Strike Action in South Africa: A Pecking Order Prevails

By Mohamed Motala · 10 Jul 2009

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Picture: Andrew Ciscel
Picture: Andrew Ciscel

There are a few high profile labour disputes currently taking place in South Africa. The public have entered the fray, influencing the labour debates by engaging with them via newspapers and talk radio programmes. At the same time, public sentiment is being influenced by the manner in which the media is presenting the various labour disputes.

Who is allowed to strike? Who has the right to decent pay? Who has the right to decent working conditions? Who has the right to a decent standard of living? Whose contribution to society is most valuable? These are all questions and issues floating to the surface in an arguably murky debate spanning various professions and industries.

Answers appear to vary according to whom questions are being applied.

Worryingly, the debate as to whether workers in some industries and professions are being given a fair deal is not about their contribution to society, but their contribution to profit making. There is a complete blind spot in the debate about forms of labour that continue to exploit vulnerable workers, especially poor women.

Presently the public is spotlighting a strike by construction workers. Even before the industrial action started, the public was debating the imminent stoppage of work in what are being referred to as 2010 projects. These are the new soccer stadia, Gautrain and the King Shaka airport. 

The 2010 projects are high end, expensive, larger than life construction projects. Most people are aware that the projects are one-off in nature, do not build sustainable jobs or address problems like sanitation and housing for the poor, but have let these issues remain in the periphery of their vision. 

The fact of the matter is that construction industry profits come from big infrastructure projects like the 2010 projects, not low cost housing projects. Construction company owners are the big winners in 2010 projects, not construction workers.

In the current debate, there is little sympathy for construction workers who still earn below R3,000 per month. Their current demand is for a minimum wage of R2,825 per month. But the South African public is discussing how the workers strike will affect the hosting of the 2010 soccer world cup and not whether a fair wage is being paid.

Our nation's vanity is clouding the critical issues in a debate about people's right to decent pay. The 2010 stadia have become monuments of misdirected national pride. The public is swept up by the showmanship of the soccer world cup and its potential for ramping up our reputation in the global arena. Rich and poor, black and white, South Africans are eager to put their best foot forward next year, as we re-enter the international limelight in an event that will recreate the glory of the Mandela days, however short-lived the moment.

Recently when 185 poor miners died, the public was directed to discuss the issue in terms of the victims being illegal miners. There was no outrage about these deaths. The debate took on a surreal tone. The miners' deaths were not really our problem. They were foreigners from Lesotho. 

At stake in this debate was the theft of gold from the mining corporations, which had to be stopped. The solution being discussed was how best illegal mining could be controlled. Preventing the death of illegal miners became a by-product of the need to safeguard corporate profits.

Every year almost two hundred miners lose their lives through accidents and many more get injured, some become disabled, while significant numbers die early from mine related illnesses. In the current round of negotiations underground mineworkers are struggling to win a paltry R5,000 per month in wages. This is being presented as a 20% wage increase that the industry is rejecting. The focus on the percentage jump, hides the low base upon which it is calculated.  

Professionals on the other hand get viewed very differently from poor workers. Work done by professionals is perceived to be of higher value than work done by unskilled workers.  The measure of this is far from how hard the work is or how committed the worker is and what personal sacrifices the work necessitates. The importance of work is aligned to the position a person holds in society.

Higher income and men's work is seen as important, whilst poorly paid jobs and women's work in particular is seen as unimportant. This is most clearly demonstrated in the current dispute by public sector doctors and nurses, which is receiving a huge amount of public interest and rightly, this, should be the case.

Our public health care system is under severe strain and itself in need of intensive care. Outsourcing and the removal of support staff have decimated the system. However, interns, not seasoned professionals who have witnessed the deterioration of our public hospitals and clinics, are fronting the strike -- and public sentiment favours their plight.

Interns are supposed to be learning and being introduced to the world of work. It sits awkwardly that they have become the spokespersons for an ailing health care system, while it is our poorly paid nurses who have been at the frontline of our broken health care system for years.

These interns already earn about R10,000 per month. It is wrong to claim that they deserve better pay simply because they spend many years studying. The public have already paid their dues to these upstarts by heavily subsidising their university educations. 

Compare these interns' pay to the minimum wage for domestic workers, which ranges from R778 to R1,340 per month, despite their years of service. Domestic workers are invaluable contributors to our economy. Where is the outrage about their exploitation? 

The taxi business has also come under public scrutiny. Afraid that the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system will lead to a loss of revenue, taxi owners are threatening strikes. In this debate, there is no separation between taxi industry workers who are made up of drivers in the main, supported by conductors as well as taxi rank officials and the taxi owners.

In the BRT dispute, taxi owners are totally in control. They are the ones making the biggest demands to the extent of wanting to own the routes and the whole BRT system. They threaten mass action and public disorder akin to trying to overcome apartheid and other heinous crimes against humanity when all that is threatened are their profits.

At the same time, their appalling behaviour behind the steering wheel has ensured a standoffish public stance to the plight of taxi drivers. Yet they are mere pawns in this dispute.

The rights of workers, service delivery and the eradication of poverty can only come together if work is valued to the extent that it leads to the faster eradication of poverty and inequality, not how much profit it makes for those that own the mines and factories.

What is needed is for employers to recognise and reward work and workers where it is due, for trade unions to recognise and organise where it is necessary and for these two institutions to respect the need for social and economic justice.

The value of women's work, especially, is never measured or given its rightful place amongst the contributors to the growth of our economy, nor the fact that women workers in poorly paid jobs support many dependants. These are important measures on which to decide remuneration. 

Systemic and just solutions for restoring our public health care and transport systems should form the basis of public discussion, not gold and big event infrastructure. Whilst these are important in that they assist economic growth, there are more pressing problems in our public healthcare system, poor commuters lives and especially the lives of poor women workers.

Motala is executive director of CASE, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry.

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