NEDLAC: COSATU defending the indefensible - SAFTU

Federation condemns federation's stance on the NMW and other matters

SAFTU condemns COSATU’s attempt to defend Nedlac deal

The South African Federation of Trade Unions has noted the futile attempt by Siswe Pamla of COSATU, in a press statement on 10 April 2018, to defend the indefensible.

From the onset let us emphasize that Sizwe Pamla is speaking for himself, and probably the captured COSATU leadership, but not for the toiling masses of workers who are still trapped in an organisation which on a daily basis proves to all that it is a shadow of its former self. 

In the statement entitled “No one can change the system by throwing insults at it”, Pamla tries to justify COSATU’s despicable class collaboration in Nedlac, which has led to an agreement with government and business on a poverty level national minimum wage and changes to the labour laws which threaten the fundamental human rights of the workers whom his federation is supposed to represent.

He condemns what he calls “hysterical and frenzied attacks directed at COSATU and other sister federations, for having participated in the Nedlac processes that debated the National Minimum Wage, Basic Conditions of Employment and Labour Relations Amendment Bills”.

If we assume that  he means that the “hysterical and frenzied attacks” come from SAFTU, then he should know that SAFTU has never condemned the “participation” of COSATU, FEDUSA and NACTU in the Nedlac processes, but the disgusting deal with government and labour they signed at the end of those processes.

SAFTU itself has struggled to gain admission to Nedlac precisely so that it could participate in these processes and represent the views of both its own members and thousands of the members of those three federations in Nedlac, whose interests were being betrayed by their leaders.

It was however deliberately excluded by a change in Nedlac’s protocols, made at the suggestion of the labour constituency,  just before SAFTU was launched in April 2017, to require new federations applying for admission to have been in existence for two years and to have submitted audited accounts for that period. They knew full-well that SAFTU, which was only launched thee months later, would not be able to comply with this rule.

SAFTU is in no doubt that this was a conscious move to keep out a new militant federation which would expose and oppose the sell-out deals which they were negotiating and later signed. 

Yet Pamla has the audacity to claim that these engagements at Nedlac have “yielded huge victories for workers and their families and the economy at large.  Whilst we have not achieved all that we wanted, we have scored major victories”. 

He does not identify any such victory, because in reality there have been none at all, for years. Government and business have remained in the driving seat in both Nedlac and the country as a whole.

Meanwhile the leadership of the three federations in Nedlac have left the trade unions weaker, smaller, more fragmented and more corrupt.

Pamla finds it “bizarre that we have recently been fielding attacks coming from workers’ representatives, who are opposed to the process of building a foundation that will help us transform the low-wage regime that has characterized our labour market for decades”. 

This is from the pen of a spokesperson of the biggest federation which has failed abysmally to transform this low-wage regime, and has just signed a deal which will do the exact opposite - legitimise the apartheid wage gap and condemn millions to live in poverty on a starvation-level of R20 an hour. 

The fact that 47% of workers now earn even less than this, and that many employers argue that even R20 is too high, in no way excuses trade union leaders putting their names to it, especially as thousands of farm and domestic workers and those on Expanded Public Works Programmes will get even less - R18, R15 and R11 respectively. 

Many others will get no more pay at the end of the month as employers have said they will keep their wage bill unchanged by employing workers for fewer hours. 

Others, especially vulnerable workers in the informal economy will get nothing, given the Department of Labour’s abysmal record of enforcing existing laws to protect workers from the super-exploitation they suffer at the hands of unscrupulous employers. 

R20 an hour, R3 500 if you work for full month, is the figure is per person, not per household. Even a worker with a family of four, using the 2017 poverty line of R1138, would have to earn about R4 500 to just keep the family’s heads above water. Yet Nedlac has agreed to give them R1000 below this poverty level.

Pamla actually admits that R20 an hour is not a living wage, and that it “will never be enough”, yet his federation joined FEDUSA and NACTU in agreeing to it! 

He justifies this by saying it is a means to put money in the pockets of the poorest of the working class and to ensure that no worker is left with slave wages.  “It will help them feed their families and increase their purchasing power and drive local economic demand and thus stimulate the economy”.

That would only true if there was an rigorously enforced living wage, like the R12 500 demanded by the Lonmin strikers in 2012. R20 an hour will neither feed families nor stimulate the economy.

