The Greek economic crisis has moved off the front pages and, once again, there is talk of perhaps an upturn in various economies. But the Greek crisis has not disappeared and Europe remains shaky, especially around the edges in countries such as Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and, indeed, Britain. In fact, had it not been for a massive financial injection in recent months into Italy from the European Central Bank, another even bigger debt default possibility would have loomed.
So the labour movement can be excused for being more than a trifle cynical about any talk of economic recovery. We have, after all, heard it all before. And the statistics used to promote hints of optimism merely seem to justify the adage that there are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics.
This number crunching can be selectively presented and even massaged to produce desired results, especially in terms of jobs and joblessness and statements about economic growth. And the publicised positive or negative trends can be the result of calculations that are at best crude estimates or even deliberate distortions. Politicians, business organisations and even individual businesses promote — even create — estimates and guesstimates that make for often sensational headlines. These help promote their own agendas, but also help to further cloud the issue.
And the issue is an ongoing global, not a national or multi-national, crisis that has seen the proportion of national wealth devoted to wages steadily declining, reflecting a growing wage and welfare gap. As a consequence, workers and their organisations around the world are facing similar battles as they try to defend rights that have been won or try desperately to gain some security and stability of employment. Almost everywhere, wages and conditions of work are a under threat as cash strapped governments and private sector businesses, whose bottom lines are being squeezed, react by cutting costs or by trying to find new ways to line their pockets.
One of the ways the financial sector is using to maintain profits is predatory lending, making generally unsecured loans to often desperate people at what the unions say are “usurous” rates of interest. This, in turn, exacerbates the problems of indebtedness, especially among lower paid workers. Even in South Africa, with our 2006 National Credit Act in place, it is still legal to charge interest rates that range from 30 percent to 60 percent a year. So, as unions across the board point out, it is not surprising that half of South Africa’s households are now estimated to be “credit impaired”. The euphemism means, in simple terms, broke, bankrupt, frequently destitute.
But there are still households that have either sufficient cash or can access loans to enable them to buy the durable goods that, according to the latest Reserve Bank quarterly bulletin, pushed the spend on these goods up by 16.6 percent. However, topping these purchases were the likes of computers and that tends to mean goods such as the Apple iPad, a product owned by a US company and manufactured, for the most part, in China.
Most wage earners and certainly the mass of unemployed people do not feature in such statistics. They are poor and, for the most part, feel they are getting poorer. This is one of the reasons for the strength of feeling about the introduction of the etolling system in Gauteng. But the idea of selling roads — or, at the very least, leasing them on a long-term care, maintenance and revenue generating basis — and resistance to this is not a solely South African phenomenon: in Britain, for example, a similar proposal now faces union-led resistance.
Also facing union resistance in Britain is a proposal that young unemployed people, paid a small state grant, work without pay, especially in the already heavily casualised retail sector. This “workfare” programme resulted in leading retailers being picketed.
But it is the growth in poorly paid part-time — “casual” — work that is the major battle the labour movement is currently fighting, here and elsewhere. Essentially a cost-cutting measure, casual labour, often supplied by brokers, fragments the workforce and makes collective organisation much more difficult. In a number of cases, specially in generally poorly organised regions such as in the US, it is a losing battle; in others a bitter, apparently last-ditch stand. A classic current example is the strike by stevedores in the New Zealand port of Auckland who have, in fact, been pitted against their already casualised workmates in the port of Tauranga, further down the coast.
Amid some cries of collusion, shipping companies moved their business to Tauranga, providing the Auckland port authority with an economic argument to wring still further concessions from the local Maritime Union. The demand now is that the entire stevedoring workforce labour on a “flexible basis” as casual workers. “What this means as a worker is that you will not know from day to day, how many hours you will work or even if you will work at all,” a union statement notes. Also of concern in a country with a strong labour tradition, is the release of a report by the government that calls for all ports to be privatised and to function without unions.
We have not got to that stage. Nor have many regions reached the level of repression witnessed in the city of Cali in Colombia where 51 workers were sacked just for joining a union, eight, along with the union lawyer, were assassinated and 15 union activists have fled into exile. Instead, as International Labour Organisation regional director Vic van Vuuren, who hails from the business sector, noted last week: we in SA have very good labour laws. The problem exists with the lack of enforcement.
Given the international scene, the local labour movement can only hope that Van Vuuren’s message will be taken on board; that it will be realised by bosses and the state, that, in an SA context, enforcement and not relaxation is the way forward.