Covid, confusion & the labour movement

Posted on December 13, 2021


(First published on Fin24 and in City Press, South Africa)

The issue dealt with in this column should have been resolved months ago. But, given the the way much of the labour movement continues to react and the fact that even the tripartite National Economic Development of Labour Council is still debating vaccination and mandates, I felt compelled to return to it.

There are certain facts that need to be acknowledged and many fictions and items of fake news that should be demolished. This is, I hope, my final contribution.

In the first place, it should be clear that mandatory vaccination does not mean that every individual is obliged by law to be vaccinated. What it does mean is that anyone who exercises their right not to be vaccinated has to exercise the responsibility not to be a potential source and spreader of the virus that is causing the current pandemic.

So those individuals who wish to exercise their right not to be vaccinated, have a responsibility not to associate closely with others, whether in a bar, restaurant, on a playing field or in a workplace. Vaccination provides the licence — the incentive — to remain part of the general community at work and at play.

The reason for this — as with other safety and public health regulations — is based not only on all the available evidence, but also on majority support. The evidence reveals that, short of universal vaccination, it is essential to isolate potential incubators and spreaders of a virus that is currently mutating and rampaging around the globe.

Besides, we live in. a world of broadly accepted and mandatory regulations. For example, to drive a vehicle on a public road, we require a licence, have to wear a seat belt, adhere to speed limits and drive on the left. Cyclists are also required to wear helmets and babies in South Africa are vaccinated against such diseases as tuberculosis, polio, hepatitis and measles.

In workplaces, whether mines, factories, retail outlets or restaurants, legislation such as the Occupational Health and SafetyAct apply. These generally accepted mandatory provisions exist in order to protect the safety, health and wellbeing of individuals and the community. Which does not mean that such regulations may be ignored in private spaces or in isolation. .

This is the level of clarity and clear direction that is desperately needed and where the labour movement should be a major role player. Unfortunately, the unions have, by and large, helped to sow confusion, in the process distorting the whole concept of mandatory regulation.

In so doing, especially with arguments about claimed constitutional rights, they have effectively allied themselves with various anti-vax charlatans, quacks and religious bigots. These are the sometimes prominent individuals who quote — out of context — rights from the Constitution without acknowledging responsibilities: the antithesis of the principle of solidarity on which the labour movement was founded.

However, after months of vacillation, Cosatu has supported mandatory vaccination, but only on the basis that “vaccinations are better than losing livelihoods under another lockdown”. In response, the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) this week pledging to support any workers who faced dismissal because of refusal to be vaccinated.

The largest union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), a Saftu affiliate, also opposes mandatory jabs. This on the basis that workers “have the right to choose not to [vaccinate], and their constitutional right [to their jobs] should be protected.

This is in line with an earlier Cosatu claim that “Employers have no rights to impose whatever virtuous ideas they have on the workers.” In these examples, the unions and federations involved each tend to present themselves as the best — or better — champions of workers in what is erroneously portrayed as part of the ongoing class war.

What these approaches seem to imply is that the labour movement, facing a general decline in membership, has prioritised intra-labour rivalry — and the fight to gain and retain members — over the welfare of the working class. If this is the case, it is inexcusable, especially in the light of the latest, horrifying unemployment statistics.

But this is obviously a public health issue, a fight against a virus that afflicts all classes. It is, therefore, one of the rare occasions where workers and bosses share a common interest.

It is surely time for the labour movement to acknowledge this and to play the leading role it is capable of playing in a battle against a common enemy.

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