11 November 2020
The leadership of COSATU, Affiliates, sister Federations,
The Minister for Employment and Labour, leadership of government and labour market institutions,
Leadership of our Alliance partners, the ANC and the SACP,
Media present, and
Most importantly the rank and file membership of COSATU.
Good morning comrades, I welcome you all here to COSATU’s 2020 Collective Bargaining Conference.
Karl Marx famously said, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”. That rallying call which has guided billions of workers for over 150 years remains as valid today as it was then. Workers remain as much under threat today, not only here in South Africa, but across the world.
However, the one difference that workers face today is that many of the victories workers have achieved since 1994 are under severe threat. Yes, workers must lose their chains of exploitation and abuse. But equally thousands are losing their jobs, wages, pensions, medical aid, rights to paid leave, rights not to be physically and sexually abused and even their rights to collective bargaining.
As the leadership of COSATU we are looking forward to these 3 days of engagements. We know the enormous amount of good work that so many of our shopstewards, leadership and members have been busy with night and day over the past few tumultuous months.
The fact that we meet in our first ever virtual conference is testimony of the seriousness with which you are taking your mandates of defending the gains and advancing the rights of workers and that we are adjusting to the conditions of today.
As we develop our collective bargaining objectives, strategies and tactics, it is critical that we reflect upon the economic challenges facing our members, their families and the working class at large.
We were in a deep economic recession before Corona. We are now in danger of entering an economic depression. 2.2 million jobs were lost last quarter. Unemployment has risen from a peak of 40% to 52%. More jobs are likely to be lost.
We remain a world leader in inequality and poverty.
The public services that workers depend upon are in varying stages of collapse. Public services are understaffed, under resourced and over stretched. SOEs are heavily indebted and many collapsing. Some SOEs have already been liquidated. Thousands of their workers have been retrenched or left unpaid.
Collective Bargaining Context
The importance of collective bargaining has been highlighted during this difficult period of Covid-19. Not only do workers face the challenge of only 30% of workers falling under collective bargaining, but even those very institutions of collective bargaining are under massive attack.
The very government that workers of this Federation fought for and ensured was elected, has sought to attack and undermine collective bargaining by not only unashamedly reneging on a signed wage agreement for 2020 but now presenting a fait accompli to workers by tabling a medium term expenditure framework in Parliament that will freeze public servants’ wages until 2024.
Government did this without even bothering to engage workers at the PSCBC. We are now seeing government entities and SOEs retrenching workers left and right. With little or no engagement with workers.
SAMWU had to fight off and is still fighting an attempt by Treasury to force SALGA to walk away from the 2020 municipal collective agreement.
Increasingly many employers in the private sector are seeking to follow suit from the dangerous precedence set by national government.
Prior to the lockdown, SACTWU led from the front and negotiated a collective agreement with the clothing and textile bargaining councils to ensure that by combining company finances and the UIF Covid-19 TERS, that all clothing and textile workers would receive their wages during the lockdown. SATAWU undertook similar engagements in its transport bargaining councils.
Yet even that good work and initiative of SACTWU to protect workers was undermined by the inefficiencies of the UIF and the frequent delays in its paying workers.
Unfortunately, the remaining 2 dozen collective bargaining councils did not follow suit. Some because the employers showed no interest or compassion, others because they are simply not functioning at the level needed.
Impact of Covid-19
To a great degree, all of us have been forced to think on our feet during this period. Covid-19 has thrown everything up in the air.
Our economy is facing its worse challenges in 100 years. Workers have been retrenched, wages slashed, pension and other contributions abandoned, companies closed. None of us can confidently predict the future.
Government and the IMF project a 3% GDP growth rate in 2021 and then a slower growth rate averaging 1.5% for the following 2 years.
Investment from overseas will shrink given the global challenges. Domestic investment is heavily battered. Domestic demand has shrunk as wages have plummeted. Exports have taken a hit for similar reasons and due to closed borders.
The government deficit has ballooned, and tax revenues shortfall nearly doubled to R300 billion. Government debt is projected for 90%. Continued rapid growth in the debt levels poses the danger of South Africa entering a debt trap and going to the IMF for a bail out.
That would pose an immediate threat to the jobs and wages of public sector workers and the survival of public services and SOEs. It would impose brutal austerity. Comrades the IMF would sound the death knell for collective bargaining in the public sector.
All these paint a bleak context against which we must drive our collective bargaining demands. Workers are literally on their own comrades.
