Social compacts & false dawns By Terry Bell

2 June 2019 — Terry Bell Writes

New dawn or false dawn? For the South African labour movement in particular this is very much the question as the country moves toward the second half of a tumultuous year.

But this question does not only apply to South Africa. This month trade union leaders and representatives of governments and business will gather in Geneva to negotiate an International Labour Organisation (ILO) centennial declaration.

This declaration, a highlight of the 100th birthday celebrations of the oldest specialised agency of the United Nations, is being touted as the harbinger of a new dawn of peace and prosperity for all. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) representing more than 200 million unionised workers, has called this gathering “a once in a generation opportunity to set rules for the global economy to work for people”.

According to ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow, it is organised labour that must be to the forefront to ensure a new deal — a new dawn — for workers everywhere. At the same time, she notes that working people on an international basis, “are taking home an ever-smaller share of the wealth they create”.

Internationally, growth in wages lags well behind the growth in wealth. And the richest 1% of the world’s population capture an estimated 82% of the wealth generated.

Such figures resonate in South Africa where, over the past month, Stats SA revealed that the expanded definition of unemployment has topped 38%. But this hope for a new international dawn of peace and prosperity is based in yet another call for a “social compact”.

The international labour movement — SA contingent included — will arrive in Geneva to plead for a new deal between labour, business and governments. It is a plea that echoes across the decades and has fundamentally changed nothing.

United worker struggles on the ground, on the other hand, have brought about change. The often bloody fight for the vote for example, whether through the massacre at Peterloo in Britain in 1820 or the more recent bitter battles against apartheid were the ultimate consequences of direct action.

The ITUC admission that the economy “is rigged against workers” is the giveaway. As is the agreement that “people are disenchanted with a model of globalisation that has put profit ahead of people”.

That people are disenchanted with the status quo was clearly shown in South Africa on May 8 with the electoral turnout. This disenchantment was undoubtedly exacerbated by the latest unemployment figures, followed by news that company liquidations in April rose by more than 53%.

To call, especially in such an environment, on business and governments to please “change the rules of the global economy” seems, at best, a naive exercise. After all, these are the very groups responsible for, and that generally benefit from, this rigged economy.

However, tenacity in pressing legitimate demands, even in a rigged economy, can bring about good results. South Africa’s first new dawn in 1994, gave hope to many workers, among them the municipal workforce in Midrand.

They went on strike against corruption through the selling of jobs and 280 workers were sacked. That so many of them have continue to fight when that 1994 new dawn turned into a false dawn is remarkable.

And this week, worker representative, Stena Molepo was able to announce that 47 former Midrand strikers still of working age, had been given jobs, with nine others also agreed. “We also have an agreement that priority for jobs will be given to the next of kin of workers who have already died,” says Molepo.

It is a small glimmer of light at the time of South Africa’s second new dawn.

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