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COSATU general strike shakes South Africa

By Ashley Fataar, Cape Town

March 12, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- March 7 saw South Africa’s largest protest in several years when more than 200,000 workers took to the streets in 32 towns and cities across the country. More than 1.5 million workers stopped work.

The strike – called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to protest against the growing role of labour brokers and the introduction of road tolls -- was prompted by worsening poverty and working conditions in South Africa. There has been a steady decline in the wage share of national income, down from 56% in 1996 to less than 47% today.

The poorest 10% of the population (4.5 million people) shares a mere R1.1 billion (about US$150 million) while the richest 10% of the population shares R381billion (about $51 billion). In terms of income, the bottom 80% of the population accounts for 41% of the household income, whereas the top 10% of the population accounts for 59% of the income. COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi described the situation as one of “economic apartheid”.

Whitey Basson, chief executive of Shoprite (a grocery retail chain), a company that uses labour brokers, earned the highest-ever annual earnings ever recorded in a single year in 2010 – R630 million ($83 million) in salary, perks and share option”. A shop floor worker in the same company would have earned R36,000 ($4800) in the same period.

This unequal distribution of income is further exacerbated by the high unemployment rate which currently stands at 36%. A further 30% of the workforce is subject to casual labour. Almost 1 million workers are employed by labour brokers, with little or no medical aid or pension benefits at all.

In a state hospital, most of the nursing staff are “agency nurses”. They are paid the going rate for the job, but at a considerable additional cost to the hospital, as on top of this, the labour brokers are paid additional fees – most often more than the cost of the wages. On top of this is the effect on the quality of care delivered. As Asanda Fongqo of the Democratic Nurses Organisation of South Africa (DENOSA) notes: “It is actually the recycling of the very same nurses, not allowing them sufficient rest — and that has a direct impact in the quality of care.” He adds: “Agencies are exploiting the gross staff shortages in nursing.” The problem is an estimated shortage of at least 46,000 nurses.

The evident support for the March 7 marches showed that the trade union movement was solidly behind the call initiated by COSATU. Only the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), citing fear of legal consequences, did not support the protests.

The strike was strongest in manufacturing, with Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Ford and General Motors and associated auto part plants halting production. Goldmining was also affected, with Gold Fields reporting 85% of workers downing tools. Harmony Gold operations also shut down and AngloGold Ashanti management reported that about half of its operations had stopped for the day. Coalmining also took a hit with Anglo American reporting a “significant number of strikers”. Retail group Pick and Pay stores reported that up to 70% if its staff did not turn up for work. The strike also affected transport, education and health services.

Significantly, the independent 210,000-strong public sector union, the PSA, also came out to back the demand by COSATU to ban labour brokers. Until now, the PSA has called for the enforcement and, if necessary, the tightening, of existing laws covering the temporary employment services provided by brokers.

Some Shoprite workers went to work on in casual clothes instead of their uniforms. Most supported in principle the COSATU-called action, but feared losing the little work they had. It is in this atmosphere of fear and desperation that labour brokers thrive. Most labour brokers ignore legal regulations. They do so because they can, in the process providing industry with workers who are not necessarily paid the going rate for the job, and who receive none of the other benefits of employment.

The South African government responded with finance minister Pravin Gordhan firing off a barely veiled threat about the possible relaxation of labour legislation.

The battle lines have clearly been drawn and the skirmishing has begun.
The unions and their allies have a major fight on their hands. And it is not just against labour brokers or road tolling companies; it is against those who create and support the environment that gives rise to brokers and tolls. In short, it is a battle against the African National Congress (ANC) government and the parliamentary opposition.

The one-day general strike cannot be seen as an end in itself, but as the beginning of a sustained campaign of mobilisation, one that must strengthen South Africa’s trade unions beginning at shop-floor level.

[Ashley Fataar is a member of the South African socialist group Keep Left. Sources for information in this article included Terry Bell's blog, the SABC and In Defence of Marxism.]

COSATU (NW) disturbed by government response on labour brokers and e-tolling

March 9, 2012 - The Congress of South African Trade Unions in the North West province is highly disturbed by the government's response after the protest action on labour brokers and e-tolling.

COSATU is specifically disturbed by the comments made minister Collins Chabane when he said e-tolling will continue and government will not ban labour brokers but will review the abusive practices of labour brokers.

As COSATU we want to remind the minister of what we said in Polokwane in 2007:  "It is a process of economic transformation which aims to realise: A thriving and integrated economy, which draws on the creativity and skills that our whole population can offer, building on South Africa's economic endowments to create decent work for all and eliminate poverty.

"The progressive realisation of socio-economic rights, through fair labour practices, social security for the poor, universal access to basic services and ongoing programmes to defeat poverty."

It is against this backdrop that we as COSATU believe that the labour brokers must be banned. Labour brokers are not the actual employers; instead they survive by stealing from the workers and denying them their labour rights.

