/ 1 May 2021

Workers’ Day marks huge job losses around the world, exacerbated by the pandemic

Shutdown: Community Work Programme members protest for a living wage.
The private sector can contribute to migration policy development to improve business operations, boost productivity and support the economy. (Oupa Nkosi)

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world in terms of jobs. In 2020 there was an unprecedented loss of 114-million jobs globally, according to the seventh edition of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILOs) Monitor:  Covid-19 and the world of work. 

South Africa shed 648 000 formal sector jobs in the second quarter of 2020 because of the economic effect of Covid-19, and unemployment stood at 32.5% in the fourth quarter of the same year, according to Statistics South Africa’s quarterly employment statistics survey. 

It is against this backdrop that society should beam a light on the status quo of the drivers of economy, and what the future holds for workers as the world commemorates Workers’ Day on 1 May. 

The job losses were also experienced against the background of the country having celebrated April as Freedom Month; Freedom Day on 27 April this year marked 27 years since the country’s first democratic elections. 

Both the public and the private sector experienced job losses. The jury is still out on whether job losses at the SABC and SAA were as a result of the pandemic or corporate governance malfeasance. In light of the above and many other cases of job losses, and in light of Workers’ Day, which is aimed at celebrating workers’ rights and achievements of the labour movement, one gets a feeling that trade unions should feel they have failed their members.

As we reflect on how far trade unions have come in South Africa, it is important to mention the role of pioneering labour activists like Dr Tlou Theophilus Cholo, one of the founding members of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) in the early 1950s.  Cholo followed in the footsteps of his father, Phuti, who worked in Johannesburg and was an active member of the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU). Through his commitment, the younger Cholo was spotted as one of the people who were to further their studies in Moscow, in the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to learn trade unionism and military skills.

Various interactions with the Kgakana village, Ga-Matlala ‘a thaba, Limpopo-born labour activist and liberation struggle stalwart, who is also a Tshwane University of Technology alumni, gave us a better understanding of his role in the labour unions and the fight for a just working environment.

Though he came from a marginalised community and migrated to Johannesburg in 1945 with little money, Cholo refused to be subjected to inhumane working conditions. He left his meagre paying job after just a week because the employer did not have proper safety measures in place, potentially putting the health of workers in jeopardy from exposure to benzene. The salary was one pound and five shillings a week, or about R20 in today. 

His dream of the “City of Gold” turned into a nightmare of surviving by doing casual jobs.  At one point, he sold flowers at street intersections for a nursery in Benoni for a commission of five or 10 shillings for every two pounds. Other odd jobs included gardening, watchmaking and clothing wholesalers work. In many of these, he had to endure unfair and inhumane treatment or measly pay.

It was also in Jozi that he had his first adverse encounter with the law soon after migrating from Mmakala village. He was arrested for carrying an expired 14-day employment seeker’s permit. The present-day Soshanguve resident henceforth became a voice of the oppressed in the labour movement.

His detestation of injustice led him to confront the apartheid system, which eventually landed him in the Robben Island prison for about 16 years. His international political footprints can be traced to Botswana, China, Cuba, Eswatini, Russia, Somalia, Tanzania and Zambia, among others, where he received education and military training.

The Presidency bestowed the Order of Luthuli in Silver (2009) on the 95-year while the Tshwane University of Technology conferred an honorary doctorate in public management (2018) on him, both for selfless sacrifice in the struggle against apartheid and exceptional leadership in the trade union movement.It is worrying that even after 27 years of democracy, there are still cases of unequal pay for work of equal value between men and women. Undoubtedly, with the global volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, labour unions will also have difficulty in their endeavour to represent workers’ rights in the future.