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  |  COSATU Speeches

Zwelinzima Vavi`s address to the National Congress of the South African State and Allied Workers Union

30 May 2013

National Office Bearers of SASAWU
Delegates, comrades and friends

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to the South African State and Allied Workers Union’s National Congress. I bring greetings and best wishes from COSATU’s national office bearers and 2.2 million members and best wishes for a fruitful congress.

SASAWU is one of our newest affiliates, registered as a recognized trade union only in 2000, but, as you say on your website, you “soon became a powerful force in the public service...a prominent and vibrant trade union which offers much more than other old, tired and arrogant trade unions in the public service”.

I must begin by reassuring those of you who may have been reading various newspapers over the past week that your federation is definitely not about to disintegrate or collapse.

Fed by anonymous ‘sources’ - some of whom, scandalously, come from within the ranks of our own unions – the media has been predicting that this week’s Central Executive Committee meeting would become some kind of bloodbath, leading to splits and fights.

The same media predicted a similar outcome at last year’s 11th National Congress, and they were just as wrong then, as they are now. It is worth quoting what we said yesterday in a statement to the media, about the CEC meeting.

“... The CEC resolved to fight harder than ever for the workers; we have to show them that we are not splitting or paralysed, as the media and their ‘sources’ want us to believe. We are recruiting new members in the Workers’ Month of May, listening to the workers with our ear to the ground, fighting against e-tolls and labour brokers and defending individual workers and unions like the NUM and SATAWU which are under attack. COSATU’s flag is flying high!”

COSATU will never let small differences, which arise from time to time, to cause us to lose sight of our primary task – to struggle to liberate the working class from exploitation, poverty and insecurity. Nothing must stop us from fighting for the measures we agreed to at our 11th National Congress in 2012, and the Collective Bargaining, Organising and Campaigns Conference in March 2013, to struggle to put an end to poverty pay, labour brokers and all the other ways in which working people are abused and ill-treated.

The delegates at that conference, in this very hall in Boksburg, demolished the false notion that our unions are no longer bothered about the workers’ everyday concerns.

They were determined to defeat the attacks on collective bargaining and the right to strike, to struggle against the apartheid wage structure and to fight for measures to increase the living standards and quality of life of our members.

At the same time however, delegates were equally insistent that we will not permanently solve any of these immediate problems without a complete restructuring of the economy and the labour market, to shift power and redistribute wealth from the super-rich capitalists to the workers and the poor.

The conference confirmed its support for what our ANC allies have dubbed “the Second Phase of the Transition” - to confront the triple crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality and build a society that puts people first. This is what the Freedom Charter promised and what the founding principles of both the ANC and COSATU commit us to fight for.

We have achieved many successes - created a democracy, adopted a constitution and laws which guarantee human rights and granted social benefits to hundreds more poor South Africans. For all this we give full credit to the ANC government, and its allies - COSATU and the SACP.

In the economic arena however we are a long way from achieving the economic demands in the Freedom Charter that:

“The people shall share in the country’s wealth; The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people.”

That is why we have submitted a Section 77 notice, as instructed by the 11th National Congress, to force a debate on our central demand for strong state intervention in strategic sectors of the economy, to reduce unemployment through the creation of decent work, end poverty, a 40-hour working week, banning of labour broking and access to free quality education and healthcare.

Central to this is the radical restructuring of our economy, to get on to an alternative growth path, which is no longer based as much as it is now on the over-dependence on the export of our raw materials, but creates an economy based on modern manufacturing industry.

The current problems in the mining sector illustrate perfectly the dangers to our economy of the over-reliance on mineral extraction and export. Fluctuations in the world market price of platinum translate into the loss of thousands of mine jobs, as shafts become less profitable.

The ANC and government have already adopted many of the policies we need to make the transition. The Industrial Policy Action Plan, the infrastructure development programme and at least part of the new growth path, if fully implemented, would take us far along the road to the second phase of our transition, and start to create decent, sustainable jobs at the rate we require to bring down the present outrageous level of unemployment. But as our Section 77 Notice makes clear, we need urgent action and not words on paper.

Comrade delegates

COSATU unions are still busy debating the National Development Plan (NDP), but the bargaining conference, and some of our affiliates have already expressed concern that it envisages jobs being created via a deregulated labour market and lower entry wages for young workers, below the poverty wages which most workers currently receive.

