South Africa: Struggle for permanent jobs continues

Hundreds of Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) workers protest on 12 October for permanent jobs and a living wage

On the 12th of October, workers on the ANC government’s slave-labour Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) continued their struggle for permanent jobs and a living wage. Hundreds of EPWP workers took part in a day of action which was initiated by the National Union of Public Sector and Allied Workers (Nupsaw), an affiliate of the Saftu trade union federation.

The day began in Johannesburg at the Office of the Gauteng Premier. The ANC-led Gauteng provincial government (covering the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria) was responsible for the dismissal of over 3,000 EPWP workers at the end of March. This was after a State of Disaster had been declared in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and President Cyril Ramaphosa promised that “no worker would lose their job” as a result of the looming lockdown. In the course of the lockdown, massive corruption in the Gauteng government was exposed around the dodgy-award of tenders for personal protective equipment for frontline health workers. ANC politicians and connected businessmen looted billions while workers were starving.

EPWP workers were then bussed to Pretoria to join Nupsaw members at the Public Investment Corporation (a government investment vehicle) striking over changes to terms & conditions that have seen reductions in performance-related and other bonuses. This attack on PIC workers is part of a wider attack on public sector pay, including the cancellation of an agreed public sector pay rise by the ANC-government.

The final destination of the day was the Department of Public Service and Administration, responsible for the management of the public sector payroll. Workers anger and frustration was reflected in the cheers that went up every time the demand for permanent jobs and a living wage was raised in speeches. Home-made placards reflected this, as well as the opposition to corruption which workers see is taking money directly from their pockets. Weizmann Hamilton, general secretary of the MWP, addressed workers, calling on Saftu to implement its resolution in favour of creating a socialist mass workers party.

Community health workers’ victory

It is nearly one year since this phase of the EPWP workers’ struggle began. The workers have had to fight repeatedly for the renewal of their annual contracts. The Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa) has played a leading role in mobilising and organising EPWP workers and the provincial co-ordinator of the Gauteng EPWP Workers Forum – the structure created by EPWP workers to organise themselves – is a member of the party.

The EPWP is just one of many ANC slave-labour schemes. Nupsaw has been organising workers on the Community Health Workers (CHWs) programme for several years, fighting for their permanent employment. In February, in response to an appeal for solidarity, Nupsaw and the EPWP Forum began working together, including a two-day march and night vigil at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, seat of the Presidency, which united EPWPs and CHWs.

The MWP salutes Nupsaw. Its support for the EPWP workers, who had never been organised before the MWP stepped-in. Nupsaw’s response is unprecedented and an excellent example of class solidarity in action. In sharp contrast to the Cosatu-affiliated Nehawu, who have a policy not to admit non-permanent workers as members, thereby encouraging slave labour, Nupsaw has signed-up over a thousand EPWP members, retaining them as members in spite of their dismissal, and have taken their case to arbitration.

Instead of combining mass action with legal challenges as Nupsaw has done, Cosatu’s approach has been to demand the abolition of e.g. labour broking whilst doing absolutely nothing to organise precarious workers in both the public and private sector. This cowardice has encouraged the ANC government to ignore commitments to fill hundreds of thousands of vacant posts, instead of employing workers in the various slave-labour schemes, like the EPWPs and CHWs, who have been in the frontline of community testing for Covid-19.

In August, Nupsaw achieved an important breakthrough in the struggle of the CHWs. The Gauteng government finally agreed to give them all permanent jobs and more than doubled their salary. Now the struggle continues for the insourcing of CHWs in the remaining eight provinces of South Africa and the raising of the Gauteng CHWs to a genuine living wage. This victory has shown the EPWP workers that it is possible to win permanent jobs and that the struggle must continue.

The re-mobilisation of EPWP workers after over six months of dismissal and after six months without any income was hard work. Many have been forced to return to rural areas to eke out a living on family plots. MWP activists, often joined by Nupsaw activists, including national organiser Solly Malema, covered 2,000 kms in one week attending meeting after meeting organised by the EPWP activists remaining in the townships. Nupsaw paid half the cost of the busses for the Union Buildings action in February. Then the EPWP workers were in a position to contribute half of the cost from their slave wages. At the protests on 12 October Nupsaw paid the full cost.

For a public sector general strike

Across the public sector, frustration and anger has grown. Permanent health workers in the Nehawu trade union, aligned to the Cosatu trade union federation, held rolling protests throughout August and September over the lack of adequate PPE – personal protective equipment. On the day of action on 7 October, backed (at least in words) by all four trade union federations, leaders had to reflect the anger on public sector pay. The Cosatu and Fedusa trade union federations have announced a further programme of rolling action demanding the payment of the withheld public sector pay rise.

In reality, all the trade union leaders are dancing around the elephant in the room – the need for a public sector-wide general strike that unites all the public sector unions around demands for (1) the reinstatement of the public sector pay rise, (2) permanent jobs for all EPWP, CHW and other slave-labour scheme workers, and (3) against the privatisation of the state-owned enterprises.

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