Inside labour: Patronage dims the light of labour

2014-06-11 12:00

The recent allegations of financial impropriety in the upper ranks of municipal workers’ union Samwu are only the latest in a string of similar scandals over the years.

And it is little wonder these have erupted, for many trade unions have transformed themselves into bureaucratic organisations with business links.

As this column has noted, this has led to a growing mood of rebellion within the ranks of Cosatu. A major reason is less the claims of fingers in the union tills, but of leaders of the country’s major trade union federation using the labour movement as a stepping stone to bigger and better positions.

The problem, most clearly enunciated by metal workers’ union Numsa, lies in Cosatu being part of the governing, ANC-led alliance. So loyalty to the ANC, rather than to the professed principles and policies of the labour movement, is rewarded by political patronage.

Every national election has seen union leaders “deployed” to provincial and national legislatures, in effect joining what many workers see as the gravy train. The same applies at the local government level.

The May 7 election was no exception and it saw Senzeni Zokwana, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), catapulted into the new Cabinet as minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

On Sunday (June 1), City Press triggered a major rumpus throughout the labour movement when it revealed Zokwana grossly – and illegally – underpaid an employee of his.

While the legal minimum monthly pay for farm workers is R2?420, Zokwana, who is also chair of the SA Communist Party (SACP), paid his young cattle herder R800 a month.

This revelation has resulted in widespread anger at the governing alliance that was exacerbated when SACP general secretary and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande stepped in to support Zokwana.

According to Nzimande, Zokwana was “only a poor mine worker”. Now that he was a minister, payment to the worker would increase. Using the “half a loaf is better than none” argument normally associated with groups such as the Free Market Foundation, Nzimande said it was better the worker had some money rather than being unemployed.

The NUM also issued a strident defence of Zokwana, “[who] served workers with dedication and commitment”, and demanded other leaders “come out clean and declare openly how much they pay their workers”.

The statement from Cosatu also agreed that Zokwana should not be singled out. It called for the enforcement of the minimum wage and other labour laws.

But officials of the federation did anonymously confirm Zokwana’s presidential pay package was in excess of R1?million a year. They also supported the call on Zokwana “and all who employ workers” to lead by example and pay the minimum wage.

What all this boils down to is a growing demand for financial transparency – something which could prove embarrassing for a number of trade unionists and politicians.

But there should be no reason for continual allegations, for subsequent denials and a lack of transparency, or for the media to investigate and expose such abuse.

The Bill of Rights states clearly that “everyone has the right of access” to any information “required for the exercise or protection of any rights”. And section 16 of the Labour Relations Act makes it obligatory for companies to open their books to unions to enable

them to perform their functions effectively.

So we have in place, at least in principle, the legal mechanisms that demand transparency in all matters

that affect the rights of any citizen. That trade unions

do not, as a matter of course, enforce these provisions

is perhaps not surprising, since they – along with most employers – seem oblivious to even the underlying

causes for the ongoing global economic crisis.

This resonates with this week’s strike threat by Numsa, which has the core of its membership in the auto sector. At the root of the crisis is the absurdity of overcapacity and overproduction.

With car sales in China slowing and production now in surplus, some estimates put the number of unsold new vehicles at millions of units. This could also have an impact on the platinum sector because the bulk of the metal is used in vehicle exhausts as a catalyst.

This means that the metal is almost endlessly recyclable and reusable. But the demand for auto catalysts is falling and recycled platinum now accounts for more than 2?million ounces a year.

Awareness of these factors might be another reason platinum group metal companies remain doggedly opposed to the R12?500 entry-level pay demand by underground miners.

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