Covid 19 increases attacks on workers
Since the start of the Covid 19 in South Africa in March 2020, politicians and capitalists peddled the messages of “we’re all in this together”. At the same time, they praised workers especially essential workers or workers at the coalface of Covid for “keeping things going”. Despite these kind messages, ANC government together with the employers have been taking advantage of this Covid induced crisis to roll back workers’ rights and gains.
Workers in various workplaces across the country have been compelled to pay the price since the onset of Covid. Where workers were not being laid off, they were denied access to adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), they experienced steadily worsening conditions at work and pay freeze. This is particularly the case across most sectors. As if this is not enough, the government used this crisis to deny workers salary payments in most state owned enterprises such as DENEL, SAA and many others. For example, SAA workers were not paid for more than eight months. We can expect these attacks to increase in coming weeks and months as the public health crisis—and the ensuing economic crisis—continues to deepen.
Worse, during this period of Covid, some gains workers achieved through past struggles were also reversed. This was another nail in the coffin of eroded workers confidence or union power. Collective bargaining which was achieved by past struggles is under attack. The non-enforcement of Public service wage agreement in 2020 and hesitance of many municipalities to pay wage increases last year was clear evidence of these attacks. This was not limited to the government sector, workers in the private sector experienced similar challenges. The employers in the metals and engineering sector opted to freeze wages until 2021 due to Covid-19.
Coupled with this, the employers in various sectors during this period of Covid had been offering wage increases that were below inflation and pushing for cuts to benefits. Most part of this year the inflation was close 5.2%. But the majority of sectors offered wage increases of less than 5.2%. The Water Boards offered 5%,Road Freight 5%, Engineering and Steel sector offers 4.4% . The worse offers were in the government sector .The municipal sector gave 3.5%, while both the public service and Eskom got 1.5%. This slow wage growth has left most workers struggling to cope with the rising living costs.
Workers are in disarray
These attacks happen mainly because in this period workers are weak and lack the confidence to fight back. Although South African workers have been suffering from the lack of confidence prior to the advent of Covid, but Covid has further weakened the workers. The Covid induced lockdowns and other restrictions limited workers ability to fight back due to fear and unknowns regarding Covid-19.
In workplaces across the country workers took the Covid seriously and accepted the mantra that “we were all in it together”. The workplace issues and problems were set to the side as workers shouldered the weight of keeping things moving. And union leaders were unwilling to lead a fight back but instead rallied behind the government banner of “national unity”. As a result, organized labour led no mass opposition to austerity budgets, the attacks on collective bargaining and the limitation to the right to strike. Nor do we yet see a labour-led national protest against the worst mass job losses. The largest layers of unionized workers in the public sector with the most leverage showed unwillingness to move into action. Instead they preferred the legal route and relied on lawyers and courts to defend their rights.
Despite the Covid imposed obstacles, tiny layers of workers demonstrated a willingness and confidence to resist employer’s attacks. When the Clover management declared a wage freeze for the 2020/2021 period and refused to offer any increases, workers fought back and won. While the Clover strike was small or isolated, but it showed the way forward for all working people that in order to stop or reverse employers attacks the use of strike as a weapon remains important. Due to the generally low level of confidence in the working class, the fight back is difficult. But also there can be no disputing the difficulty of mobilising in the current context. Nonetheless, the continuous attacks on workers’ rights and gains will ultimately create opportunities for rise in confidence and fight back. A fight in one workplace would undoubtedly spur confidence in other layers to fightback. Consciously or not workers gain confidence from seeing other fight back and win. The 1973 Durban strike started in one workplace, but spread like wildfire to other workplaces in Durban.