Lockdown is killing the labour movement

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Some trade unions are likely to exit this lockdown crippled. From Moneyweb.

‘Sabotage’ … calls for lifting the lockdown grow more shrill by the day. Image: Moneyweb
‘Sabotage’ … calls for lifting the lockdown grow more shrill by the day. Image: Moneyweb

Nothing breaks the spirit of the labour movement like retrenchments, and there were enough of those over the last 12 months, even before the Covid-19 outbreak.

This is why union members pay their monthly dues. They expect their union leaders to guard their interests in good and especially bad times. Those leaders are now being tested as never before.

Last week the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) said the lockdown was “diabolical” and called for its immediate lifting to arrest the devastation caused to business and employment.

As jobs are lost, so too are union members.

A few months ago, some business leaders may have cheered a weaker labour movement but, oddly enough, on the lockdown they now appear to be of one mind. The calls for lifting the lockdown grow more shrill by the day.

Last month the South African Reserve Bank said the economy could lose 370 000 jobs,  and 1 600 companies, as a result of the lockdown. That’s a rather hopeful view. Business for South Africa says the economy could contract by 16% this year and see four million jobs lost. The only way to avoid this outcome is for a rapid easing of lockdown restrictions.

Read: Kingston calls for faster reopening of SA economy

The longer the lockdown, the more devastating it is for organised labour. “Workers are being furloughed, and many have been retrenched, and this means they are unable to pay their union dues,” says Nactu secretary-general Narius Moloto. “So, in addition to shutting down thousands of businesses, small and large, this lockdown represents the greatest threat to our freedoms since the birth of democracy in SA.

“In one fell swoop, the decades of struggle for workers’ rights have been nullified,” says Moloto.

“It now appears the government has massively overreacted to this virus.

“Like most South Africans, we were initially cautiously supportive of President [Cyril] Ramaphosa’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus, but the costs to the country are now becoming clearer.

“The lockdown now begins to take on the shape of sabotage, and there must be accountability for government ministers who have crashed the economy while still drawing their state salaries, paid for by taxpayers,” says Moloto.

Like many others bearing the brunt of this crisis, he is furious over the lockdown. He says government ministers are completely insulated by their cushy salaries from the travails of ordinary South Africans, many of whom have no food.

Read: Lockdown: Poking the bear?

If there’s one ray of hope in all this, it’s that trade union representatives have now been allowed to resume work – in other words, to represent workers.

But there is scant celebration in this: workers in many sectors have not been paid by their employers. A survey by the National Employers Association of SA (Neasa), representing roughly 10 000 small and medium-sized businesses, shows that only 47% of employers that had applied for Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) relief had received funds, and often only partial payments. This scheme was set up by government to ensure employers could pay their workers during lockdown.

Read: Employers ‘angry, frustrated, horrified’ by Ters process

Some trade unions will fare better than others. Those in the mining sector, 50% of whose members have been recalled to work, should be able to survive with some dignity. So too the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), and the trade unions servicing public sector workers.

Those likely to feel the pain include the Building Construction and Allied Workers Union, where it is estimated that up to 30% of jobs could be lost if there is a prolonged lockdown, and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) – also facing a potential barrage of retrenchments.

Most unions suffering … but silent

What Moloto finds particularly troubling is that while the lockdown is also killing the labour movement, most trade unions are silent on the long-term impacts, and are actually applauding the government’s “massive overkill”. While many unions have been critical of aspects of the lockdown, few have challenged the devastating impact to their membership over the long term.

In April the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) brought a court case against the government to impose industry-wide safety standards to protect workers from the Covid-19 virus, but later withdrew this when lockdown exemptions granted to 129 mines were passed into law. It later supported the government’s plan to allow mines to ramp up to 50% production, provided workers’ safety was not imperilled.

On Friday, the National Union of Mineworkers berated those companies issuing Section 189 notices (in terms of the Labour Relations Act) to retrench workers. “Our position is that 50% of the workers that have not been recalled must be paid either by the companies or through the [UIF] relief fund, said the union in a statement.

Conflicting concerns for health worker union

Last week Nehawu, many of whose members are at the frontline in battling the virus, expressed concern over the number of healthcare workers infected by Covid-19. Health department figures show that 511 staff working in the sector had become infected and 26 were receiving treatment. But while a chorus of South Africans has called for an easing in lockdown regulations, Nehawu urged government not to relax restrictions on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, so as not to overburden the health care sector.

According to research by the Southern Africa – Towards Inclusive Economic Development (SA-Tied) programme, the sectors most likely to suffer from a protracted lockdown are construction (about 30% job losses), and finance and manufacturing, which could see a 15% reduction in annual employment.

Source: SA-Tied

Moloto says the already-precarious status of construction workers due to weak investment in the sector may now suffer irreparable harm due to the lockdown. The only way out of this is for government to initiate a massive infrastructure programme to reclaim some of the jobs lost.

Read: Covid-19 impact on construction sector will be ‘catastrophic’

A Neasa survey among its members shows that only 18% currently support the lockdown, though the initial support was overwhelming.

“It is time for bold, honest and very strong leadership,” says CEO Gerhard Papenfus. “Those with ulterior motives need to be exposed.

“The political leadership may decide to continue to cultivate the current narrative, but that will result in an even more rapid erosion of trust.”

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.