Confronting the realites of striking

2011-07-07 00:00

IT is the cold season, indeed. Not only are people shivering throughout the country (even some people in the comparative mildness of the Durban winter), but we have entered the annual strike season. It is not a good time for employers or shareholders or, indeed, anyone whose aspiration it is to see the country making sound economic progress. One can be sure, too, that the unions will be increasingly militant and the strikes and demonstrations (they are two different things, actually, but have become synonymous) are unlikely to be less violent than those in the past. In the nature of things, one expects greater violence as the strike lengthens. Frustration increases among the workers as the sacrifice of income begins to bite more acutely, but this year, and increasingly in the recent past, the early days have also had their share of mayhem.

Unions would have us believe that these are spontaneous outbursts over which they have no control, but I don't buy this at all. Their propaganda is such as to whip their members into a frenzy of righteous indignation. It is the kind of motivational strategy employed when countries go to war and ordinary people have to be psyched into hating their enemies sufficiently to kill them.

I think there are some realities to be confronted. The first is that these industrial actions are not about unemployed people at all. They can't possibly be, because the logic is that higher employment costs translate into less employment. That is a simple matter of cash. A second reality is that these kinds of disruption, and the aggressive manner in which they are enforced, encourage businesspeople to find an alternative to employment. Machines do not strike or demand double-digit increases each year. It is also beyond question, I believe, that the economy cannot afford wage increases so far in excess of the inflation rate. Nor can it afford a host of other impediments to productivity. Indeed, a situation where wages go up and productivity declines is untenable. Perhaps it is to the discredit of employers, generally, that they don't make reciprocal demands, but are left largely defenceless in trying to reach some accommodation. The offensive of the unions has been powerful and oppressive, and it is only one side that makes demands.

Another reality is that foreign investors will be increasingly reluctant to look at our country as an investment destination. This is a threat made so often by business that its truth has little validity any longer. But it is true because there are other countries where labour costs are less and workers are more productive. These lucky countries do not only offer fertile investment opportunities, they also offer more competitive products on the international market at the very time that we are trying to increase our exports. The moneyed foreign industrial investor is hardly likely to take the risk of nationalisation plus the possibility of a double-digit wage increase each year.

The striving for "decent jobs" has now been complemented by the concept of a "living wage", a concept which is defined in a purely subjective way. Some people earn nothing, and a multitude of others have to survive on a state welfare grant which is only a fraction of the minimum wages being demanded.

But here is another reality. For some people, perhaps too many in the country, a living wage is enough to have several luxury cars in the garage, designer clothes, extravagant parties and all the other trappings so ostentatiously associated with wealth. Executive pay packages, including bonuses and perks, have exceeded by some margin the increases granted to workers in recent years and the consequence is that we are among the most unequal societies in the world. That this should have occurred in a country that subscribes to such a liberal and progressive constitution and a Freedom Charter is disgraceful. That, I think, is what drives the unions.

There is a point to be made. And when it comes to making sacrifices in the interests of the country's economy, it is not acceptable that these should be made by the workers, who, perhaps, should not be castigated for aspiring to the middle-class.

• Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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