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Castro Ngobese says unions’ will to negotiate for decent wages is the main way to bridge South Africa’s socio-economic and neo-apartheid fault lines.
Johannesburg - Former Mozambican President Samora Machel once remarked: “The rich man’s dog gets more in the way of vaccination, medicine and medical care than do the workers upon whom the rich man’s wealth is built.”
These immortal words are engraved in the hearts and minds of the cheaply paid, over-exploited workers of our country. The words remain relevant today, during the serious ideological and political offensive by capitalist bosses and their allies in the state and media, aiming to undermine collective bargaining and the will of unions.
Unions’ will to negotiate for decent wages for our members is the main way to bridge South Africa’s scandalous socio-economic and neo-apartheid fault lines.
The triple crises of poverty, unemployment and inequality ravaging our working-class communities, after 19 years of democracy, leave us as the world’s leading country in both inequality and worker anger, as measured last month by the World Economic Forum. That agency ranked our workers first out of 148 competitors in militancy for the second year in a row.
Still, the cheap blackmail by monopoly car manufacturer BMW to disinvest should be unmasked. Chris Moerdyk, former BMW public relations officer, has made some revealing comments about BMW’s hot rhetoric. As Moerdyk wrote this week, “Most big businesses in South Africa tend to inundate the media with how much money they and the country are losing due to strikes and how it is hammering exports and upsetting overseas customers. The trouble is, once the strikes are over, nothing has changed. It’s business as usual.”
He continued, “It’s all smoke and mirrors. In the past, the spin employed by big business in this country during times of labour unrest has proved to be about as credible as the worst that Mac Maharaj can offer. This is nothing new. It happened year after year when I worked in the motor industry.”
Moerdyk is very hostile to the working class, but at least he is honest in revealing the games the bosses play. The worst thing we could do is press a panic button because of the company’s threats. What we really need to consider is exchange controls to prevent the illegitimate transfer of wealth by these companies out of South Africa. Blackmailing tactics by BMW’s oligarchy form part of the broader political offensive to undermine and weaken the collective bargaining voice of workers. These threats correspond to labour reform proposals contained in the neo-liberal-embedded National Development Plan (NDP).
As revealed by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s sub-minimum wage proposal for youth workers, the neo-liberal state is becoming – just as during apartheid – a key instrument of the ruling class to discipline trade unions.
But in the face of the NDP and other forms of state hostility, Numsa has gallantly and courageously led successful strikes in the auto and motor sectors. Both strikes had significant consequences. It was not of our own making and choosing, but was imposed on us by the bosses themselves.
In any situation, when workers don’t reach an agreement with bosses for better wages and improved conditions of employment, workers are free to withdraw their labour power. This is a simple but effective tool to force the bosses to improve their wages. The punishment is the principle of “No work no pay”, and this is usually enforced by the bosses, as it is an international norm. But even after we settled for an 11.6 percent raise, BWM will earn healthy profits. All the multinational companies in the auto sector, like BMW, rely on black Africans’ cheap labour for its own survival and super-profits accumulation interests.
Hence, they will move from one country to another, looking for special subsidies and handouts, especially where cheap labour can be exploited. South Africa is still characterised by apartheid poverty wages, given the skewed income inequalities and apartheid labour disparities we inherited from our apartheid past era. This puts added pressure on each worker to make up for the extra dependants who are unemployed and languishing in squalor.
As correctly and metaphorically argued by Cosatu’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, the greedy and filthy-rich bosses want a chicken and a pig arrangement, wherein bosses as chickens offer to lay eggs for a breakfast, and workers as pigs are asked to donate bacon. We in the South African working class are dying while rich men continue to treat their dogs better than their employees. Numsa is part of a proud movement of workers insisting that this arrangement now be halted.
* Castro Ngobese is the national spokesman of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.