South African textile workers fight poverty and exploitation


A march of 3,000 clothing workers organised by the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) brought the town of Newcastle to a halt last Friday.

The workers, who were protesting against poverty wages and exploitation, handed memoranda to the Newcastle Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry.

The memoranda called on

• All Newcastle clothing factories to become part of the phase-in programme of the bargaining council which is aimed at ensuring compliance with the legal minimum wage and will result in many workers’ wages increasing;

• Newcastle employers to stop claiming that workers are prepared to accept poverty wages and to stop pretending that workers support their non-compliance with the laws of South Africa;

• Newcastle employers to stop refusing to give workers weekly payslips as stipulated in South African law. Without payslips workers cannot produce evidence of a weekly income and so cannot buy goods on credit and cannot provide evidence of UIF contributions if they lose their job and want to claim unemployment benefits;

• The United Clothing and Textile Association (UCTA) to withdraw its case against the Minister of Labour for extending the wage agreement to vulnerable clothing workers across South Africa and

l The bargaining council to ensure Newcastle employers pay the legal minimum wage, maternity leave and overtime.

The workers are determined to intensify their fight for a living wage and job protection.

A regional Congress of South African Trade Unions statement said: ‘COSATU KZN (KwaZuluNatal) fully supports the march in Newcastle by SACTWU members in the Clothing and Textile Industry.

‘It is common knowledge that Newcastle is the seedbed of super-exploitation of workers in the Clothing and Textile Industry.

‘COSATU in KZN has always maintained that no labour laws will ever function properly if nothing is done about those employers in Newcastle.

‘To them nothing is of importance except super-exploitation and the advancement of maximum profit accumulation.

‘Clearly they are capable of defying any and every labour law under the pretence that there is labour surplus in abundance.

‘They continue to undermine bargaining council decisions and settlements and subject workers to the worst of conditions.

‘It is the same employers who broke the record by going on strike against government and the industry’s bargaining council.

‘It is the same employers who locked in an employee who was highly pregnant and was forced to deliver at the workplace.

‘Clearly as long as there are employers like those in Newcastle the country will continue to lead the world in poverty, income inequalities and unemployment.

‘As COSATU KZN, we will be demanding full compliance with all decisions of the bargaining council, an end to labour brokers and better Occupational Health and Safety.’

COSATU has also pledged to fight right-wing attempts to weaken labour laws.

In a statetement last Thursday it said: ‘COSATU warmly welcomes today’s cabinet statement which confounds speculation that South Africa’s labour legislation might be relaxed.’

Spokesperson Jimmy Manyi said the government wants to place on record that the Labour Department is the lead department on all labour matters and that the only labour law amendments being considered at the moment are those being processed by Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant through the National Economic Development and Labour Council processes.

‘Cabinet,’ he said, ‘reiterates that South Africa’s labour laws are in compliance with the International Labour Organisation.’

COSATU noted: ‘This follows a worrying statement on August 15, in which Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan suggested South Africa might have to relax its labour laws in certain cases to ensure employment of young workers.

‘ “Laws might also have to be relaxed,” he says, “to allow young people to enter the workplace and gain skills and experience at lower wages, but not at the expense of people who already have jobs . . .Unless such changes are made, we will not be able to make the breakthrough we need to create jobs in South Africa”.

‘These comments come amidst a concerted right-wing campaign to blame “inflexible” labour laws for the high levels of unemployment and to try to use this to justify rolling back gains workers have achieved since the dawn of democracy.

‘ “Job creation,” wrote Jonathan Yudelowitz, joint managing director of consulting firm YSA, on 2nd August 2011, “is stymied by well-meant but inflexible labour laws, illustrated by the fact that despite growing, the economy continues to shed jobs, never mind create permanent work that fits COSATU’s definition of decency”.

‘Then Pick-n-Pay Chairman Gareth Ackerman on 18th August 2011 said that the labour intensity of production for SA had fallen by 16% since 1994 and the solution to this decline was “labour flexibility”. “It is this, perhaps more than anything, which will create sustainable and decent jobs”.

‘These reactionary views, which have been widely published and repeated ad nauseum in the media, are based on statistics contained in the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 Global Competitiveness Report (GCR).

‘This claimed that out of 139 countries, South Africa ranked: 97th in labour market efficiency; 135th for the country’s inflexible hiring and firing practices; 131st for a lack of flexibility in wage determination by companies; and 132nd for poor labour-employer relations.

‘Yet labour law expert, Professor Paul Benjamin, has cast serious doubt on this “evidence”.’

COSATU insisted: ‘The only real way for the South African economy to create more decent jobs is to restructure the economy, which is still based on the fault lines inherited from colonialism.

‘Instead of joining the right-wing chorus against labour laws, the government should put in place appropriate macroeconomic policies to ensure speedy transformation of the economy.’

It added: ‘In COSATU’s view the biggest problem with our labour laws is that in reality millions of workers are not protected nearly enough. Their jobs have been casualised or outsourced to labour brokers and they suffer extreme exploitation, poverty pay, no benefits and no job security and the labour laws for them are irrelevant.

‘This is why no amount of blackmail, based on phoney “surveys” about “inflexible” labour laws causing unemployment, will deter workers from fighting to defend their right to be treated with respect and to be protected from unfair dismissal, poverty pay and super-exploitation.

‘That is why among many campaigns COSATU adopted at its Central Committee (CC) in June 2011, was the living wage campaign, a decision grounded in the real problems workers face, not the perceptions of a few international business executives.

‘While executives continue to laugh all the way to the bank, with massive remuneration packages, millions of workers continue to earn starvation wages, from which they are forced to support more family members due to high levels of unemployment, and have suffered massive casualisation, including through intensive usage of labour brokers as a clear strategy by companies to circumvent progressive labour laws.

‘We will never let them get away with making these laws even more “flexible” to allow even higher levels of exploitation.’