Prince Mashele

Where is the pen of conscience?

2009-10-19 10:11

The national debate triggered by Cosatu's call for labour brokers to be banned needs to be rescued from the deliberate obfuscation of those who wish to conceal the evilness of labour brokerage. 

A quick search on the internet reveals just how the poor in our society lack intellectual tribunes to defend their rights in the corridors of knowledge and information. Almost all columnists and newspapermen refuse critically to interrogate the logic and practice of labour brokerage. The vogue is to project those who call for a ban as reckless imbeciles who are harmful to business.

Various spokespersons of labour-broker-companies seem to find scare tactics handy; they warn that, should labour brokers be banned, many people would lose their jobs. Others have sought to persuade our nation that labour brokers negotiate the best deals between skilled professionals and employers, and, therefore, they supposedly provide a critical service.

All of these spurious claims are constructed tactically to bribe the conscience of our society, solicit public support and isolate Cosatu as an organisation bent on injuring South Africa's collective interests. Given the class symbiosis between labour brokers and newspapermen, it is hardly surprising that media discourse has, hitherto, largely been on the side of labour brokers.

In order to expose the hollowness of the story sold to us by the advocates of labour brokerage, a reflection on some basic issues relating to the subject in question may be necessary. In his magisterial treatise, Principles of Political Economy, English writer John Stuart Mill states a fact with which many of us are indeed familiar: "The requirements of production are two: labour and appropriate natural objects." (1848: 51)

Under slavery, human beings would be coerced to provide their labour to a slave master who wished to apply such labour on some natural objects to produce his desired products. When slavery was abolished, people offered their labour freely to industrialists in exchange for pecuniary rewards. Essentially, this represented the genesis of a normal capitalist system. Companies recruited labour on a competitive basis, thus allowing people to decide which company they preferred to work for.

From the beginning, there was a direct negotiation between a prospective employer and prospective employee. It is mainly worker demands and unionisation that led to companies electing to avoid employing workers directly. The burden was shifted to middlemen, euphemistically termed "labour brokers".

While those who profit from it are sure to deny, the logic of labour brokerage is to make an employee vulnerable by rendering him conscious that he has less labour rights in relation to his employer. The philosophy behind it is for workers to toil while knowing that they could be easily gotten rid of. This is meant to guarantee the maintenance of their unsatisfactory work conditions.

Indeed, this system advances the mutual interests of companies and labour brokers.  Companies enter into agreements with labour brokers to provide labour in order for companies to avoid taking responsibility for the workers who do work for them. On their part, labour brokers benefit by serving as channels through which workers get to do work for companies.  In order for labour brokers to be protected from responsibility, they generally employ workers on temporary basis; a system known as casualisation. Thus is how it is has become almost impossible for unskilled South Africans to find permanent, decent jobs in the labour market.

Apart from unions, few of our newspapermen have written anything to explain how casualisation undermines the rights of workers. Before Cosatu earnestly proposed a ban, on labour brokers, it was as if there was no single casualised labourer in our country. The media was as calm as Calm River.

But what would happen if we were to remove the middlemen, labour brokers, from our employment system? Would companies close down? Indeed, labour brokers would have us believe that our economic subsystem would come to an abrupt halt, if they were to be erased from the system.

As John Stuart Mill reminded us, "The requirements of production are two: labour and appropriate natural objects." Production does not perforce require labour brokerage! While they may not prefer it, companies can be made to hire their own workers and still make profit. They can be compelled legally to provide the kind of job security of which labour brokers have robbed workers.

Anyone with a human heart must answer the question: if you had a brother, sister or father whose job security were undermined at the hands of labour brokers, would you side with the newspapermen who write to protect the future of labour brokers?

However convincing those who argue in support for labour brokers may seem to be, our nation still has to answer why we have for many years been indifferent to the kind of suffering to which labour brokers have subjected poor South Africans who have been looking for decent work. In The Fastidious Assassins, Albert Camus cites Bielinsky's letter to Hegel:

With all the esteem due to your philistine philosophy, I have the honour to inform you that even if I had the opportunity of climbing to the very top of the ladder of evolution, I should still ask you to account for all the victims of life and history. I do not want happiness, even gratuitous happiness, if my mind is not at rest concerning all my blood brothers. (1953: 38)

Could it be that those who support labour brokers do not care about the rights of workers because they are not their blood brothers? Or is it because our newspapermen have reached the top of the ladder that they write as if they do not sympathise with workers who are victims of life and history?

Hopefully, workers will someday have representatives among those in whose hands God has placed the gift of writing. When this happens, the human dignity of workers would perhaps not be airbrushed with the same ease with which Cosatu has been dismissed as an organisation whose call for a ban on labour brokers is injurious to the interests of our economic system.

- Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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