South Africans have, for a long time, been able to live comfortably knowing our workers have a voice. We have had a strong trade union movement, in which many of the country’s most influential decision-makers — including our president — cut their teeth.
But this illusion of living in a country in which even the most vulnerable workers are protected is just that — an illusion.
Last week, the department of employment and labour announced that a factory, not too far from the Mail & Guardian’s offices, had been operating for years under conditions that can only be described as modern-day slavery.
Workers at the factory (See Page 23) were found to be toiling under appalling conditions for only R65 a day. Many were children under the age of 15, working excessive hours in a space with no ventilation and poor lighting, and without wearing protective gear.
The department’s report into the factory found that one worker had some fingers cut off, another had his hand burned and a third was going blind. Gauteng labour inspectors dubbed the site “the horror factory”.
Most of these workers were Malawians, preyed on by a Chinese factory owner. In a country with a history of xenophobic indifference and violence, it is easy to see how the conditions of workers from outside South Africa are overlooked.
But we cannot let these facts prompt us to outsource our disgust.
Because the rights of workers in South Africa, and the trade unions that claim to protect them, are becoming more precarious by the day.
The country’s deepening jobs crisis — and a government that has historically responded by yielding to capital — means that many people expect workers to do their jobs for a pittance. They are expected to back down when they are treated unfairly, and are chided like children by the public and the government when they don’t.
The demeaning minimum wage and new restrictions on the right to go on strike — agreed on by the government and Cosatu, the country’s most powerful trade union federation — denote one thing: in South Africa, workers’ lives are cheap.
And for many people, South Africans and migrants alike, the country itself is — and always has been — a horror factory.