Employers in this country do not want to employ workers who are not linked to labour brokers because they directly or indirectly benefit from these practises and this is a way of weakening the trade unions and defeating the working class of our country. Again the federation is calling for the banning of the labour brokers not regulation.

On the other note the e-tolling system is daylight robbery from the workers and the poor. It cannot be correct for workers to pay twice for services. Workers pays taxes and these taxes must be used to provide quality services for them, and yet now they are called to pay again from the same taxed low salaries they earn.

It has also been revealed that The Public Investment Corporation - an investment manager for state institutions - has bought R17 billion of Sanral bonds over years for infrastructure development, which means that government employees pay three times for these roads. What is worse, workers and members of this fund were not consulted when this decision was taken.

Government cannot rely on some of the 1.3 million civil servants, who drive to work daily, to pay for infrastructure development. Rather they should find ways to increase the tax base of the rich in order to expand revenue and provide the necessary infrastructure for the country's economy.

We want to also remind the minister that when these projects started we were told that the funds will come from the 2010 World Cup, but now the workers and the poor have to fund them. Where are the 2010 benefits? Who are the primary beneficiaries of the 2010 World Cup if the workers and the poor are now obliged to service the debt they created.

The campaign of COSATU will not be stopped or intimidated by any amount of talk until these e-tolls are removed from our roads and the labour brokers are banned from all companies and our government.

We in the NW want to repeat our statement: COSATU is not using the campaign of banning labour brokers as a campaign towards the ANC national conference and it will never use any of its campaigns against the ANC. COSATU members are ANC members and they will participate in their own branches when they are instructed so by the ANC.

Banning of labour brokers is the policy of the last ANC conference in Polokwane and there was no Mangaung at that time.

For more information contact Solly Phetoe COSATU North West Provincial secretary at 082 304 4055.

Democratic Left Front salutes South african workers

March 7, 2012 -- The Democratic Left Front (DLF) salutes the thousands of workers who came out in today’s general strike against labour brokering and the Gauteng e-tolls. To take forward today’s marches, the DLF calls on workers employed by labour brokers and affected working class communities to occupy, take over, run and produce from operations run by labour brokers as well as other places of employment.

The DLF calls for these to be run as worker-owned and worker-controlled cooperative enterprises that produce, create jobs, pay a living wage and provide decent working conditions. Such worker takeovers are the logical and most effective conclusion of today’s mass marches, and the most effective answer to guarantee the right to work, decent employment conditions and a living wage.

It is not enough to call for the banning of labour brokers as if that will reverse the capitalist exploitation of workers in the workplace. Workers and communities must turn the tables and sustained the offensive launched by today’s successful marches. This is not a pipe-dream as the former workers of the Mineline factory (to the west of Johannesburg) have attempted such a takeover from August last year. We call on COSATU to turn the struggle against labour brokers to worker takeovers of production.

Beyond the delivery of the memoranda of demands to the neo-liberal government led by the ANC as today’s marches did, the DLF also calls for serious attention to be paid to the sustained mobilisation and organisation of precarious workers employed by labour brokers. For its part, working with one of its affiliates, the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union (CSAAWU), the DLF is contributing to important and nascent work to organise precarious workers in farms and agri-processing factories in Robertson, Rawsonville, Ashton and other commercial farming districts of the Western Cape. In these districts, labour brokers have now become a central feature in the exploitation of thousands of farm workers, many of whom are essentially treated as cheap migrant labour in conditions akin to human trafficking.

The CSAAWU campaign has reached out to a few thousand farm workers and dwellers, and has only just begun to build the confidence of forgotten and marginalised farm workers and dwellers to Speak Out!  and develop the will to force government to Listen to the People! The lessons and experience from the CSAAWU campaign underline the need for sustained organisation of precarious workers.

Today’s action underlines the importance of sustained mass action against anti-worker and anti-poor government policies. The working class energies and aspirations that poured out onto South Africa’s streets are one loud clear statement: government must listen to the people as its neoliberal policies continue to make the rich richer and to impoverish the majority.

As Comrade Vavi said at the march in Johannesburg: “We are defending the living standards of South Africans ... we are fighting shoulder to shoulder with you, comrades, to remind those who forgot the power of the working class”.

For our part, DLF activists and affiliates actively joined the marches following our earlier efforts to mobilise unemployed communities to be part of these marches as part of broader working class solidarity and against the consistent media and DA lies that organised workers benefit at the expense of unemployed workers.

Today’s mass action must not be the end of the struggle and allow a retreat to NEDLAC or Tripartite Alliance boardrooms. As workers know, these engagements have proved useless and tie workers to meaningless lip-service agreements which the bosses, the ANC and government are not committed to. These fora ultimately limit independent and sustained social mobilisation of the working class. These do not lead the working class to build its power, voice and impact so that it can challenge and defeat pro-capitalist policies and the power of capital. Worker takeovers of places of employment provide a more effective tool out of capitalist exploitation of workers.

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