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Shopsteward Volume 26 No. 2

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  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, to the COSATU 11th National Congress 18 September 2012 Friends and comrades, on behalf of 176 million ITUC members around the world and the family of global union federations to which you belong, I salute you.

100 years of the ANC, 27 years of COSATU - congratulations! You are an inspiration and many many union movements have been proud to stand at your side in solidarity against apartheid and through the birth and growth of your magnificent COSATU, as a union movement now at the heart and soul of the fight for a democratic and socially just Africa.

I come from a country, Australia, where the revolutionary struggle of COSATU has always been and will always be an inspiration and I know there are other international friends and comrades in the room who likewise share this deep friendship.

I congratulate the leadership on their re-election yesterday and look forward to your solidarity and wise counsel in defence of our shared values in workers struggles everywhere.

So Comrade President and Comrade General Secretary I am proud to stand among you again.....and let me acknowledge George Mavrikos of the WFTU.

Indeed we all share a global struggle against the dominant capitalist model that imposed the greed that drove the financial crisis, now a bitter crisis of unemployment, and the subsequent attacks on workers’ rights everywhere.

But before I elaborate let me extend sympathy from all our affiliates for the senseless loss of life in the mining tragedy before, during and since the massacre. The mining companies have much to answer for with the greedy drive for profits, that leaves workers impoverished and desperate. I commend your will to take up the fight for the restructure of the industry and your commitment to the central values of non-violent struggle.

Indeed this tragedy underscores the fact that the 20th century model of capitalism has not and will not work for working people.

With profits before decent work, a declining wage share, precarious work, a reduction in social protection, tax evasion, rampant speculative capital and serious growth in the desperation of the informal economy - this is not acceptable to our people and our communities as a basis for this century.

Yet those who benefit, proudly defend this capitalist model with everything they have - they defend the jungle of the financial markets and they go to war on workers, on our rights, our job security, our workplace safety, our wages and our pensions. The want to hire and fire at whim - to use the intergenerational tragedy of youth unemployment as an excuse to fire the mother or the father and hire the son or daughter on lower wages. They couldn’t care less for the impoverishment of workers they are responsible for.

And they have allies - the international organizations have joined forces, the IMF, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and sections of the OECD amongst others - champions for labour market deregulation - now conditionality in debt-torn countries – Portugal, Spain, Greece, Latvia, Ireland and spreading like a cancer.

Not satisfied with the damage to workers’ lives with wage cuts, pension cuts, attacks on collective bargaining rights and more the latest demand of the European Commission on desperate comrades in Greece is to work a 6 hour day for five days’ pay.....kill the 40 hour week ....take both wages and family time away from workers..... Thatcher and Regan have been re-incarnated!

These atrocities must galvanize us all in opposition!

We have sat with many of the workers in crisis countries and captured their stories. They break your hearts, they make you angry but most of all they make you determined to fight alongside them.

These workers and many more around the world are in the frontlines; the frontlines of a war on workers from the very forces that brought the financial system to its knees in 2008. But now having stolen tax payers money to recapitalize they are now looking for the blood of workers.

And having a taste of the blood of workers the organized employers have now taken this fight inside the ILO, challenging governments to abandon the ILO jurisprudence, beginning with the right to strike. Therefore our fight is now inside the ILO, with right wing employers as well as against employers and weak and exploitative governments globally.

We know that this fight is in the context of a world of incredible tensions;

  • the alarming growth in inequity is pitting people against people,
  • Unemployment levels are stripping people of hope and marginalizing our children and grandchildren,
  • Increasingly, emerging economies express deep discontent with the dominant economic and trade model,
  • The banks and other financial institutions have lost all trust from the people they once served,
  • social unrest is on the rise and threatens economic and social cohesion,
  • climate change is threatening communities and livelihoods, and
  • workers rights, wages and social protection are in the sights of pure class enemies.

In this reality it is not surprising that people are losing faith in elected leaders and indeed in democracy. Our own global poll conducted just two months ago demonstrates the fear and insecurity of people in almost all countries and this resulting lack of trust in governments.

66% of people believe that the next generation, our children and grandchildren, will be worse off. Wealthier countries like Belgium and Germany demonstrate much higher levels of pessimism.

71% of people believe that they lack legal protection for secure jobs.

