INSIDE LABOUR: The more things change, the more they stay the same

What so often makes a mockery of the official unemployment statistics are true life stories of workers who, although officially "employed", earn less than R1 000 a month.

Or others who, in what amounts to a massive amount of casualised outsourcing, work on daily "contracts" for sometimes the same employer for years or even decades.

This in the face of a Bill of Rights and labour laws that are, on the one hand, very progressive and, on the other, quite worker-friendly. It brings to mind that French expression: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It is a cynical view, that, unfortunately — and all too often — proves accurate.

Seeking change

Certainly, over the past nearly three decades since our first non-racial parliamentary election, there have been many changes. Primarily, the legal racialisation of society has been removed, but little, if anything, has changed in the lives and livelihoods of most citizens.

That French expression hit home when I was going through my files last week and came across the story of George 'Boetie' Louw. He worked as a gardener — the 'garden boy' — at the Cape Town presidential residence of Groote Schuur. He laboured there for 19 years when three apartheid presidents were in residence.

Even at the age of 59 in 1993, he knew the indignity of being referred to as "boy" and to have to deliver vegetables from the garden to the back door and never be thanked or invited over the threshold. But it was a job — and he was good at it.

Then Boetie dislocated his back. That was in November, 1993. He was no longer fit for work and so he lost his job and, as a "temporary employee", had no pension.

Looking at similar cases in recent years, it is very much the same story, although the term 'temporary employee' seems to have morphed into 'sole', or 'individual contractor'. This is the means by which employers manage circumvent legislation that demands full-time work, with benefits for anyone doing what is, in effect, a full-time job.

Of course, there is access to a body such as the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), but it is not only inundated, many workers are still unaware of their rights and, in any event, have neither the time nor the resources to travel back and forth and make a case.

Advances for productivity, not for labour

One of the reasons for the number of cases before the CCMA is the state of the economy and the squeeze on the bottom lines of businesses. This also contributes to the fact that there has been a spike in this number of strikes this year.

This because, for all the great advances in productivity and innovation, the lot of workers remains fundamentally unchanged. And when — as now — austerity is increasingly applied, there will be resistance.

But when workers are organised and united, such resistance can bear results, Eskom being a classic example. The power utility management came into pay talks offering no wage increases at all.

In the new climate of austerity, with President Cyril Ramaphosa advancing the slogan for united self-sacrifice, Thuma Mina (send me), this offer was both a plea and an ultimatum.

Understandably, the employees, members of three unions, took it as an ultimatum — and offered united response.

That Eskom moved in relatively quick succession to a 7% offer before final talks to end the deadlock, showed again that nothing had changed; employers, under financial pressure, will try to make workers pay, and workers united can win concessions.

Yet this response was also a case of Thuma Mina, which, in the Biblical sense from which the expression comes, means to send me (to serve the righteous cause). It is a message that resonates differently on the two fundamental sides of our class-divided society.

Common cause

In fact, the idea of sacrifice in a common cause is very much part of labour tradition, of unity against exploitation and oppression. One small, but heroic example has been mentioned here before: the Midrand workers sacked in 1993.

These workers stayed in contact and continued to fight their cause. Some have now, reportedly, been given jobs with the Johannesburg City Council; others have applied, and the matter of claimed non-payment of pension funds is being officially investigated.

So despite changes in fashion, urban growth, communications and technology, nothing fundamentally has altered: the class divide remains. However, there are now claims that real change will soon be coming.

This claim was voiced earlier this year by National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) general secretary, Irvin Jim. He talked of the emergence of a "Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party" (RSWP) that, will presumably, introduce a tectonic social shift.

Last week in London, Ronnie Kasrils, formerly an ANC cabinet minister and central committee member of the SA Communist Party (SACP) added to this prospect. A guest at a Marxism conference organised by the largest of Britain’s small radical socialist movements, the Socialist Workers’ Party, Kasrils announced that an RSWP would be launched in South Africa in October, the anniversary month of the Russia revolution of 1917.

So it seems likely that another political party, stressing trade union links, will emerge onto the electoral scene, another electoral brand offering to create a better life for all.

Whether this alternation to the political scene will be the harbinger of real change or an SACP/Cosatu Mark 2 or even EFF Mark 2, time will tell.

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