It is shocking that COSATU has gone to parliament to reinforce what the DA voted for in its congress. COSATU wants the Bargaining Council to be allowed to pay even lower than the R20, R18, R15 and R11 per hour national minimum wage. The DA, which we have already condemned, want employers and workers who are desperate enough, to be allowed to opt out of the R20 slavery wage and accept salaries below even this pathetic level. 

SAFTU totally rejects the argument that any increase at all is better than nothing and that we should be grateful for a few more crumbs from the rich man’s table

On the attacks by SAFTU and others against the proposed amendments to the Labour Relations Act, and accusations that they are tantamount to collapsing workers’ constitutionally guaranteed right to strike, Pamla simply argues that “this is not based on any facts and is simply untrue”.

He has obviously not read the amendments, nor SAFTU’s submission to Parliament; or even worse he has read the amendments and is happy with them 

He uses the kind of misleading and a grossly over-simplified view of the amendments which you would expect from a government or business spin-doctor. He fails to see that many of the amendments are deliberately couched in ambiguous, nice-sounding language which hides the devil in the detail.

This is particularly so with the amendments to allow the CCMA to provide ‘advisory arbitration’.  

Says COSATU: “Unions already look to the CCMA to assist with prolonged disputes and strikes and this seeks to facilitate that. It does not at all weaken workers’ right to strike. If workers are not happy with the advisory arbitration provided by the CCMA they are allowed to reject it since it will not be binding”.

The clause says that a panel can be convened by the Director of the CCMA, if the Minister of Labour so directs, or if requested by one of the parties to the dispute, which obviously could be the employer. 

Before convening such a panel the Director has to satisfy him or herself of the following: 

1  the strike is no longer functional to collective bargaining;

2 there is an imminent threat or use of violence or damage to property; or

3 the strike may or is causing an acute national or local crisis affecting the normal, social and economic functioning of the community or society”.

If one of these is deemed to have happened, the clause directs the CCMA Director to propose alternative means to reach a settlement, such as an “advisory arbitration”, under which a panel is convened to recommend an “advisory ruling” to both parties to the dispute”. 

This, particularly number 3, is an open door for abuse by employers and employer organizations who will attend any such arbitration hearing with a herd of lawyers. 

It will mean that if a strike is effective, employers, rather than compromise, can sit tight, make no attempt to negotiate, wait for the strike to last ‘too long’, or adversely affect their business, and then run to the CCMA  who will set up a panel which can declare the strike ‘unlawful’. 

The panel’s findings must then be accepted or rejected within seven days. The parties must consult their members and if they do not reject the findings within that time then it becomes binding. How does a union of 400,000 members do that in the time given?

This arbitration is defined as ‘advisory’ but it in reality, if workers fail to meet the seven days deadline this could amount to ‘compulsory’ arbitration, which will undermine workers’ constitutional right to withdraw their labour, and turn them into slave labourers!  

COSATU cannot possibly argue that this doesn't effect the right to strike. It does! It says to the workers: you have no right to be on strike because of one of the three issues set out above. The amendment is also likely to be thrown out by the Constitutional Court as a breach of Section 23(2)(c) of the Constitution which provides that every worker has the right to strike.

On the amendments to picketing rules, COSATU ignores the clause that will ban picketing unless a union’s picketing rules have been agreed by employees and employers in advance, preferably prior to the conclusion of the CCMA process. If they are not agreed then rules can be decided by the Commissioner and imposed.

The onus to oversee the rules, whether agreed or imposed, will thus lie with the Commissioner. But if a strike commences before he or she has approved the rules, then the striking workers and the trade union can face legal penalties. 

This is an open invitation to employers not to agree to the rules because they know that the imposed rules will always work in their favour, for instance that workers have to stand 100 or 500 metres away from gates, with no way of talking to workers entering the premises, no access to toilets etc. That is not a picket. That is disarmament! 

Does COSATU no longer agree that strikers must have the right to stop and talk to anyone entering the employer’s premises and ask them not to do so? This is one of the biggest infringements on the right to strike in the current amendments which COSATU voted for at Nedlac. 

Pamla correctly points out that the provision for compulsory balloting has been in the LRA for many years and its adherence was never enforced by the Department of Labour.  SAFTU makes the same point in its submission to Parliament. The existing Section 95(5)(p) states “that the trade union or employers' organisation, before calling a strike or lock-out, must conduct a ballot of those of its members in respect of whom it intends to call the strike or lock-out”. 

