Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, SAFTU General Secretary, to the conference of the South African Informal Traders Alliance, 19 June 2018, Mbombela, Mpumalanga
19 June 2018
Thank you very much for inviting me to address the representatives of one of the most enterprising but also most exploited sections of our society – the hawkers and vendors and others in the growing informal economy.
I bring greetings from the office bearers and members of the South African Federation of Trade Unions and best wishes for a successful conference.
During the apartheid era you had too dark skins to be seen in town after dark. Now 24 years into democracy you are too poor to trade and sell goods in the same cities. This conference is being organised to resist and defeat a new new apartheid which is now no longer based on the skin colour but in the size of your wallet.
This economic apartheid continues to discriminate and sideline millions from the economic mainstream. Everywhere, in particular in Cape Town, the rich is either pricing flats and office spaces out of the reach of even the middle class. In Gauteng they have been trying hard to push the poor out of the best roads.
The war against the poor is deepening at the same rate as the capitalist crisis tries to re-event itself. As part of this capitalist crisis the informal sector is expanding around the world. In South Africa the last estimate by Statistics South Africa showed that in 2013 there were 1,5 million people running an informal business. Their overall annual turnover has been estimated to be a massive R5.46 trillion!
But of course that does not mean your members are rich. The same StatsSA report said that In 2013 more than half of those 1.5 million readers had a turnover of R1500 or less in the month prior to the survey, and less than 10% of businesses made net profits of more than R6000. The overwhelming majority live in poverty.
Then, as now the main reason why people become informal traders is the relentless rise of unemployment, and casualisation of labour. More and more jobs consist of casual labour, piece jobs, seasonal and part-time work, those like Uber drivers and food delivery staff who work for one company but are told that they are ‘self-employed contractors’, with none of the rights and protection that they would get if they were defined as ‘employees’.
That is why millions of workers have opted to take their chance in the informal economy. A labour analyst, Peter Waterman, estimated in 2012 that the traditional working class makes up only 15% of the global workforce, with the remaining 85% being part of the informal economy.
Yet the trade union movement has up to now largely ignored the plight of workers in the informal sector. This has led to employers and big business ‘experts’ trying to drive a wedge between workers in the formal and informal sectors. They claim that employed workers are a well-paid ‘elite’ who are the biggest threat to the survival of small businesses.
On the contrary there is far more that unites us than divides us, and workers and traders need each other if we are to solve our many problems. Informal traders are an integral part of our class, and we must unite against those who exploit us.
We live in the same poor communities. Our children attend the same under-resourced schools and are treated in the same dysfunctional hospitals and travel in the same dangerous taxis and trains.
The money you make from selling goods and comes mainly from the meagre earnings of workers. If wages fall, so does demand for what you are selling and therefore your income. But when more workers have jobs and higher wages it brings more money into the market, as workers spend their wages on goods and services and create more business for the informal traders.
We also face the same enemy: the highly monopolised big business cartels, like the big retail chains, who pay minimal prices to the farmers and producers but charge exorbitant prices to consumers. Meanwhile they ruthlessly exclude informal traders from the shopping malls and from space on the shelves of their stores.
We are both victims of price-fixing and collusion in the bread, dairy, construction, finance and pharmaceutical sectors, which they use both to exclude competitors like you and to over-charge consumers.
We are threatened as well by the illegal dumping of millions of rands worth of cheap imports which hurts workers who manufacture such goods in South Africa, traders whose prices are undercut and the foreign citizens who are exploited by the smuggling syndicates.
All these restrictive practices are designed to keep competitors like you out of the market place. The biggest obstacle to the growth of small business is big business, not the workers!
While a tiny minority of enterprising informal workers go on to run successful businesses, the vast majority face a life of grinding poverty. They generally have no contracts, no fixed hours, and no sick pay or maternity leave.
We have made important gains since 1994 in establishing democracy, entrenching human rights and extending social benefits. Economically however, workers’ lives have not been transformed. Because of the massive levels of unemployment and the growth of the low-paid and insecure jobs, millions of South Africans in economic terms are no better off, or even worse off, than before 1994.
All this poses massive challenges to the trade union movement, and SAFTU, from the outset has been determined to reach out to all those like you in the informal sector, to help you get organised, which is the absolutely necessary first step in improving wages and conditions.
The South African government has signed ILO conventions guaranteeing workers’ basic rights, but too many of the principles enshrined in these conventions and our labour laws are honoured in words but ignored in practice.
You are just as entitled to these human rights that our constitution, laws and international conventions are supposed to guarantee: the right to organise and to engage in collective bargaining, and to work in safe, healthy and decent conditions,
secure and well-paid employment, which will not only bring an income but self-respect, self-confidence and personal dignity.
But most of you enjoy none of these rights and benefits. On the contrary you are harassed by the police, security companies and municipalities. You are chased off your trading sites, have your products confiscated and treated as criminals.
But you will not be handed security and wealth on a silver platter. Power concedes nothing without a struggle. We will win no real, lasting improvements in the lives of the poor without a fight and what we have not won in the streets will not be won in the boardroom.
We had to fight for our political emancipation in 1994. 24 years later we must revive those same traditions of selfless struggle to win our economic emancipation, justice and peace.
To this end SAFTU is calling on all formations of the working class to attend a Working-Class Summit on 21-22 July to unite civil society formations, employed and unemployed workers, those in the informal sector and in more secure work, the students and the landless, the homeless and those fighting against the water crisis and the scourge of violence against women and children, into a struggle for a truly free, democratic and equal society.
In preparation for this historic assembly of the poor we are convening a two days leadership workshop on 28 - 29 June to which SAITA is one of the invited organizations. We hope the paper you will present will help all other formations to understand your concerns.
I look forward to seeing you there!
United we stand; divided we fall!
Issued by Zwelinzima Vavi, SAFTU General Secretary, 19 June 2018