Democratic countries have workers’ unions that are listened to, but not always indulged. Strangely, the countries most admired by our trade unions, Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, either have trade unions that mind their ps and qs or have no jobs, no workers and therefore no proper trade unions.
South Africa has one of the most elaborate systems in the world protecting workers’ rights and advancing their interests, mostly enacted when Tito Mboweni was the minister of Labour, refusing to listen to the advice and warnings of Tony Leon and the Democratic Party.
Additionally, we have a political party elected to govern, the ANC, telling us that it is part of a Tripartite Alliance government. Its unelected partners, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party, have immense influence. Is anyone surprised that we have the highest unemployment rate in the world? It never occurs to any of the three that their policies have been a disaster for the economy of our country, now made even worse by the hard Lockdown imposed by them.
The current climate is dismal. Millions of our citizens are unemployed; many children suffer from malnutrition (from which some may never fully recover either physically or intellectually); millions of workers fear further job losses and many have been required to take salary and wage cuts to avoid bankrupting firms.
In this national financial and economic crisis, the government has run out of our money and finds it increasingly difficult and expensive to borrow, while being forced to borrow more to pay the interest on previous borrowings. And the response of the unions? “Unions to bring SA to standstill,” was the headline in The Star on 7 October.
The fact that the strike was a flop because SA was not brought to a standstill is irrelevant. The call to strike showed the contempt of the unions for the economic reality of the country. Apart from the fig- leaf of concerns about corruption, state capture and gender-based violence, their chief protest was their disgust at the government for failing to implement the “long-awaited salary increases for public servants.” Have these people no shame?
Another distressing example of the shameless behaviour of those paid out of public funds is the strike by employees of the Gautrain. Management offered salary increases of 4% - hugely generous in this climate where inflation is forecast to be around 3.3% for 2020. The unions rejected the 4% and “demanded” (as is their custom) 8% increases. Millions of South Africans who are dying to have jobs, let alone total job security and above-inflation salary increases, could only shake their heads at the greed of the unions.
Many of us are sympathetic to the existence of trade unions. They ensure that the voice of the workers is heard and people have the right in terms of our Constitution to join like-minded people, express their opinions freely and indeed, to strike. The problem is that unions speak up for their members – the employed. They do not speak for the unemployed; the unions and the government ignore the interests of the unemployed masses.
Is it not time for the unions to surprise us all and in a time of crisis to show that they are not all greedy and selfish? Other people count; the unemployed count and the interests of South Africa count. Forego the “demands” for this year and surprise the sceptics: show that the workers do care about our country.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com.
This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.