Inside Labour: High hopes dashed

(iStock)
(iStock)

THE bitter internecine feuding within the ANC-led alliance has caused major disruptions within Cosatu- affiliated unions. And the rows show little sign of abating following another tumultuous week.

It may be bold and perhaps foolhardy to predict in such chaotic circumstances what any outcome may be, but it certainly seems as if, despite all the expressed opposition, President Jacob Zuma will remain in place - at least until 2019.

In the meantime, all manner of behind-the-scenes lobbying and manipulation is taking place, especially over whether Zuma should go and if so, when. The “stalwarts” - some 200 “veterans of the movement” - made much noise about this before adopting a conciliatory tone after meeting the ANC leadership on Sunday. The Cosatu Central Executive Committee was in roughly the same position days later.

It all amounted to much sound and little substance during a week that began with the long-awaited announcement of a minimum wage. And if this announcement was meant to express growing national and alliance unity - quite apart from hoping that it might appease the rating agencies - it failed.

The apparent unanimity shown by the participants at the National Economic Development and Labour Council was quickly undermined, especially because the minimum wage announcement was merely a set of proposals. As such, they are still very much open to debate and have no final timescale for implementation.

Expectations of a watershed moment

Yet, for many in the labour movement, this announcement was expected to be a watershed moment, something that would almost instantly transform the lives of at least the low paid half of the working population. Such expectations were naive: the statement about a minimum wage came from a panel that was mandated only to advise what should be done.

On the basis of this narrow mandate, the panel did sterling work, going through more than 60 research papers and consulting widely. This effort revealed that such a move on the wage front would almost certainly be of overall benefit.

The panel’s findings also reinforced the earlier conclusions of a Black Sash seminar in Johannesburg. Only economic dinosaurs such as the Free Market Foundation provide blanket opposition to moves toward social assistance in the world of today.

The announcement this week was also labelled a “step in the right direction” by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. For many in the labour movement, it was a step that was both far too little and too late. It also held out nothing for the growing ranks of the unemployed and increasingly unemployable.

This was because the announcement followed two years of deadlock between labour and business over the level to be set for a minimum wage; it was scarcely surprising that there were almost instant rumblings of discontent. And this was not only about the inadequacy of a minimum wage of R20 an hour or R3 440 a month, but also because of the possible two- to three-year delay in implementation.

Domestic workers in particular are up in arms over the suggestion that they should initially only qualify for 75% of the proposed minimum. And there is a provision in the proposals to allow for exemptions.

The National Union of Metalworkers, the country’s largest union, launched a scathing attack on the proposals while pointing out that Numsa was not consulted. Along with other sections of the labour movement, the union noted that official statistics reveal that average household purchases have increased in price by nearly 10% so far this year. What they will be in another two years can only be guessed at.

It has also been pointed out in this column and elsewhere that, because of the continuing “geography of apartheid”, the average low paid worker spends an inordinate amount of money on transport. Surveys among workers in Soweto, Tembisa and Khayelitsha reveal that many workers already spend between R1 000 and R1 600 a month getting to and from their jobs.

Even the suggestion by Federation of Unions general secretary Dennis George that a future minimum wage should be adjusted to take account of inflation is no answer. This because the official measure of inflation is often a gross underestimate of the cost of living increase for poor families, who tend to spend up to 50% of their disposable income on food.

So for all the threats, the demands and the promises of transformation nothing much has changed, although the political temperature is perhaps higher and the potential for fragmentation slightly greater. But for the jobless and the working poor the prospects seem even bleaker than before.

Hopes have been dashed this week and the only promise likely to be fulfilled is that the squabbling, back stabbing and swirl of corruption within the government and its alliance partners will only make matters worse. Yet, faced with this, even the dissidents, the concerned and disgruntled appear incapable of appreciating the need for a radical and holistic approach to what is a chronic national situation in a crumbling global system.

* Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

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