Grim year for labour — and more turbulence ahead

Posted on December 13, 2020


Much was made this week of the “stronger-than-forecast rebound” in economic performance in the third quarter of the year, yet it was another case of clutching at straws of optimism. With the easing of lockdown regulations and the return to work of more employees, an improvement was inevitable, but it came off a very low base.

It was much the same when optimism was expressed about second quarter labour statistics when they revealed that the number of people in jobs over that period had risen by more than half a million. But that was only a quarter of the more than 2 million jobs already lost in the previous, hard lockdown quarter.

And, as we head to what for many millions of South Africans will be a bleak festive season, it seems obvious that, for most working people 2020 will be seen as the worst 12 months since the demise of apartheid. Millions of jobs have been lost, incalculable damage has been done to the prospects of millions of children and, for organised labour, the whole carefully crafted edifice of labour relations has been undermined by a government that seems incapable of dealing with its internal rot.

Above all, the hurt caused, especially to poor working class families, will be felt for generations. But working people across the board have been affected, none more so than employees of a government that still lays claim to pro-worker sympathies and where the governing ANC remains a member of the Socialist International.

This week, for example, provided a case of apparently callous disregard for women and men in the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) of SA Airways (SAA) and arms maker, Denel. These are workers who have spent the past eight months without pay and, in the case of SAA, have now been offered three-months of their outstanding wages.

The department of public enterprises noted baldly that full settlement of outstanding SAA pay “could not be adhered to”. This was mildly — and justifiably — labelled by many of the workers as “a slap in the face”.

Some of these workers have lost their homes, withdrawn children from school for want of school fees and now face a bleak Christmas and a potentially jobless future. But they at least remain in work, unlike millions of other women and men, including thousands of early childhood development (ECD) centre workers.

It was these ECD workers who provided sanctuaries and, for the most part, some food on a daily basis for an estimated 2.5 million young children. Not only will most of these ECD centre probably not reopen, but it took a court judgement in July, brought by campaigning groups, to force the department of social services to reinstate the school feeding scheme that had been halted for nine million children.

At least, as one unionist commented, lawyers and court officials seem to have plenty of work, an indication of the emptiness of that the volunteerism call of Tuma Mina (Send Me). This month, in apparent frustration, a united front of public sector unions finally took government to court for continuing to refuse to honour the third tranche of a three-year pay deal agreed in 2018. Among the workers affected are nurses who are not highly paid and who have been on the Covid-19 “frontline”.

Education unions and campaigning groups also headed to court this month in an attempt to stop a unilateral order that two matric exam papers be written following evidence of a leak. They claim that teachers, parents and students should all have had a say in any such decision.

For their part, the public sector unions point out that it was at government insistence that their deal be for three years; that this must have been budgeted for and that the first two years of the agreement were honoured without question.

To the exasperation of these unions, it has taken 11 months to reach the point of having to go to court. Like the education unions and over a very much longer period, they claim there was no meaningful consultation or negotiation.

But the main media focus in the public sector matter has been on the question of affordability, generally missing the most vital aspect: how the government’s action has undermined the principle of collective bargaining.

As Basil Manuel executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation (Naptosa) pointed out last week, this principle lies at the heart of industrial relations. Collective bargaining — along with freedom of association and the right to organise — formed to basis for the establishment in 1919 of the International Labour Organisation.

According to the ILO, conventions covering these three principles represent “essential building blocks for a harmonious, stable and progressive industrial relations”. Without collective bargaining — reaching mutual agreement through negotiation — there is anarchy.

This principle also applies in other contexts and and is seen as a way of avoiding lengthy and often very costly court action. For the education unions and their allies the matric rewrite was an urgent issue since a decision has to be made before the exam period ends.

But there is also a degree of urgency on the side of the public sector unions: workers have lost a year of agreed pay rises that many may have budgeted for. And the negotiations on pay and conditions for 2021 should already have started.

That government is now prepared to go to court to defend what is widely seen as a clear breach of contract is a particularly bitter note to end what, for the labour movement, has been a grim year. It is a year that has proved that South Africa is deep in the financial mire while the country remains the brink of what has already been dubbed a humanitarian disaster.

But it is not workers and the unions that should be held responsible for crises that have been developing for more than 20 years. Nor can the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic be blamed: the virus and the responses to it merely made matters worse.

However, this latest coronavirus strain has provided politicians and others with a convenient scapegoat for the maladministration, incompetence and corruption that has worsened the effects of a global economic crisis.

What also worsened the effects were the proclaimed “nine wasted years” under the stewardship of President Jacob Zuma. Those years certainly hastened pillage and plunder and encouraged the turning of official blind eyes to malfeasance that was already evident. As the late Henry Makgothi, former deputy secretary-general of the ANC noted, shortly before the Zuma administration took charge: “I fear the wheels are coming off.”

Makgothi was referring to the factionalism within the governing ANC and to the evidence of ongoing nepotism along with the signs of the maladministration and corruption that have effectively bankrupted most of the country’s local governments and demolished the financial standing of SOEs such as SA A.

When Makgothi spoke, the “revolving door” that saw labour leaders able to move seamlessly, and often successively, from trade union positions into parliament, government and business was well underway. As too was the involvement of many unions in investment companies.

In the process, as the public sector unions, point out, a new financial elite emerged as the economy registered jobless growth. And as the economy faltered, it was invariably unionised workers who got the blame.

A particular target has been the “bloated and over-paid” public sector that is the largest single component of government expenditure. But critics provide very little analysis of the sector or the rates of pay.

Much more work needs to be done here, but it does appear in figures produced by labour analyst Eddie Cottle, that, when inflation is taken into account, the real annual compound growth rate over the past decade, across the 16 grades of the public sector, is just 1.7%.

But, over the same period, there has been a threefold increase in the number of public servants — from 9,600 to 29,000 — paid R1 million a year or more. In almost all cases, pay increases in the public sector were based on the official inflation rate (CPI), with lower paid workers receiving 1% or 2% above CPI and the highest paid often receiving only the level set by the CPI.

While there may be too many managers, there are clearly not enough workers in vital areas such as education and health. And unionists have pointed out that South Africa continues to have perhaps the largest cabinet in the world, headed by a president who is listed, on a global basis, as one of the highest paid, while also featuring in the Top 20 list of the country’s wealthiest individuals.

When the year began, I wrote that it “promises to be more turbulent than anything in recent memory”. In fact there has not been as much turbulence as expected — the lockdown saw to that — but the damage done to to the social and political fabric has probably provided the fuel for much more bitter and turbulent years ahead.

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