SOUTH Africa’s trade union and labour relations environment is a mess, and while rigid employment laws, the internal politics of the ruling alliance, pedestrian economic growth and the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis have undoubtedly contributed, they do not explain the whole problem.
The country has gone through similar growth troughs many times before, after all, when jobs were shed and trade union membership numbers came under pressure.
And while this is generally associated with increased tension in the workplace, the threat of fragile companies being pushed over the edge by industrial action has tended to limit the extent and aggressiveness of strikes.
Not so in South Africa at present, where the survival or otherwise of companies such as marginal platinum mines appears at times to be irrelevant to their employees when they embark on crippling strikes that often turn violent and destructive.
Nor, contrary to popular belief, is the current chaotic state of the trade union movement solely attributable to the power struggles that are raging within the African National Congress (ANC) and the tripartite alliance, although that too is certainly a contributing factor. It is common cause that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is split down the middle on whether it can continue to support the ANC as government while it is headed by President Jacob Zuma and pursues “neoliberal” economic policies. The suspension of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was motivated at least partly by this factional battle.
Just last week the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), Cosatu’s largest affiliate and Mr Vavi’s main ally, said it would mobilise its members across sectors early next year to strike over a range of government policies, including the implementation of the National Development Plan, the recently approved youth wage subsidy and the imposition of Gauteng’s e-tolls.
With the union already having given notice at the National Economic Development and Labour Council that it intends taking its members out, and now lobbying a range of other Cosatu unions to join it on the streets, the stage has been set for a bruising confrontation with both other unions in the federation and the ANC a matter of weeks before next year’s election. A splitting of Cosatu is by no means out of the question, a development that would have profound implications for the ANC, which has traditionally relied on its union allies to bolster its election campaigns. Naturally, this scenario is being actively encouraged by other alliance dissidents, especially Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In an article carried by the Sunday Times, EFF political commissar Floyd Shivambu identified the party strongly with Numsa’s cause — indeed, in terms of economic ideology there appears to be little to distinguish between them.
Similarly, while the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union — which has grown rapidly at the expense of the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers in recent years — has not overtly associated itself with any political party, it has shared platforms with the EFF on several occasions and its political ideology is largely indistinguishable. There is a real prospect of a socialist-inclined alliance being formed to the left of the ANC, possibly even before the 2014 election, with disillusioned trade union members and the unemployed, unskilled masses as its core constituency.
However, not even the fallout from the struggle to control the tripartite alliance and determine government policies is enough to explain labour’s plight in South Africa. As important as this and the effect of the economic cycle may be, it is apparent that there are other, far broader, factors at play. Labour’s share of national income has been falling consistently across most of the world since the 1980s, after having remaining more or less constant since the industrial revolution. This implies that owners of capital have benefited from an increasing share of productivity gains, at labour’s expense. In addition, this trend has not affected all employees equally — the share of income earned by the top wage earners has increased even as labour’s overall share has fallen.
South Africa’s unions are well aware of this trend and seldom miss an opportunity to denounce employers for exploiting workers, but this does not explain why it is happening.
What has changed over the past 30 years that has upset the balance of power in the employment relationship? Globalisation, and especially the rise of China as a low-cost manufacturer and exporter, is clearly part of the reason; low-skilled factory workers’ bargaining power evaporates in the face of cheaper imports. But the bigger culprit is technology, which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates accounts for as much as 80% of the drop in labour’s share of productivity gains among its member countries.
Advances in computing, communications, robotics and the materials they are made from have allowed companies operating in industries ranging from agricultural processing to household appliance assembly to increase their productivity dramatically, and since labour has not contributed to these gains in any meaningful way, its claim to a share of the benefits has been limited.
In the case of South Africa the situation has been made far worse by the fact that labour’s marginal productivity — taking into account factors such as technological advancement — has actually turned negative over the past decade. Little wonder the government is having such difficulty persuading the private sector to employ more people.