Inside Labour: Let’s stop blaming “Illegal” workers

THREE recent stories in the South African media refer to “illegal” workers, “illegal” mining and “illegal” immigrants.

Firstly, in December 2016 Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, a former chairperson of the Free Market Foundation (FMF), complained about the problems caused by the influx into the city of undocumented “illegal” immigrants.

Then on January 26 2017 trade federation Cosatu demanded the deportation of 242 Chinese workers allegedly working “illegally” in this country, for a Chinese state company awarded a tender for a R1.2bn project at PPC’s slurry plant in North West in 2015. 

Thirdly, The  Star reported on January 27 that thousands of “illegal miners” in Matholesville were fleeing from the police and Johannesburg Water officials, the Johannesburg Roads Agency and City Power because they were threatening the water supply in Joburg and wasting thousands of kilolitres a day by bypassing prepaid water meters.

In all three stories the media is applying double standards. People commit “illegal” acts, but a whole category of people cannot be categorised as “illegal workers”. It is an attempt to denigrate them and to shift the blame for problems which have arisen on to the shoulders of the victims rather than the real culprits - the employers who exploit these workers, though the reports never refer to “illegal employers” or “illegal businessmen”.

We have seen the same problem with the media referring to “illegal strikes” instead of “legal but unprotected strikes”.

'Breathtaking' hypocrisy

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 and told where they may or may not live or work; if they disobey, they must be criminalised and deported.

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

Of course the mining industry must be governed by laws to protect the lives and health of workers and to prevent damage to surrounding communities and the environment; indeed, the main problem over the years is that companies in their thirst for profits have done too little to enforce health and safety laws.

But the laws are not class-neutral; they reflect the interests of the ruling class. Those laws which these ‘zama-zamas’ are accused of breaking are passed to protect the multi-national monopolies which have run the industry since the days of Cecil Rhodes and still do today. 

None of these workers would choose such a dangerous and insecure way to survive as ‘illegal” miners and accept rock-bottom levels of poverty pay if there was any chance of a real jobs. 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.”

This strengthens the demand for the whole industry to be nationalised and the zama-zamas to be incorporated as employees.

Army of vulnerable and unorganised workers

They are part of a growing army of casualised, vulnerable and unorganised workers who are reduced to accepting whatever opportunities to make a living they can find, and in the process are being exploited by dealers who pay them a pittance for the gold and make a big profit selling it. 

Like thousands of Mashaba’s undocumented “illegal” immigrants, they are a part of the 76% of the South African workforce who are not members of any trade union but are in the greatest need of one. 

That is why the new workers’ federation to be launched in March has quite rightly identified them as a priority for recruitment. Instead of demonising them as “illegal” the union movement must organise them, fight for their rights under the constitution and labour laws to job security and minimum wages and conditions, and help them find secure and decently paid work and human dignity regardless of their nationality.

This brings us to Cosatu’s demand for the immediate deportation of 242 Chinese nationals who are allegedly working illegally in South Africa to work on a R1.2bn construction project at cement supplier PPC's slurry plant in North West.

One of Cosatu’s founding principles was internationalism - “the lifeblood of trade unionism”. They have always claimed to be inspired by Marxism and would be well aware of what Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “The working men have no country.” Yet they are demanding the deportation of fellow workers from China. 

Cosatu is right to convey the anger of local workers, particularly those with no jobs, but should have directed this anger to PPC and the Chinese company for depriving local workers of employment and exploiting the Chinese workers. 

Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla pleads: "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." However, the fact remains that if the federation has its way it will be the Chinese workers and not the two companies who pay the biggest price - losing their livelihood. 

Whether they were ordered to come to South Africa, or like other migrant workers were forced by poverty to look for the chance to make a better life, they are still fellow workers and an internationalist trade union ought to be meeting and recruiting those workers, and striving to improve their wages and conditions, not demanding their “immediate deportation”. 

* Patrick Craven is a former national spokesperson of Cosatu and Numsa and a supporter of the Movement for Socialism, which aims to build a new revolutionary socialist workers’ party. Opinions expressed are his own.

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