Comrades have we considered what we will do in the event of a second wave of Covid-19? Can the economy withstand another level 4 or 5 lockdown? What will be the impact on jobs and wages? To be honest, we will not manage such a lockdown. The UIF itself does not have the funds to manage such a situation.
Political and Governance Context
We must be honest comrades, workers are under siege from many within the ranks of our ally, the ANC, and in government. We no longer simply must contend with our opponents in business.
The public fiscus is under serious pressure. Yes, the debt to GDP ratio is rising at very alarming and dangerous rates. But government has chosen to ignore the fundamental causes of the fiscal crises namely corruption and wasteful expenditure consuming 10% of the budget, constant bail outs for collapsing SOEs, billions lost to tax and customs evasion, declining tax revenues due to a stagnant economy, retrenchments and business closures.
Instead the solution that our comrades in government are imposing upon workers is a 4-year public service wage freeze. These comrades of ours have allowed the state to be looted to the point of collapse and are now dumping the bill on the very essential workers that they glorified for carrying the nation on their shoulders during the lockdown.
We should not be naïve and think that there are no ideological undertones here. Some in Cabinet and Treasury believe that unions are a problem and must be dealt with. They are now seizing this opportunity to break unions, to tell workers that unions cannot defend them.
We should equally not be blind to the fact that there are some in our ally, the ANC, who are not happy with the role COSATU and workers played in ensuring the election of the former GS of NUM as President of the Republic. They are not happy with the leading role that COSATU is playing in the policy discourse of the nation. They prefer a quiet docile labour desk. We should not forget that some of these comrades are preparing to reverse the gains of Nasrec.
The 4th Industrial Revolution
We have often treated the 4IR as a distant threat, as something to make passing reference to. Well it is now here in full force.
We now have our meetings virtually. This will forever alter aviation and conference centres. Increasingly shoppers shop online. This will impact upon shopping centres and increase casual delivery jobs.
White collar workers will increasingly work from home. How will unions organise such workers and ensure that their rights to leave, permanent employment and benefits etc are protected? Or will they too be casualised?
Have we been able to organise workers in the rapidly growing call centres and e-hailing sectors?
Many jobs especially low skilled ones will be automated. We are seeing this not only in the mining, retail, manufacturing and farming sectors but also in white collar jobs e.g. finance, telecommunications and retail.
Workers most at risk will be women and older workers. What is our plan for them?
How far are we with our sector by sector analyses?
2013 Collective Bargaining Conference
As we gather here for these 3 days of critical engagements comrades, it is important that we assess how far we have come since our last collective bargaining conference in 2013. How have we done in the task we set ourselves?
We achieved in the face of massive resistance from employers and even some from our own ranks, an historic legislated national minimum wage. This saw increases in wages from as low as R11, 12, 13 and 14 to R20 for workers in the fuel, cleaning, security and other sectors. It saw increases to R18 and R15 for farm and domestic workers.
In 2020 these were increased by CPI. The NMW Commission has now recommended that these be increased by CPI plus 1.5% in 2021. The Commission has also recommended that farm workers be equalised with the NMW in 2021 and domestic workers in 2022. This was achieved by labour’s representatives to the NMW Commission, led by our DGS cde. Solly Phetoe. This was in the face of massive opposition from business.
Comrades can we ask how many of our structures have audited their workplaces to ensure employer compliance with the NMW? How many offending employers have we dealt with? Have we ensured that exemption applications were legitimate? Or do we leave the enforcement of our hard-won gains to government?
We set ourselves the progressive objective of fighting for a living wage. What is our roadmap to achieve this living wage?
We have prided ourselves correctly on the many victories we have won in social wages e.g. free health care, free tertiary education, RDP housing, subsidised public transport etc. Yet every single one of these is under threat of collapse or being seriously eroded.
What are our campaigns to defend these gains? We mobilised for one of our most successful strikes in October in defence of safe, affordable and reliable public transport. A month has passed. Where is government’s response? Has government done anything to rebuild a collapsing Metro Rail? Has the taxi sector moved to become formalised?
Comrades are we happy with the status of women in the workplace? Where are our campaigns at the factory floor to ensure equal pay for equal work? What collective demands have we tabled to advance the conditions of women workers? Are we at the forefront of exposing sexual harassment and violence at the workplace? Have we done gender audits of our sectors and workplaces?
We called for the strengthening of labour market institutions at the last conference. Yet we are not making our voices heard in defence of the CCMA whilst Treasury is slashing its budgets left and right to the point where it will be dangerously weakened.