We shall contest the NDP’s major labour market proposals, which aim to entrench and further promote a multi-tier labour market and the downward variation of minimum standards of employment.

Another Freedom Charter pledge, which was enthusiastically endorsed by the conference delegates, is that there should be a national minimum wage. There is plenty of evidence to discredit the false arguments by economic ‘experts’ that minimum wages lead to more unemployment, since many employers will not be able to afford them and so will retrench workers or close down. International experience discredits these claims for what they are: propaganda and a denial of reality.

The experience of Brazil under President Lula proved that increased minimum wages and social grants – and incentives to small businesses – create demand for goods and services and lead to faster growth, more jobs and lower inflation.

The average minimum wage in South Africa was R3 336 in 2010. Minimum wages, according to the 2011 Labour Research Service Report on Bargaining Indicators were 19% below the living wage level of R4 105. Therefore the Freedom Charter’s call for a national minimum wage is yet to be realised for at least 44% of workers.

A national minimum wage would be a major step towards narrowing the apartheid wage gap and beginning to drag millions of poor, overwhelmingly black, workers out of poverty. It would not replace collective bargaining between employers and labour, but complement it, so that unions in the different sectors would still be free to negotiate higher wages and better conditions for their members.

A central plank in our campaign to end poverty pay and super-exploitation is the ongoing national campaign to ban labour brokers, these human traffickers. We shall continue to try to convince the ANC to sort out remaining areas of disagreement, and honour the agreements we reached with them on labour law amendments.

We reject the argument that labour brokers can still be allowed to operate for the first six months of employment. This will lead to major abuse, as has happened around the world. Firms will be able to keep rotating workers hired from labour broker workers for six month periods, and then replace them. Six months is 182 days too long! No labour broker must be allowed from day one of employment.

Comrade delegates

Obviously you will be discussing how to improve your members’ wages and working conditions. We reject totally the myth, widely spread by the DA and others, that public service workers are a privileged elite. Yes we have made some progress in improving the wages of our members, but from a very low base, and - as the action being taken currently by magistrates and SAPS administrative staff shows - there are still huge problems.

Public service workers should not have to strike, in a democratic society. It is a scandal that in these cases, the employer has not been prepared to reach a negotiated settlement.

COSATU therefore stands four-square behind these workers and any other who find themselves forced to strike to win a decent living wage, proper housing allowances and the honouring of negotiated agreements, because management refuse to reach a settlement.

At the same time, workers need to remain in the vanguard of the battle for the transformation of the way the public service is managed. You are workers who provide service but at the same time you are also consumers of these services. Your living standards are not determined only by the size of their wage packet, but also by the quality and affordability of public services like education, healthcare and transport, which you both provide and consume – the social wage.

We must do everything we can to ensure we develop a new culture of service - batho pele, with the goal of establishing such a high level of service that people will use the public schools, hospitals and other services from choice, because they know they will get quality service that in the private sector.

We must, as revolutionary trade unionists, be the most vocal and consistent enemies of inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption and support Comrade Sisulu’s drive to ban public sector workers from doing business with the state.

We have already made some good progress in delivering many basic services. The General Household Survey of 2009 reports that the “percentage of households who receive piped water supplies from their local municipalities increased from 74,5% in 2007 to 83,3% in 2009”. Households without a toilet or who use the bucket system declined from 8% to 6% between 2007 and 2010.

Communities face serious challenges, however, and the wave of service delivery protests is unabated. Public service workers in particular need to link their workplace struggles with those of the communities, so that we forge a single working class offensive to improve services.

Our opposition to e-tolling is part of a broader campaign for better, safer, more reliable and more affordable public transport. Now that the government and Sanral have confirmed that e-tolling will be rolled out all over the country, we hope that our campaign of mass action against this privatisation of our public highways will spread to all provinces. We are determined to make e-tolls unworkable!

We must keep up the struggle to ensure that the National Health Insurance pilot projects succeed, while keeping up the campaign for the full roll-out of the NHI, and tackle the current dysfunctionality of our public hospitals and the whole public healthcare system.

On education we have made some progress to take forward the Freedom Charter vision - that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened”, and that “education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”.

