||The burning issue of workers' rights has become too powerful to sideline
or ignore, as strikes and marches in South Africa continue to grow in
intensity and duration.
Last week's massive Cosatu march and the ongoing security guard strike
are posing tough questions to us about our labour force as the mainstay
of our economy, and their socio-political lives as workers. While such
debates about labour issues and rights have been raging behind the
scenes at various levels - from the government to academia and in broad
sectors of civil society - they have now been thrust into the public in
a way that cannot escape public attention.
It is no surprise that the discontent and anger felt by marginalised and
exploited workers has spilled out on to the streets. There is a wealth
of suffering around us, not least of which is experienced by workers.
Perhaps, in South Africa, it may well be possible to remain blind to the
depths of poverty and inequality around us.
In certain contexts, it may actually be possible to live a rarefied
existence, buffered by luxury vehicles and gated communities, where one
never sees the acute misery and suffering of fellow South Africans.
Where one can remain impervious to the hungry street children running
for hand-outs at the robots, beggars burrowing in rubbish bins for
leftovers, people selling coat hangers and rubbish bin-liners at the
roadside in order to earn a living.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that there is something
fundamentally wrong with society, as the frustrated voices of those at
the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder become louder and louder.
Certainly, it is clear that, as Cosatu Secretary-General Tony Erhenreich
has observed: "A revolution of the allocation of resources needs to happen."
Statistics say that nearly 40% of South Africans are unemployed. The
ranks of the unemployed have increased substantially since the late
1990s owing to consistent job-shedding in the formal sector.
The greatest job losses have been experienced in industries such as
clothing, textiles and leather, which have been ruined by cheap imports
from East Asia and the tariff reductions imposed by the government.
The tragedy of the Rex Truform clothing factory in the Western Cape,
particularly last year's closure of its Salt River plant, is a case in
point. Job losses at Rex Truform, a source of multigenerational
employment for families on the Cape Flats, has meant devastating
consequences for families.
The mining and manufacturing industries have also suffered declines.
According to Cosatu, jobs in the clothing, mining and manufacturing
sectors have been shed at a rate of about 100 000 formal jobs in the
past 10 years - 17 000 in the past 12 months alone and 800 during the
first month of this year.
Outsourcing and casualisation has increasingly replaced permanent work
across many sectors of the economy, depriving workers of the security of
a fixed wage, benefits and regulation.
In real terms, it has meant heartache and privation for working
families, whose breadwinners have often been forced into precarious or
exploitative forms of employment for survival's sake, or no employment
There is little by way of a social security net to cushion such shocks
Although social spending figures indicate substantial increases going to
the poorest sectors of society, there are real problems in how social
grants are administered and how they are accessed.
For example, retrenched or newly unemployed workers can only access the
UIF grant if they have registered with the fund, assuming a permanent
formal job - and even then, only for a period of six months. The long
queues seen outside UIF offices bear testimony to the desperation and
need experienced by workers.
The Labour Relations Act is often lauded as the cornerstone of workers'
rights in a new South Africa.
Although the wealth of improved labour rights contained in the Labour
Relations Act has not always translated into meaningful implementation,
there is no doubt that the Act represents an improvement in the lives of
But legislation does not protect a whole other category of marginalised
and flexible workers, such as migrants (particularly illegal ones) and
The focus on a "permanent job" located within a workplace under the
control of an employer, excludes other workers who do not fit that
paradigm. And, of course, legislation and rights mean little to people
What we are seeing is both the disempowering effects of globalisation
and the economic exclusion that state policies have allowed - resulting
in declining standards of living and increasing unemployment and hardship.
South African workers are incredibly vulnerable in such a context, and
the government can, and must, act with regard to social expenditure,
social security grants and social wages, to protect workers from the
harsh economic realities of globalisation.
We cannot continue to dig our heads into the sand like ostriches and
remain impartial to what is happening around us. If there is no strong,
regulating state, and if the government remains an omnipotent abstract
entity located in our administrative capitals, then conditions for
workers will continue to deteriorate - to the detriment of the economy
and the nation.
Annsilla Nyar is a research fellow at the Centre for Civil Society