Plus 79% can`t save any money.

Only 13% of people believe that as voters they have any influence on the economic decisions of democratically elected governments.

But people disagree with their governments imposing austerity - they say put jobs before debt, with only 10% backing austerity first. People know that fiscal consolidation is not possible if jobs, decent jobs, are not part of the equation.

However the basis of demand in our economies is at risk when only

11% of people believe they have increased their income. The overwhelming majority say they have gone backwards.

People want an alternate approach.

The majority of people have a different view to their governments. People know what they want, and governments need to deliver for voters.

In addition to secure jobs and incomes, working people and their families want affordable access to health care (93%), education (94%), decent retirement incomes (91%), access to childcare (90%) and unemployment benefits (81%).

Optimism is evident only where economic governance and policies support working people. Some of that is evident in Brazil and here in South Africa.

You have a good base to work with, but globally it is imperative that we fight back; to take on the fight of generations.

Let’s start with social protection; unemployment benefits, pensions, child protection, maternity protection, health, education for all, housing and sanitation.

When 70% of the world’s people have no social protection, this is core union business. The dignity and survivability of these fundamentals for the poorest people is a test for us - can we make the universal social protection floor such a prime demand globally that no government will deny this responsibility. Can we pressure the wealthy governments to pool funds to implement these guarantees in the poorest of countries?

If not, what do we stand for?

Then let’s channel the fight for a minimum wage on which our people can live. Let`s see an end to the hideous reality of the working poor. Let`s bring workers in from the shadows including from the informal sector.

Then there is collective bargaining rights and practice that delivers a fairer share of the wealth - this is our business - the tools to share the productive wealth of workers. And when governments don`t implement labour laws and institutions to ensure that employers bargain in good faith, we should use our power at the ballot box to see them off

And then serious investment in jobs, jobs and jobs. Full employment remains our goal and the dignity of labour - of decent work - our central ambition.

But we don’t just make empty demands, we have progressive answers.

As just one example ITUC research has demonstrated that you can both transition to a green economy and create jobs, quality jobs. You are leading that demand with your green economy accord and COSATU led us in the fight with governments last year at the Durban Climate Conference.

With 2% of GDP invested each year for five years in just 12 countries we studied this year governments could create 48 million new jobs; jobs in construction, in energy, in manufacturing, in agriculture, water and other sectors.

If that is the reality in 12 countries, the potential in 50 or 100 nations is worth investing in. And we have underutilised power, 25 trillion dollars of pensions funds invested in the global economy – and more in mutuals that service working families. Just as COSATU says we must use the power of our own capital for a just future.

Comrades, globally governments are weak and the dominant orthodoxy shaping our economies and our societies is still that of the failed policies of neo-liberalism. Failed policies that keep on driving more failure.

We must take on the fight for just alternatives.

But do we have the heart for this fight? If we seriously do then it will take a determined focus beyond our traditional advocacy.... for the reality is that we must build the power of workers.

With just 7% of workers organised globally, unions have to build more power to effect the change to the economic model we want. Even with workers in China and Vietnam with who we have close engagement and Cuba where I am working to strengthen our engagement we are a mere 15% of 2.9 billion workers.

Corporations can buy government policy - we must have the power of working people.

We must organize industrially and politically to engage people to fight for our alternate future. But we must change for we need to organise in the informal sector as well as the formal sector...we must organise women and young people and create space for different structures and leadership styles. We need to listen to workers everywhere.

The ITUC is focussed on this challenge. It requires serious change in our own approach.

When you took the decision with friends in Brazil, in Australia and other progressive unions to join the then ICFTU, we did so to unite workers, to strengthen the global labour movement - to make change.

Two years ago you elected me to deepen that change.

Today I stand before you and tell you that we must organise, organise, organise.

In Africa you are 6% organized in the formal sector. This power imbalance must change and ITUC colleagues with me - Wellington Chibebe your Zimbabwean comrade and our Deputy Secretary and Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, your African Secretary know first-hand that challenge.

While our African unions have been proudly persistent and strong in fighting violations of rights throughout the region, if we don`t change this picture of low unionisation we will not lift the oppression of poverty.

