South African unions strike against precarious labor and toll roads

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) cheered the success of  Wednesday’s general strike against precarious labor and privatized toll roads. The strike shut down key businesses and disrupted transportation throughout the country. In all, COSATU reported rallies and marches in 32 different cities and towns in the country.

“The protest was a brilliant success and far exceeded our estimates,” said COSATU spokesperson Patrick Craven. “It showed the overwhelming support for the demands that we are making.”

COSATU is demanding that the government suspend its plan to make certain highways in the province of Gauteng privately operated toll roads and that it end the practice of labor brokering. Much of the South African workforce now work for labor brokers, who provide temporary workers to companies. These precarious jobs are low paying, lack security, and offer few if any benefits. South Africa’s growing precarious workforce makes it difficult to reduce poverty and has condemned many to a life on the margins of society.

The biggest demonstration took place in Johannesburg. Estimates of the demonstration vary from as low as 30,000 to as high as 100,000.  Demonstrators marched to the province’s capital and presented a memorandum listing their demands to a representative of Gauteng province’s Premier Nomvula Mokoanyane.

COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzimi Vavi told the Johannesburg rally that he expected a response from the government within seven days and raised the possibility of another general strike if the government’s response is not satisfactory.

Vavi also criticized government officials of the African National Congress for forgetting their roots. “Today we are here to remind some fellows where we are coming from,” Vavi said. “They don’t know anymore the power of the working class.”

Vavi said that COSATU called the general strike to focus attention on inequality and poverty in South Africa and said that the government’s proposal to turn about 200 kilometers of public roads into privately operated toll roads on April 30  is one example of how current government policies are hurting the poor and the working class.

The new toll roads will, he said, will cause workers and the poor to be further “excluded” from society because only those who can afford to use them will do so.  Those excluded from the roads “are already excluded from receiving quality education and health care,” he said.  Vavi characterized the toll roads as a new form of apartheid that separates people on the basis of class rather than race. “We defeated apartheid … the government has now introduced a new apartheid, an economic apartheid,” Vavi said.

Vavi promised to close down the toll roads through mass demonstrations if the government went ahead with its plan to begin tolling on April 30.

Vavi was equally adamant about COSATU’s demand to end labor brokering in the country. “This is a class battle. This is a class war,” he said. “Labor brokers do not create jobs–they destroy the agenda for decent work. The people working for labor brokers do not enjoy the same wages and benefits as other workers in the industry.”

Vavi pointed out that more and more businesses are using the precarious workforce provided by labor brokers, singling out two of the country’s largest retailers.  Two-thirds of the workers hired by Shoprite Checkers, a supermarket chain that caters to upper income shoppers, are provided by labor brokers as are 70 percent of the workers, who work for Woolworth’s, one of South Africa’s  largest retail chains.

The government is proposing to regulate labor brokers, but COSATU leaders said that the practice must be abolished. In Durban, where another general strike rally took place, COSATU President S’dumo Diamini told demonstrators, “We will never understand the regulation of labor brokers. We want a total ban.”

In Cape Town, Patricia Dyata of Sikhula Sonke, a women-led farmworkers union, said that farmworkers provided by labor brokers make about 355 rands a week (about US$47). “They can’t feed their children or send them to school,” Dyata said. To make matters worse, the labor brokers charge the workers a fee and deduct it from their pay.

Labor brokering also makes it harder for workers to exercise their collective power to improve wages and conditions. “Today we are marching because labor broking undermines the right to collectively organize, the right to be a member of a trade union, and the right to strike,” said Doron Issacs, coordinator Equal Education, an education advocacy group, to general strike supporters in Durban.

Back in Johannesburg, Vavi told demonstrators, “The system of labor brokering is equal to human trafficking. You cannot sell labor that is not yours.”

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