Saftu Observes The World Day For Decent Work

On the 7th of October, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) will observe the World Day for Decent Work, and salute the trade union movement across the world for fighting throughout the decades to mitigate exploitation and strive for decent work. Though we have not always been successful, without the struggles of the trade unions for decent work, the workers would be worked to death by capitalism.

For us, decent work means earning a living wage, working under safe and health conditions, having job security and receiving benefits that provide social wage for families of workers. The fight for decent work presupposes employment, and as such, is linked to the struggle for job creation.

False premise of decent work

Decent work has been incorporated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN). Other multilateral institutions such as BRICS and G20 have also identified decent work as one of the goal they strive to achieve. However, for all their intend, the inclusion of decent work as a goal is merely an appendage.

In SDG 8, the UN sets out to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” The sequencing of the elements in the sentence is not an accidental one. It is based on the neoliberal premise of trickle-down economics, where economic growth has to precede employment, and with it decent work. In the BRICS summit declaration on 24 August 2023, growth is mentioned as a primary element, then employment and decent work have to follow. The G20 summit, two weeks after BRICS’s, declared that they will “support inclusive growth, sustainable development and decent work.

The mistake that these notions of decent work make is an assumption that economic growth automatically leads to employment creation that is decent. Unfortunately, the contemporary history of capitalism contradicts these views.

Firstly, since the economic stagnation of the late 1970s, decent work has been compromised as employment levels fell, and underemployment rose sharply. In its non-standard work report in 2019, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has shown that underemployment has been on the rise. This includes increases in casual work, zero-contract work, part-time and temporary work. Real and decent employment vanished with de-industrialisation that was the consequence of the economic stagnation.

Secondly, the development of machines and better machines, has made some human labour redundant, and the economy has not and cannot create corresponding jobs in other sectors and industries. This is not because capitalists are mean or bad, but because of the dictates arising out of the logic of capitalism. Capitalism in its raw and ideal state rests on competition. But to win at competition, one capitalist is compelled to lower the time it takes to produce goods so as to undercut his/her/their competitors. To lower the time requires that a machinery they use must be better and efficient, hence the constant technological innovation in industries. This technological innovation makes some hands redundant, and thus lead to underemployment and unemployment. Thus, capitalism displaces workers into unemployment and underemployment as a law of its development.

Globally, underemployment rose between 1985 and 2013. Non-standard employment (underemployment) rose from 21% to 34% as a share of employment. This type of diminution in employment standards is not only happening to old jobs; it is more prevalent even in new jobs that are created. The report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) vindicated this when it reported that 60% of jobs created in its member countries “in the 1990s and 2000s were non-standard.” The report further showed that more than 50% of all jobs created since 1995 were non-standard jobs.

In the context of neoliberal policies, governments do not create alternative decent work to absorb these hands which have been made redundant by machines in other parts of the economy. Hence the diminution in decent work despite pronouncements by multilateral institutions to champion decent work.

Thirdly and most central to this critique, capitalism is based on extraction of profits. This means, as history has also shown, pursuits for profits are not compatible with the requirements for decent work. So, the economic growth on which UN, BRICS and G20 premise the creation of decent work, would not automatically translate into decent work. In fact, the share of labour income has dwindled since the late 1970s in the advanced economies and since the early 1990s in the developing economies. This is proof that workers have taken little from the value they create in factories and firms, and the capitalist take a huge share in profits and dividends. This is a stark proof that decent work cannot be achieved in the context of profiteering, even when we achieve economic growth.

Labour broking, e-Hailing (Platform workers), Taxi workers, EPWP and CWP

In this country, the proliferation of labour brokers and outsourcing during the first phase on liberalisation in the post-apartheid South Africa, under-employment was stamped as an accepted form of employment, even when this compromised the principle of decent work. SAFTU salutes the #OutsourcingMustFall and its affiliates, for the battles it has undertaken to fight against outsourcing for permanent work. The lives of cleaners, gardeners, landscapers, etc, have changed for the good since such victories. They enjoy job security and decent pay.

Today, SAFTU has taken battles to fight for the recognition of platform workers (e-Hailing) as employees by the respective owners of the application companies such as Bolt, Uber and Takealot (Mr Delivery). We are re-launching a case in the labour court to take this battle forward, after the set-back of 2017. This battle is nothing but a battle for decent work; so that these workers can have security, fair disciplinary procedures, and steady income.

Further, we have taken the battles of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) in eThekwini Municipality through the Municipal and Allied Trade Union of SA (MATUSA) and across the country through the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (NUPSAW). Again, these battles are geared towards attaining decent work for all. The misuse and abuse of these workers in the EPWP, does not only reflect a train that has gone off the rail, but a programme that keeps workers in perpetual state of indecent work.

We are also recruiting workers in the minibus taxi industry, to ensure that these workers are treated as employees and enjoy the rights that have already been won by the labour movement of the 1970s and 1980s. But at the core, it is a battle for decent work in the industry, to guarantee workers job security, fair disciplinary procedures, decent income and retirement benefits.

Whilst we fight these battles, SAFTU is under no illusion that decent work will become an economy-wide reality under capitalism. Capitalism must be abolished, and an economy based on democratic control and management by workers and communities should emerge to guarantee all people a decent living.

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