Are we pushing for the labour courts to be adequately resourced so the 2-year delays can be a memory of the past? Are we happy with the additional labour inspectors, their training and performance? Do we utilise the NMW hotline? Are we helping workers to access their UIF funds?
What education and training programmes have we undertaken to ensure that workers are aware of and exercise their new rights to paid parental and adoption leave? Have we tabled the enforcement of this hard won right at the PSCBC to ensure that public servants too are included?
Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Programme
COSATU led the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Programme engagements at Nedlac. Key demands that we drove there include mobilising financial resources to stimulate the economy, driving local procurement, extending economic relief to fragile companies and sectors, extending social relief for workers and the unemployed, intensifying the fight against corruption, the Eskom Social Compact to ensure reliable and affordable energy, a presidential employment programme, and a massive infrastructure programme.
We need to develop road maps for our distressed SOEs. Or we must not complain when others do so and impose their plans on us.
However, the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan will remain nice words on paper unless we as unions engage on the plans and develop sectoral and local programmes to ensure their full and rapid implementation. We need to lead from the front to hold government and business accountable for their implementation.
Strengthening COSATU and Our Affiliates
Comrades to achieve all our goals we need to take seriously the tasks of building our affiliates and the Federation. Where is our membership recruitment programme? When will we reach 2 million members?
What are we doing to assist affiliates to recruit? What are our programmes for unorganised sectors? Or are we content in our comfort zones?
What is our programme to bring inside COSATU other unions and to develop road maps for one union per sector?
Do we have education and training programmes to ensure organisers, shopstewards and members are aware of our collective bargaining demands?
What is our media and publicity programme? Or do we prefer to leave the public space uncontested by our opponents to set the discourse?
We have seen a rise in certain opportunist and populist elements seeking to organise workers and undermine COSATU and our affiliates. These range from political parties to some advice offices to some splinter unions. What is our plan to defend our affiliates? We must not allow our affiliates to be blindsided by populist elements.
Key Objectives for the 2020 Collective Bargaining Conference
I will not seek to pre-empt the engagements of the next 3 days. But I do want to highlight key areas that we should reflect on as we formulate our demands.
What is our approach to the public sector wage bill? How will we ensure the implementation of the 2020 wage agreement? How will we defend public servants from CPI and wage cuts?
What is our plan to halt retrenchments in both the public and private sectors? Are there alternatives that we should drive? For jobs that cannot be saved, what jobs transition programmes should we demand?
Are there compromises that we should put in place for example in factory or a bargaining council to assist companies to survive and on condition that jobs are saved? If we offer those compromises, what guarantees do we have that those compromises do not become permanent? Or that commitments by the employer will be honoured?
What are our plans to protect pensions from being looted in both the public and private sectors? Do we exercise our fiduciary duties to ensure that our pension funds are invested in ways that benefit workers? This includes the UIF.
Do we have a strategy to prevent private sector employers from unilaterally abandoning their pension and medical fund contributions?
Are we content with our existing labour laws? What amendments are needed?
Should we not develop a programme to ensure the retrenchment provisions in the LRA are strengthened?
Are our leave provisions enough? Do we not need to expand paid maternity leave? How can we ensure parental leave is enforced?
Do we not need elderly care leave for when we must take care of our sick parents? Do we not need leave for workers seeking time to train to become traditional healers or to be consult with our ancestors? Currently our laws are silent on this despite our African traditional customs.
What are we doing to defend and expand collective bargaining? Collective bargaining is under attack in all sectors. If we are silent it will die.
What are we doing to organise the unorganised?
What needs to be done to strengthen our labour market institutions, in particular our collective bargaining councils?
Do we participate in the CCMA’s essential services committee’s processes? Or do we leave that to employers?
Comrades allow me to conclude. I hope that I have helped to provoke your minds, to suggest issues we must unpack, to recall our hard won victories and our defeats, to remind us of what back to basics means, to flag why we were elected as leaders, to emphasise the expectations of workers and their families.
Our tasks are clear comrades. But are we up to the challenges? Are we willing to fight on behalf of the working class? Are we able to be agile and creative as circumstances dictate?
We cannot take these tasks lightly. We are not here to collect t-shirts and make ourselves feel warm with revolutionary slogans.
We are here to defend our gains, to protect our members from abuse, to improve the lives of workers and their children. If we fail, history will judge us harshly.
I am confident that you are up to these challenges. Prove our members and workers that their faith in COSATU remains well placed.