The real enemies

2010-06-30 00:00

I HAD just written a piece challenging the trades unions to hand over the violent criminals in their midst, when the news came through that three Dis-Chem workers were arrested for malicious damage to property after a Dis-Chem store in Pretoria was burnt to the ground.

SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union (Saccawu) spokesperson Mike Abrahams immediately took the side of the accused, saying: “We are convinced that this is just another instance of harassment of the striking workers.” He accused police of being used by Dis-Chem.

He said: “Dis-Chem is hellbent on destroying Saccawu.”

Happily the matter will be settled in court. Meanwhile, we hope that strikers who derailed a fuel train in Durban during the Trans­net strike will also be brought to book.

The trade unions have a vital role to play in a democracy. As much as they annoy us by holding the whole country to ransom ahead of and during the World Cup, they have fulfilled their function. Most strikes are settled and South Africa’s labour record does not seem worse than that of other countries.

The objectionable thing about our unions still, however, is the continuing latent threat of violence.

Toyi-toyiing can be quite joyous but it is the sticks, the sakilas and the pangas that make our unions appear so savage. They are ostensibly traditional weapons only for show, but we know these weapons are often used to deadly effect.

After you have brandished traditional weapons in the street with impunity, perhaps it is no big deal to lift railway tracks and cause a fuel train to crash in a residential area. Just imagine if that train had gone up in flames. How primitive is it to set fire to a store because you want more money?

The silence of the unions after these outrages has been deafening.

Having conceded that the unions have fulfilled a useful role in allowing workers to let off steam and also in helping to develop a black middle class, they have been too successful for the good of the country.

They have pushed wages and benefits far beyond productivity. Rational employers will do anything possible rather than increase the workforce.

Today, union members are privileged, like “previously advantaged” white folks. While the unemployed scrabble through dustbins for a crust, Cosatu members have a minimum wage that is well above the market rate, overtime, annual leave, sick leave, maternity and paternity leave, and housing allowances.

They get time off for union meetings, for negotiations, for strikes and, of course, the greatest freebie, Cosatu’s congress, which is funded by South African business (with a gun to its head) to the tune of R5 million a year.

If ordinary members are advantaged, then office bearers cream it — big salaries and nice cars, all on the working class.


It probably does not occur to the millions who are unemployed that their real enemies are the trade unions, not the capitalists or the desperate souls who take casual employment for less than R100 a day if they can get it.

Millions of the unemployed would be glad to load and unload ships and trains for R2 000 a month. Meanwhile, the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) blackmailed the country, demanding more than Transnet’s offered average of more than R13 000 a month.

What does this country need for a bright economic future? Judging by the experiences of the Asian tiger economies, we need the following:

• several million people, who are currently not producing, to get to work and increase the size of the economic cake;

• a deregulated labour market, making it easier to hire and fire; and

• to ensure that the inevitable loss in average wages is temporary, we need an educational system that equips people to compete in a modern world.

The trades unions stand in the way of all three requirements.

Writing about Zimbabwe, more than a decade ago, The Economist memorably observed that there is one thing worse than being exploited and that is not to be exploited.

More than 80% of the people of the country to our north that Julius Malema so admires are out of work. We are at 25% and rising.

Deregulation of the labour market would encourage employment rather than make it the last thing any boss would consider. You can be sure that firms that were press-ganged into excessive wage agreements are even now planning to cut back numbers.

By opposing casuals and contract labour, the unions are blocking people who desperately want to work.

When it comes to the lamentable standards of South African education, the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has little to say about the absence of education and the high incidence of absenteeism in our public schools. It exists to call out the teachers to toyi-toyi, mindful of one thing — more money for zero performance. Meanwhile, another generation of young people is prejudiced and condemned to unemployability.

We all know the trade unions have marred performance in the government and provincial and municipal offices. While the banks, the insurers, the retailers and the rest of the private sector function pretty efficiently, why is it that public-sector employees can’t even ans­wer a phone?

When will we get a union of the unemployed representing the millions who are idle against their will? Such a union could mobilise against the unions and offer to work any time there is a strike.

The psychological damage to an individual without a job who is living on welfare is inestimable. And it goes without saying that many people desperate for money do resort to crime.

The unions have struck now because they know that after the World Cup their power will be reduced.

Judging from statements from the construction companies, the big build programme will taper off. The government has make-work schemes but these are short-duration, lowly paid jobs, not the privileged ones that the unions enjoy.

I hate to break it to you, Zwelinzima Vavi, the market will prevail.


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