Labour View: Blaming ‘illegal’ workers is hypocritical

Patrick Craven
Patrick Craven

Johannesburg - Three stories recently covered in our local media use the word ‘illegal’ to describe immigrants, construction workers and mine workers.

The first story appeared in December as a report about Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba. The former chairman of civil rights body the Free Market Foundation complained about problems resulting from the influx into the city of undocumented “illegal” immigrants.

Then, on January 26, labour federation Cosatu demanded that 242 Chinese workers be deported, alleging that they were working here “illegally” for a Chinese construction company that had been awarded a tender for a R1.2 billion project at PPC’s Slurry plant in North West.

Thirdly, The Star reported on January 27 that thousands of “illegal miners”, or zama-zamas, in Matholesville in Roodepoort were fleeing from the police and municipal officials because they were threatening the water supply in Johannesburg and wasting thousands of kilolitres a day by bypassing prepaid water meters.

In all these stories the media is applying double standards.

People commit illegal acts, but a whole category of people cannot be called illegal workers. It is an attempt to denigrate them and shift the blame for problems which have arisen to the victims rather than the real culprits: the employers who exploit these workers.

Yet, these reports never use the word ‘illegal’ to describe employers or businesspeople.

In Mashaba’s case, the hypocrisy is breathtaking. He demands a free market for capitalist millionaires to move their wealth around, but insists that workers must be controlled, told where they may or may not live or work, and that if they disobey, they be deported.

The mine owners are no less hypocritical. They are retrenching thousands of workers and casualising labour, yet they condemn as criminals workers who are driven by poverty to risk their lives doing dangerous work to earn a few rands.

The mining industry must be governed by laws to protect the lives and health of workers and prevent damage to the surrounding communities and the environment. The main problem over the years has been that firms have done too little to enforce health and safety laws.

The existing laws are not neutral; they reflect the interests of the ruling class. Those laws, which the zama-zamas are accused of breaking, were passed to protect the multinational monopolies that have run the industry since the days of former mining magnate Cecil Rhodes.

None of these workers would choose such a perilous, insecure way to survive and accept such scant pay if they had any chance of a real job.

As Luphert Chilwane, a media officer for the National Union of Mineworkers, has said: “These illegal miners are not risking their lives just because they are greedy, but because they are desperate to make a living.”

They are part of a growing army of casualised workers who are reduced to accepting whatever opportunities they can find to make a living. In the process, they are being exploited by dealers who pay them a pittance for what they mine and make a big profit selling it. They are a part of the 76% of South Africa’s workforce who are affiliated to any trade union, but are in the greatest need of one.

The new workers’ federation to be launched in March as an alternative to Cosatu has, quite rightly, prioritised these zama-zamas for recruitment. They should organise them, fight for their rights to job security under the Constitution and labour laws, and help them find secure and decently paid work, regardless of their nationality.

One of Cosatu’s founding principles was internationalism, “the lifeblood of trade unionism”. They claim to be inspired by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ political treatise, The Communist Manifesto, which states: “The working men have no country.” Yet, they are demanding the deportation of 242 “illegal” Chinese nationals.

Cosatu is right to convey the anger of local workers and the unemployed, but it should have directed this anger towards PPC and the Chinese firm for depriving local workers of employment and exploiting the Chinese workers.

Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said: “This is not xenophobia, because we understand the situation of economic refugees. We just want Chinese nationals to be properly documented, organised and well remunerated.”

But the fact remains that if Cosatu has its way, it will be the Chinese workers – not the two companies – who pay the biggest price by losing their livelihood. Whether they were ordered to come to South Africa or, like other migrant workers, were forced by poverty to seek a better life, they are still fellow workers and an internationalist trade union ought to be recruiting those workers and striving to improve their wages and conditions, not demanding their “immediate deportation”.

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