afrol News, 10 April - "What is our protection when companies sideline fair labour standards in one country, and move to the next that pays poverty wage and offers no protection to workers?" asked Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the leading South African trade union COSATU on a collective bargaining conference today.
Collective bargaining, a unified workers' movement and the international cooperation to implement labour rights in neighbouring countries were the main answers given by the union's leader, in an analysis that was more defensive than offensive.
While all countries are experiencing the effects of globalisation, South Africa indeed is in an unprecedented situation. On the threshold to the developed world, its democratic structure and strong unionist movement contrast the country to recent historical examples of Southeast and East Asia, were industrialisation was achieved without dialogue with unions. Further, the contrast between two societies, economically still mostly divided by race, makes it almost impossible to treat South Africa as one country.
South Africa observes a minority living by Western standards, integrated in the industrialised world's market and competing with modern American, European or Japanese companies. On the other side of the scale, there is the black, African poor minority, unemployed or living directly from modest land resources, and finding themselves in a situation comparable to most people in rural Africa.
In between, there is the largest economic group of, mostly black, low-wage employees, the class most threatened by globalisation. Could their work not have been done in neighbouring Mozambique at half the price and without troublesome unionists interfering?
- We are meeting at the time where attacks on workers and their gains at all fronts is under relentless attack, Zwelinzima Vavi observed. "The job-loss bloodbath continues unabated. The quality of jobs is on the decline, with good paying jobs being replaced at an accelerated pace by insecure jobs that only help to create an army of the class of the working poor. Poverty is on the rise. Inequalities are deepening."
According to studies of the labour market in South Africa, there has been a 15 percent loss in formal sector jobs over the last ten years. Official numbers put the unemployment rate in South Africa at 37.3 percent in 2000. Unionist express concern over the trends, which they see as a product of typical globalisation trends such as "privatisation, downsizing and outsourcing in the public sector."
On the other hand, unionism is a strong factor in South Africa. COSATU's membership alone is at around 1.8 million in this period and remains stable, despite the job losses. The union's leader wants to take the globalisation bull by the horn, assuring that the fragile gains made by South African workers are not lost through ruthless global competition.
South African workers and unionist feel the pressure. Zwelinzima Vavi ask: "How do we respond to the demands that bosses are making that we should compete against fellow workers in a manner that will find us racing to the bottom as we give first our tea time, then our lunch times, work for more hours, give up maternity leave and family responsibility, and so on and on, in the hopes of keeping our companies within our borders, so that we can keep our jobs?"
He finds the answers in national, regional and international strategies. "Collective bargaining is the lifeblood of the trade union movement," Vavi maintains. "Without it no trade union is worth its salt." This right, the trade union has achieved in South Africa, in contrast to most African nations. Vavi wants to strengthen collective bargaining in South Africa by developing a strategy to organise informal sector workers as well.
Remains the regional and international competition. Zwelinzima Vavi also observes "we cannot win if unions within the SADC region [Southern Africa] remain weak. This extends to our continent and the world. At the centre of a successful collective bargaining strategy is international worker solidarity and the need to build a new world where there is decent employment opportunities for all, where poverty, diseases, ignorance and divisions forms the core values of that world," Vavi said.
The South African union therefore has strongly supported campaigns led by the international trade union organisation, ICFTU, to globalise worker and human rights and against child labour. "As long as South Africa is surrounded by a sea of poverty, underdevelopment - then we bargain from a weak position. When increasingly, all over the world, there is an increase use of child labour, forced labour, prison labour ... then our strength is further eroded," Vavi said.
Although attacking the globalisation process in itself, Vavi mostly focused on answering it. Indeed, COSATU finds itself in a delicate situation on the African continent. Although exploitation of poverty and lacking workers' protection not is in the interest of any worker, an aggressive international policy by the union could be interpreted as a South African bid to hinder industrialisation in neighbour countries, only too willing to welcome industries in search of lower salaries and lower labour, social and environmental standards.
Although Zwelinzima Vavi briefly mentioned the importance of turning the mass "into a conscious movement," his recipes against the globalisation threat were surprisingly shortcoming on the point of education and skills development.
A typical model of industrialisation within a globalised world indeed includes development of more advanced industries, based on increased competence in the population at large, i.e. gaining new markets and new employment in sectors more favourable to both capitalists and workers, while slowly losing out on the low-wage and labour intensive industries to poorer regions and countries. Maybe South Africa has more to gain on globalisation than Vavi outlines?
By Rainer Chr. Hennig, afrol News editor