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 COSATU congress ignores attacks on workers' rights



by Ronald Wesso

COSATU  had its thirteenth Congress from 17 to 20 September. As usual the federation’s militant declarations of its commitment to radical change received widespread attention and added to the impression of a strong, although divided, union movement in South Africa. While many are aware of problems and divisions in COSATU, it is not often acknowledged that the picture of a strong, militant union movement supported by progressive, rigid labour laws is fundamentally false.


The truth is that workers’ rights are in crisis. The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) reveals part of the story. More than 8.4 million (60.8%) workers have their wages determined by their bosses without any negotiation whatsoever. For 9.5 million  (68,7%) there is no collective bargaining. Bargaining councils are the statutory bodies created to provide a platform for collective bargaining. Yet only 1.1 million (8%) workers are covered by bargaining councils. Despite the fact that the right to collective bargaining is in the constitution and forms the bedrock of our workers’ rights system, it is inaccessible for the vast majority of workers. 


At the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) we experience this reality of workers’ rights in crisis every day. According to the QLFS there are more than 5,4 million (38,9%) casual workers in the country defined as workers who do not have permanent, fulltime employment contracts. The proportion of casual workers to permanent workers has steadily increased from about 35% to about 39% over the last ten years. This indicates that the overwhelming majority of workers who do not have permanent contracts are actually doing on-going, permanent work. In fact, a recent study by Cassiem and Casale of SARS data on labour broking concluded that more than 80% of labour broker workers are doing permanent work.


CWAO has become renowned for its #BigNewRights campaign in support of labour broker and other casual workers struggling to claim their rights. In terms of the Labour Relations Act (LRA), these workers have the right to become the permanent employees of their client companies after doing three months of on-going work. The statistics suggest that millions of workers should have moved from casual to permanent employment after these rights came into effect in 2015. Yet, CWAO can only claim that just over 9000 workers became permanent as a result of our campaign, and no other organisation comes close to us in this regard. Our experience, and that of casual workers in general, confirms the picture of workers’ rights in crisis.


In the minutes of the 12th COSATU congress, there is no indication that this crisis was discussed or even named. Discussions ranged from the Cuban 5 to E-Tolls to the internal politics of the ANC, but the fact that more than 3.5 million women workers are denied maternity leave, which is supposed to be their right according to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA), received no attention.  This pattern was repeated in the 13th congress.


It should in fact come as no surprise that COSATU can ignore the crisis of workers’ rights. They have just made a major contribution to this crisis by signing up to the ANC government’s attack on workers’ rights to strike, picket and collective bargaining written into the labour legislation amendments currently awaiting the signature COSATU’s preferred neoliberal president. The best thing that can be said in COSATU’s defence is that they are not alone. Their position in relation to the rights of the most marginalised workers reflects a general crisis in the union movement that grew out of the waves of workers struggles that started in Durban in 1973. CWAO has adopted the perspective that a new workers’ movement must be built in order to resolve this crisis. The struggles of the millions of casual and other workers outside of the current system of trade union rights are already producing the forces of this new movement.


Ronald Wesso works at the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO). The Big New Rights for labour broker workers campaign is a collaboration between CWAO and the Simunye Workers Forum   


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