/ 4 February 2022

Are unions as pro-worker and pro-poor as they claim?

Troubled (c)love(r): The General Industry Workers Union and the Food and Allied Workers Union oppose the acquisition Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Observing the Clover labour strike over the past 11 weeks, it has become very difficult to believe that the labour unions have the interests of workers at heart. Unions are known for taking a pro-poor stance guided by Marxist philosophy, which argues for a worker revolution to overturn capitalism in favour of communism. From my observations, however, it is safe to conclude that unions are anti-workers and anti-poor.

It is disappointing that trade union bosses lack an understanding of how economics work. The writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels teach us the fundamentals of politics and economics. It is therefore nonsensical that the people who should be explaining economics to us appear clueless.

Although some workers’ demands, such as rejection of retrenchments are genuine, some demands are unrealistic, such as the nationalisation of Clover, independence from an Israeli company, rejection of wage cuts and the closure of plants.

Milco SA, a business consortium that owns Clover, headed by Israel’s Central Bottling Company (CBC), bought the company in 2019. It would be expected that the new owners would restructure the company and that includes taking measures such as retrenchment and effecting salary cuts. 

It is no secret that due to the Covid-19 pandemic many companies throughout the world have closed down, retrenched workers and cut the salaries of their workers.

Given our country’s history, it is not possible to divorce politics from the labour movement as indicated by the close proximity of the ANC and Cosatu. In this instance, labour unions are fighting political battles while ignoring the workers’ needs.

It would seem that the first priority of union bosses is not about workers, but rather about meeting the needs of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement with regard to putting more pressure on the state of Israel. The union bosses have instructed their members to ask the general population to boycott Clover products.

According to Human Rights Watch, Zimbabwe’s human rights situation continued to decline in 2021 under President Emmerson Mnangagwa. More than 70 critics of the government are said to have been abducted and tortured but South Africa continues to do business with Zimbabwe and unions keep quiet. Nor does it end there. Zimbabwe has become Pretoria’s burden because many unhappy Zimbabweans relocate to South Africa looking for greener pastures.

Sidelining and isolating Israel from the world is not going to work. This is not the way conflicts are resolved. The BDS movement should not be able to force South Africa to be biased in this complex conflict. Our role should be reconciliatory and mediatory rather than promoting conflict between these two states.

It is wrong and worrying to see labour movements enraging workers over issues that do not immediately affect them. What is important to the worker is job security, good working conditions and decent salaries, not international politics, which are the business of the government and political parties.

Our economy had not been doing well before Covid-19, and it worsened after the pandemic. Many companies have shut down, workers have been retrenched and many have lost some of their high salaries.

The labour movement should be lobbying the government to create a friendly environment for investors to do business in this country instead of focusing on issues not affecting workers directly. The closure of the Clover factory in Lichtenburg would have been avoidable if the local municipality had the political will to improve service delivery.

South Africa needs foreign direct investment if its economy is to grow. We need to establish longer-lasting growth and employment by building factories and infrastructure. It is therefore the labour union’s role to help the government assist foreign companies here to boost the economy by means of employing its people and improving livelihoods, not to chase investors away.

The labour unions are ignoring labour issues. Their major concern has to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict and their support for the people of Palestine, while not offering tangible solutions to the long-standing political impasse in the Middle East region. 

Do unions really represent the aspirations of workers? 

No, labour unions are controlled by capital. The union bosses support the cause, which often benefits their pockets, and it is clear that they are getting support from the BDS while neglecting worker interests.

How many British companies are doing business with South Africa while the former has  a history of colonialism and supporting apartheid? Britain continues to amass wealth from her former subject but no one talks about reparations or sanctions against British companies. This would be absurd.

America, too, interferes in other country’s affairs, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Libya through Nato, but South Africa never spoke about sanctions on US companies. 

Many foreign companies do business with South Africa. Why should Clover be an exception?