This is now to be amended to cover “any system of voting by members that is recorded and in secret”. It further will compel union to keep ballot papers and “any documentary or electronic record of the ballot” for three year from the date of the ballot.

The new amendment not only keeps the rules on compulsory ballots but seeks to regulate how they must be organised. It is a back-door infringement on the right to strike, another hoop to be jumped through by a trade union that will be used by employers to try to influence the outcome of a secret ballot.

SAFTU has no objection to ballots in principle but unions must have a mandate from their members on how they make decisions on strikes, not have the decision imposed and the ballots enforced by government under the threat of the unions being deregistered if they fail to comply.

It is outrageous that COSATU can ask NUMSA, one of the most democratic unions, why it is “so afraid to allow members to exercise their right to vote upon critical issues that affect their daily wages”. NUMSA members have more control over the union than any other, and always vote on decisions, including whether or not to strike. But they do so under a constitution adopted by its members, not imposed from outside.

Many small unions simply do not have the capacity to organize such a ballot or the finances to pay for an independent body. The clause makes no provision for non-unionized workers, many of whom would decide to strike with a show of hands. Must they now hold a ballot? How would they possibly be able to do so and who would organize it and ensure its validity?

Why did COSATU at Nedlac not demand the repeal of this section of the current LRA, and demand that unions must be controlled by their members and not by government, which can instruct a union what it has to do to qualify for registration, even if the members disagree. 

Instead of tinkering with what is already an infringement on the rights of members to determine the content of their union’s constitution, SAFTU demands the repeal of the entire section 95 of the Act. Power to run and control their own organizations must be given back into the hands of members. 

Dreadful though this Nedlac deal was, it was not an isolated aberration, but the inevitable outcome of a long decline in all three federations. FEDUSA and NACTU long ago offered no answer to the massive crisis facing workers, the former mainly concerned with sweetheart deals with employers for their relatively well-off membership, the latter rendered impotent by endless factional splits.

The biggest and most tragic story is COSATU’s slide from being one of the strongest and most militant workers organisations in the world into a pale shadow of that organisation. This was a result of its failure to break its alliance with the ANC, even long after government’s adoption of pro-capitalist neoliberal and anti-worker policies and the explosion of looting and corruption.

These policies led to economic collapse, which then led to the bloodbath of job losses, and deepening poverty which entrenched the apartheid economic divisions and made South Africa the most unequal society in the world. COSATU, by failing to break its alliance with the ANC, has to share the responsibility for the disastrous consequences for workers.

COSATU’s main role has become keeping the workers in check and not rocking the boat of the ANC’s now pro-business and corrupt leadership. The COSATU leadership became an appendage of the ruling class. Many of its own affiliates’ leaders became embroiled in corruption, even stealing money from their own members.

At the same time they waged witch-hunts against any within its own ranks who resisted this degeneration, notably NUMSA which was expelled in 2014 and its General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi who was dismissed in 2015, both for resisting this move to abandon everything that COSATU had previously fought for.

Nedlac was a forum in which the slide towards class-collaboration played itself out. What had once been a forum for vigorous debate degenerated into a club for the elites of government, business and now labour to negotiate cosy deals which would help the ruling class to minimize any opposition from their labour allies to their control over the economy and the country..

This has now been underlined by this latest betrayal over the poverty minimum wage and labour law amendments. They show why they decided in advance SAFTU had to be kept out of the club and why SAFTU was right to insist that we must be admitted.

SAFTU’s aim was to disrupt this cosy club and bring the loud voice of the workers into Nedlac, expose these collusive deals and use it as a platform to advance the arguments for workers’ interests and a socialist South Africa based on the promises of the Freedom Charter for a land that belongs to all who live in it. 

“No one can change the system by throwing insults at it”, says Pamla. Very true, but it is even more true that “No one can change the system by becoming part of it”.

SAFTU calls on all workers including members of COSATU, FEDUSA and NACTU unions to join the strike on the 25 April 2018 and reject the sweetheart negotiated and signed behind closed doors deals at Nedlac. 

Workers must unite on the ground and reject the attempts to divide them in order to help the cause of the bosses who exploits them. 

Statement issued by Patrick Craven, SAFTU Acting Spokesperson, 20 April 2018