continue to pledge that corners have been turned and that economies are “on the right track”, the rise in unemployment goes on.

Little wonder then that the time bomb cliche keeps popping up. Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi used it several years ago, warning that the levels of national unemployment amounted to “a ticking time bomb”.

This week it was used again by members of Ituc who warned that Europe faced a “time bomb of youth unemployment”. Like the “no education before liberation” anti-apartheid fighters of yesteryear in South Africa, the NEETs, even in Europe, are being referred to as a “lost generation”.

In parts of the industrialised world where a degree of social security is available, it is also a very costly — and often very volatile generation. They are to the forefront of angry protests in countries such as Greece and one estimate puts their annual cost to Europe at €153 billion (R2 096 billion).

In such circumstances, there is little sunshine for workers and few prospects of any in the short to medium term. But organised labour still exists, for all its distortions and contradictions, and — to painfully extend the analogy — provides an umbrella under which workers can shelter and perhaps even unite to ensure a more sunny future.

And that, it seems, is one of the few glimmers of hope in an ongoing global storm created by a system that seems to have outgrown its usefulness.