Thuma Mina (send me): to Geneva?

Posted on June 14, 2019

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Spare a thought — and perhaps some sympathy — for mayors a municipal officials who feel aggrieved at being told by government to cut expenses, to use public transport and not go on junkets. Also spare more than a thought — and much more sympathy — for the millions of unemployed youth who heard from StatsSA last month that, officially, more than 55% of workers aged between 15 and 24 have no jobs.

These groups are among those who should feel particularly angry this week at news that a South African delegation had flown off to what, for most, may be a 11-day, all expenses paid, jolly in Geneva. This is for the centennial celebrations of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the 108th conference of that body.

This great gathering and celebration, featuring 6 000 delegates from 185 countries, began on Monday this week and ends on Friday, June 21. This means that many of the major representatives of labour could be abroad when South Africa recognises, on June 16, the sacrifices and ongoing difficulties facing youth.

Some commentators have expressed surprise at the “50-plus” from South Africa, headed by labour minister Thulas Nxesi. However, according to the ILO list, 69 South Africans — besides President Cyril Ramaphosa who paid a flying visit —arrived in that Swiss city

Even delegations from nearby European countries, faced with comparatively much lower travel costs, arrived with smaller delegations. This is not at all surprising because a stay in Geneva is costly: according to the authoritative Economist Intelligence Unit, the city is the fifth most expensive in the world.

In the SA delegation, government accounts for the largest group — 25 — followed by 22 members of trade union federations, with Cosatu, headed by general secretary Bheki Ntshalishali, accounting for 14 members. The Federation of Unions (Fedusa) is represented by seven officials, while the practically moribund National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) has one member listed.

Coming at a time when belt tightening is called for and greater austerity looms, it has already been pointed out that this particular junket is a multi-million rand affair. And it matters not whether government picks up the whole tab or whether the unions, Chapter nine institutions, employer and other bodies contribute, it is working people who will pay. The money will either all come from taxes, or have contributions from union subscriptions or tax writes offs.

But since South Africa is a member of the ILO with its headquarters in Geneva, expense has to be borne if international meetings are to be attended. The crucial question, however, is how much expense is necessary? In other words, how many delegates are required to put across the arguments/suggestions/pleas on behalf of any delegation?

The centennial celebration aside, the business of the ILO gatherings is to bring together representatives of governments, business and labour to debate and hopefully reach decisions about the best way forward for the world of work. Like South Africa’s National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), represented by three individuals in Geneva, the ILO functions as a tripartite agency, only on an international scale. And, like Nedlac, it has only moral suasion and no power to enforce its decisions and conventions.

But, although its focus is on labour, the ILO shares in common with institutions such as the World Bank and that rich boys’ club, the World Economic Forum, a commitment to the maintenance of the existing economic system. As such, it operates on the basis that business, governments and labour share common, and over-riding, interests.

Clearly, they do not. Which is why the motto of the organisation — “Advancing social justice, promoting decent work” — rings hollow when weighed against global reality. It is a reality the ILO itself admits, noting that “the gap between richest and poorest is widening” and that this has led to “the growth of damaging and unacceptable inequalities”.

The many, often unequal, advances in social justice and improvements in working conditions globally have had the support of the ILO, which has codified them, But where they have been applied, it has been through the often bitter and bloody struggles of workers on the ground.

However, this year, in the face of an apparently deepening economic crisis, the ILO is demanding, seemingly even more stridently, that action to be taken “for an equitable future”. This is the essence of Ramaphosa’s “Thuma mina” — send me — call that invokes the church chorus highlighting self-sacrifice and individual responsibility.

Such calls have, of course, been heard before and may sounds like platitudes, statements full of righteous promise that have been recycled so often that they have become meaningless. “But for some it seems to mean send me into cabinet or to Geneva,” one senior, stay-at-home union leader remarked.

He maintains: “At the very least, the government owes the public a full cost/benefit analysis of this Geneva trip.”

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