Workers’ struggles are our struggles

2011-05-04 00:00

WHILE May Day is being reduced to a day for unions to highlight the deteriorating conditions of the poor and ordinary workers, it is in fact a day on which all of us, rich and poor, should reflect on the plight of our economy, especially its tendency to catapult some to billionaires and millionaires while pushing ever greater numbers of people into destitution and despair.

It ought to be a day when we collectively think about how we could make a reality the economic emancipation of those who go to bed without food, cannot afford schooling for their kids, cannot access water and cannot make enough income to pull themselves out of poverty.

It was in the seventies that fair-minded people started to consider workers' struggles as more than shop-floor issues that should be left to unionists and employers to resolve. It became clear that the struggle to free workers from semi-slave conditions in factories, on farms and in industries required enabling legislation and collective bargaining as well as economic and political reforms.

Yet, from what I hear in our public discourse, not all those who realise the gravity of the problem accept the fact that this is fundamentally about structural distortions directly linked to the dominant neoliberal paradigm of economic management. There are still those who, because of their ideological orientation, a love of arguing or sheer ignorance, still do not see the link between deteriorating conditions of working families and the paradigm that promotes crass materialism, selfish consumption and religious zeal for profits above all else.

Similarly, a lot of us leave the celebration of progress that has been made in advancing the struggle for the emancipation of workers from the yoke of poverty to trade unions and political parties. Yet, many South Africans who come from working-class families witness the difficulties faced by our hard-working relatives. Most of us are working class ourselves because we depend on selling our labour for income, and the loss of one month's salary would sink us into poverty.

We the middle class especially are quick to forget that we benefit directly from the small concessions forced on employers and the government through the struggles of the most downtrodden, including our annual pay rises, better leave conditions, better protection of labour rights, stronger health and safety conditions, greater restraint on the part of employers and improving allowances.

We often forget that work, which has fast become a privilege rather than a right, is made possible by the enabling legislation like the Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997, which strengthened the legal protection of workers against arbitrary dismissals, the denial of leave privileges, and unsafe working environment, while it also made strong provisions for worker justice on the shop floor, for training and skills development, and worker compensation.

The reason for celebration and further campaigns in favour of the universal goal of decent work is not only that the advances made have been inadequate, but also that there are reversals taking place on many fronts.

I say inadequate in that not all worker rights are fully protected from abuse and there are millions of people without jobs. By reversals I refer to a growing push for the relaxation of labour laws in order to attract investors, as if investors are heartless zombies who require inhumane working conditions to thrive.

There is no equally energetic push for deep economic-policy reforms because this is not favoured by some of the privileged few. Instead, any suggestion of economic reform, from developmentalism, fast-tracked land reform to nationalisation, is strangled and suppressed.

May Day is about reflecting on just how as a country we are going to give hope to millions who languish in poverty just a stone's throw away from places that are swimming in affluence.

How are we to reform economic policy in order to achieve in the economic sense what we have achieved on the political front since 1994? This is as true of South Africa as it is for the rest of the world after the global economic recession that showed the neoliberal economic paradigm to be seriously inadequate.

As the North African elite have just realised, if we do not undertake change in an orderly manner today, we will find ourselves swept by revolutionary change we have no control over. Change is inevitable.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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