Let jobless, not Cosatu, decide what is ‘decent’

2011-01-22 13:06

Cosatu can justifiably claim that it speaks on behalf of workers, but it must stop claiming to represent the jobless.

ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe, himself a former union leader, made an important jump this week when he stressed that dignity often comes with having work – not the Swiss-defined “decent work”, but a job to earn a piece of bread.

Cosatu, for reasons of self-interest, pushes for decent work creation, not job creation.

Decent work, as defined by the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation, includes work with full benefits, from cradle to grave, and paid at high minimum rates.

It is a type of work that was achieved hardly anywhere in the world but for a small European labour aristocracy, and even in those advanced social democracies the definition has fallen into history.

The death of this kind of work is not one to celebrate and it is an ideal worth striving for, but to make it the sine qua non of employment-creating policies in a developing country is to confine jobless workers to the dole queues that snake around unemployment insurance fund offices everywhere.

Moreover, allowing Cosatu to lead the employment debate is to keep half of our young people on the road to nowhere.

Statistics show that one in two employable young people is jobless and cannot get into the formal economy because the labour market is wrapped in laws that make employers wary of hiring.

Now Labour Minister Nelisiwe Mildred Oliphant has passed a slate of new draft labour laws that will make things worse.

One of the oldest ways for young workers to get into jobs is by becoming temps first and then getting full-time work when turnover grows or they have proved themselves.

Now, instigated by Cosatu, government wants to outlaw temporary work contracts so that anybody taken on is regarded as a full-time worker.

Cosatu is acting out of self-interest to incrementally improve the working lives of its million-plus members.

That is its due and its right and is why members join unions.

With its excellent bargaining tactics honed over more than 25 years, Cosatu has managed to move its membership cohort from tough working-class existences into relative middle-class comfort.

In sectors such as mining and manufacturing, as well as in the state service, unions have pushed up benefit levels so that employees are now getting a range of benefits which have improved their lives.

For that it deserves congratulations, but the unions can no longer be allowed to speak for the jobless – the four million available job-seekers who cannot get in anywhere.

It is important that, faced with a local election and with union allies who are more militant than ever before in the tripartite alliance’s history, the ANC does not back down from letting the workers who are not working decide what is decent and what is not.

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