A small but lively march against labour broking in Pretoria on July 30 marked an important new step in the workers’ struggle in South Africa. Workers employed by labour brokers (‘recruitment’ companies) in the South African Post Office came together with workers unfairly retrenched from the Koogan Plastics factory in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, and other workers and unemployed, including the poor working-class community of Thembelihle organised under the banner of the Thembelihle Crisis Committee.
Having appealed to the workers of Metro Rail (commuter trains) for solidarity support, comrades gathered at different points around the Gauteng province to march onto the trains towards Tshwane (Pretoria). Meeting up at Pretoria train station, the march proceeded to the Department of Labour, singing its demands for equal pay for equal work and the ending of the super-exploitative divide-and-rule practice of labour broking.
At the SA Post Office, 80 per cent of the workers are employed through labour brokers, some for up to fifteen years on monthly contracts. Labour broker workers earn R2000 (US $300) a month compared to the entry-level pay of R7300 (plus benefits which do not exist for labour broker employees) for a permanently employed postman doing exactly the same work. Many of the workers of the Koogan Plastics factory who also joined the march had only come to realise they were employed by a labour broking firm, Workforce, the day they were fired through the factory owner’s back-handed manoeuvre of terminating the broker’s contract after the workers had dared to go on strike for a wage increase. The labour broker paid the Koogan workers R8.50 per hour whereas the industry’s minimum wage is R26.80 per hour!
The demand for the banning of labour broking is one of the biggest issues on the SA labour movement’s public agenda. Even current President Jacob Zuma’s wooing of the unions during his campaign for the leadership of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) led to the passing of a resolution at the party’s 2007 congress promising to ban labour broking. Late last year, a series of proposed amendments to the labour laws followed. These included curtailments of the activities of labour brokers that are so far-reaching that their implementation would effectively amount to the much-wanted ban. A decision on the amendments is due later this year.
The leaders of Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions – SA’s major trade union federation), who maintain an increasingly troubled alliance with the ANC (and the Communist Party), are, however, refusing to recognise publicly the implications of the amendments. They continue to reject them as mere “regulation” and to put forward the demand for a “ban” in largely abstract terms. The union tops’ light-minded approach to this crucial struggle is indicated by their failure to use the recent and still ongoing wave of strikes in, amongst others, the metal and mining industries to set off a mass action campaign to force the government to honour its promise. By narrowly pouring pseudo-radical vitriol on the singled-out target of labour broking, they hope to detract the focus from the increasingly burning need for an across-the-board class confrontation. As a result, the demand for a ban of labour broking is routinely added to wage increase campaigns, etc, as a sort of spiced-up afterthought.
In contrast, Saturday’s march was a direct call for a united working-class frontal attack on labour broking and the system of which it is a product. Organised by the Commercial, Services and Allied Workers Union (Cosawu) and the Democratic Socialist Movement with the active support of the Thembelihle Crisis Committee, the march was reminiscent of the insurrectionary mass struggles of the 1980s as it brought together organised workers and organised working class communities. The significance of this was recognised by the participants, both in speeches and in the mood of optimism and excitement which characterised the march. This was despite its small size, which was made up of only about 70 people. For a march of such proportions, and under an independent, socialist banner, the media coverage it received was quite spectacular – it was featured, together with interviews, at length in the major state TV channel’s news broadcast as well as in the main private one, plus on the various state radio stations. The organising of the march was definitely lacking in many ways but this did not disappoint any of the participants. Many attended their first march and all are certainly drawing important lessons from all aspects of the experience – a key step towards reclaiming workers’ control over workers’ struggles.