So while we will always stand with the oppressed in the fight for peace and democracy, the ITUC is focussed on 3 central objectives;

  • union growth,
  • sustainable jobs, secure wages and social protection and,
  • realizing rights.
  • Let me paint for you a picture of just one of our fights. QATAR

Qatar runs a slave state. With 92% of the workforce as migrant workers they are building a hugely wealthy nation on 21st century model of slavery. Desperate workers from Nepal, India, the Philippines and other nations are conned into paying illegal fees for the right to work in Qatar; they arrive to find their passports confiscated; the working conditions oppressive and unsafe, pitiful wages are often withheld; loving arrangements are inhuman and their freedom is curtailed.

There is no freedom of association, workers cannot form unions and yet despite these atrocities the UN has decided to hold the 2012 climate conference there - this is shameful.

But equally shameful is that FIFA has seen fit to award this country the 2022 World Cup - the football game so many workers support around the world - and those stadiums are being built now by our brothers in these shocking conditions. More workers will die building the stadiums than players will play on those fields.

We can`t and won`t accept this. If there is no Freedom of Association, no unions with collective bargaining rights, there will be no world cup in Qatar. And we need your help for this fight.

The Government has refused our entreaties so now we fight. We have launched a new newspaper, a digital newspaper for the world`s workers. Called Equal Times, it has an action platform that allows you to be part of the fight. Go to equaltimes.org and take a seat in the Al Rayyan Stadium.

Join the fight for rights in Qatar. Don`t let Qatar shame the game of football.

And I know COSATU will join me in Qatar in December to do what we do best - stand with workers and expose injustice.

We need COSATU and your fighting spirit with us on this job and many, many other fights.

There are no rights and there is no decent work where workers are oppressed,

This brings me to make a couple of brief remarks about one significant difference with the WFTU.

First let me explain why you never hear me or anyone on my team criticize the WFTU. We believe in freedom of association and while it is preferable to have unity, pluralism can and does emerge from that most fundamental human right for workers.

So while it annoys me to hear the misinformation and misguided criticism of the ITUC you will not hear me respond. The last thing workers need is unions fighting - it undermines their confidence in our collective voice and is just counterproductive.

George, my door is always open to dialogue and I hope there is a time when we can unite all the workers in the world.

However we do have a fundamental difference and it is not communism or socialism. You know I am a proud woman of the left.

No, rather it is our determination to fight oppression everywhere and when workers in liberation struggles, workers who want the right to elect a democratic government and form free trade unions are attacked with guns, tanks and bombs - tortured for their commitment to the ideals you, here in South Africa, have shed blood for, they must be supported.

Come with me to the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan or the Libyan camps in Tunisia, hear their stories of oppression and torture and still protect those Governments and the so-called unions that back them in.

Take a good look at the ETUF leadership who will work with any Government, irrespective of ideology, to control the destiny of workers and oppose genuine Freedom of Association in the interests of their own oppressive power. The workers who went to the streets in Egypt, who went to Tahir Square, were not led by ETUF. On the contrary the ETUF leaders and the Minister hired thugs and camels to attack the workers. These and others examples of oppression of liberation struggles would be good to discuss.

There is the oppression of women but let me simply say I too hope there is a time beyond the dictators club when we can fight together. And frankly dialogue never hurts.

Maybe we could start with a dialogue on Palestine where we are both committed to seeing an end to the occupation, an end to the land grab of the illegal settlements and a free state. I have been there five times in the two years I have been in the job and stand in awe of workers fighting occupation but at the same time building a strong union base and fighting for social protection, a minimum wage, gender equality and safe work.

Unity is an ultimate goal for all workers but we pledge to begin with respect for all comrades and friends committed to the shared values of democratic freedoms, fundamental rights and equity.

These goals require us to fight for our rights; to organise from Qatar to Swaziland, to Guatemala, to Egypt and Indonesia and all places within.

Workers and their unions are the Frontlines. They are the Frontlines in building democratic freedoms, in fighting oppression, discrimination, greed and inequity and they are the frontline of defence again exploitative corporations, oppressive governments and other national and international bullies.

I am proud to be your General Secretary, proud to stand with COSATU, and we need you shoulder to shoulder to build the power of workers;

to fight for our rights;

to take back a sustainable planet and

to see our children guaranteed the dignity of labour.

Viva COSATU Viva
Viva Africa Viva
Solidarity!

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