Inside Labour: Is this a new dawn, or rather a false dawn?

Terry Bell
Terry Bell

For the labour movement in particular, this is very much the question as we move towards the second half of a tumultuous year.

And this question does not only apply to South Africa.

Later this month, trade union leaders and representatives of governments and business will gather in Geneva to negotiate an International Labour Organisation centennial declaration.

This declaration, a highlight of the 100th birthday celebrations of the oldest specialised agency of the UN, is being touted as the harbinger of a new dawn of peace and prosperity for all.

The International Trade Union Confederation (Ituc), representing more than 200 million unionised workers, has called this gathering “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set rules for the global economy to work for people”.

According to Ituc general secretary Sharan Burrow, it is organised labour that must be at the forefront to ensure a new deal – a new dawn – for workers everywhere.

At the same time, she notes that working people across the globe “are taking home an ever smaller share of the wealth they create”.

Internationally, growth in wages lags well behind the growth in wealth.

And the richest 1% of the world’s population capture an estimated 82% of the wealth generated.

Such figures resonate in South Africa, where, over the past month, Stats SA revealed that the expanded definition of unemployment has topped 38%.

But this hope for a new international dawn of peace and prosperity is based on yet another call for a “social compact”.

The international labour movement – South Africa’s contingent included – will arrive in Geneva to plead for a new deal between labour, business and governments.

It is a plea that echoes across the decades and has fundamentally changed nothing.

United worker struggles on the ground, on the other hand, have brought about change.

The often bloody fights for the vote, for example, whether through the massacre at Peterloo in the UK in 1820 or the more recent bitter battles against apartheid, were the ultimate consequences of direct action.

Ituc’s admission that the economy “is rigged against workers” is the giveaway.

As is the agreement that “people are disenchanted with a model of globalisation that has put profit ahead of people”.

The electoral turnout on May 8 clearly shows that people are disenchanted with the status quo.

This disenchantment was undoubtedly exacerbated by the latest unemployment figures, followed by the news that company liquidations in April rose by more than 53%.

To call, especially in such an environment, on businesses and governments to please “change the rules of the global economy” seems, at best, a naive exercise.

After all, these are the very groups responsible for, and that generally benefit from, this rigged economy.

However, tenacity in pressing legitimate demands, even in a rigged economy, can bring about good results.

South Africa’s first new dawn in 1994 gave hope to many workers, among them the municipal workforce in Midrand.

They went on strike against corruption related to the selling of jobs, and 280 workers were sacked.

That so many of them have continued to fight when that 1994 new dawn turned into a false dawn is remarkable.

And, this week, worker representative Stena Molepo was able to announce that 47 former Midrand strikers still of working age had been given jobs, with nine others also agreed upon.

“We also have an agreement that priority for jobs will be given to the next of kin of workers who have already died,” said Molepo.

It is a small glimmer of light in South Africa’s second new dawn.


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