But we have a very long way to go. We must campaign with the Alliance and progressive civil society, in particular COSAS and SASCO, to end the shameful conditions under which most educators and learners function, including the lack of the most basic infrastructure, sanitation, computers, access to libraries and broadband. We must demand that the whole education system be adequately funded and staffed and continue to wage war on corruption and waste.

One area which I wish to raise with SASAWU in particular, since I know many of your members are directly involved, is the transformation of our legal and judicial system. The recent ‘slap on the wrist’ for J Arthur Brown, who was given a R150 000 fine, for robbing a fund for the widows and orphans of deceased mine workers of R1 billion, seems to prove that if you have enough money you can buy a soft sentence.

Contrast Brown’s sentence with that of a 21-year-old Mdantsane man who last year was given 10 years in prison for robbing his neighbour of R100.

Transformation of the judiciary to improve conviction rate and correctional services
A civil society conference that we organised here in 2010 looked at the issue of social justice, and agreed to the concept of a Social Justice Charter, which can be used as a campaigning tool to mobilise society, particularly workers and communities, around such issues.

“Access to justice is unaffordable,” said the conference declaration, “so that those who can’t afford to access the institutions of justice are excluded from exercising their rights and achieving social justice. The current system favours those who can afford to access judicial institutions and therefore creates barrier to access justice rather than promoting access.”

Justice - just like education, healthcare and public transport - must be a basic human right, not a commodity for sale to those who can afford it!

Another issue which I must mention is the deepening crisis of the abuse of women and children. We have to embark on a serious campaign in our communities to stop violence in general, particularly against women and children. We have to fight patriarchy and put the working class at the forefront of the fight to protect the rights and dignity of all, particularly the most vulnerable.

Comrade delegates

We will however make no progress in these areas unless we transform ourselves. Our unions face some very serious challenges - both internal and external - some self-inflicted, and some directed by our class enemies, who are trying to divide and ultimately fatally weaken us.

Our biggest problem is that two out of every three workers are not organised in trade unions at all. So that is why in this month of May – the workers’ month - we are having a recruitment drive to reach out to small and big workplaces, aiming to achieve our aim to be 100% representative instead of just gunning for a 50+1% representation. I hope that you will be able to tell me what progress you are making.

This will be followed by campaigns in June and August to target recruitment of youth and women respectively, and the establishment of youth and women’s forums.

It will be a waste of time however to recruit workers into our unions if we cannot give them the service they need. Our members have told us the most important reason for joining a COSATU union was protection against dismissal and unfair discipline (38% of our members), followed by improving wages, benefits and working conditions (33% of our members).

And yet the statistics we have from the CCMA show us that only 46% of cases referred by COSATU affiliates to arbitration were won in favour of workers. This tells us that we have to put our efforts first and foremost into successfully defending workers in disciplinary cases, as well as wage bargaining.

Our members are telling us is in simple language that we have to pull up our socks in all areas of service. We must to more to address these weaknesses.

We need to organise education programmes to empower our leaders, organisers and other cadres of the movement, and bring about a mindset change, so as to ensure that our structures are more responsive to our members’ expectations, and our structures and leadership are more accountable.

We have committed ourselves to prevent the emergence of a social distance between leaders and their base, as well as a distance between the trade union movement and the most vulnerable and marginalised within the working class.

Finally we must confront the burning question of workers’ unity. South Africa has 193 registered unions - far too many! We need to strive for the principle of ‘one-union/one-industry’ – and that includes the public service where we have a long-standing resolution to unite the COSATU unions into one strong, united force.

Comrade delegates

I must finally return to where I began. Our Federation has come under immense attack from our class enemies, some of them using the old tactic of ‘divide and rule’ and turning workers against workers.

We have developed detailed programmes to support the NUM, SATAWU and CWU, who have come under a systematic attack in the recent past – An injury to one is an injury to all!

I wish you a highly successful congress.

  • Forward with the unity or our great workers movement!
  • Forward to the programme of radical economic transformation!

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
110 Jorissen Cnr Simmonds Street
Braamfontein
2017

Tel: +27 11 339-4911 or Direct: +27 10 219-1339
Mobile: +27 82 821 7456
E-Mail: patrick@cosatu.org.za

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