Blam­ing ‘il­le­gal’ work­ers is hyp­o­crit­i­cal

CityPress - - Business And Tenders & Auctions - Pa­trick Craven busi­ness@city­press.co.za

Three sto­ries re­cently cov­ered in our lo­cal me­dia use the word ‘il­le­gal’ to de­scribe im­mi­grants, con­struc­tion work­ers and mine work­ers.

The first story ap­peared in De­cem­ber as a re­port about Jo­han­nes­burg Mayor Her­man Mashaba. The for­mer chairman of civil rights body the Free Mar­ket Foun­da­tion com­plained about prob­lems re­sult­ing from the in­flux into the city of un­doc­u­mented “il­le­gal” im­mi­grants.

Then, on Jan­uary 26, labour fed­er­a­tion Cosatu de­manded that 242 Chi­nese work­ers be de­ported, al­leg­ing that they were work­ing here “il­le­gally” for a Chi­nese con­struc­tion com­pany that had been awarded a ten­der for a R1.2 bil­lion project at PPC’s Slurry plant in North West.

Thirdly, The Star re­ported on Jan­uary 27 that thou­sands of “il­le­gal min­ers”, or zama-za­mas, in Matholesville in Rood­e­poort were flee­ing from the po­lice and mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials be­cause they were threat­en­ing the wa­ter sup­ply in Jo­han­nes­burg and wast­ing thou­sands of kilo­litres a day by by­pass­ing pre­paid wa­ter me­ters.

In all these sto­ries the me­dia is ap­ply­ing dou­ble stan­dards.

Peo­ple com­mit il­le­gal acts, but a whole cat­e­gory of peo­ple can­not be called il­le­gal work­ers. It is an at­tempt to den­i­grate them and shift the blame for prob­lems which have arisen to the vic­tims rather than the real cul­prits: the em­ploy­ers who ex­ploit these work­ers.

Yet, these re­ports never use the word ‘il­le­gal’ to de­scribe em­ploy­ers or busi­ness­peo­ple.

In Mashaba’s case, the hypocrisy is breath­tak­ing. He de­mands a free mar­ket for cap­i­tal­ist mil­lion­aires to move their wealth around, but in­sists that work­ers must be con­trolled, told where they may or may not live or work, and that if they dis­obey, they be de­ported.

The mine own­ers are no less hyp­o­crit­i­cal. They are re­trench­ing thou­sands of work­ers and ca­su­al­is­ing labour, yet they con­demn as crim­i­nals work­ers who are driven by poverty to risk their lives do­ing dan­ger­ous work to earn a few rands.

The min­ing in­dus­try must be gov­erned by laws to pro­tect the lives and health of work­ers and pre­vent dam­age to the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties and the en­vi­ron­ment. The main prob­lem over the years has been that firms have done too lit­tle to en­force health and safety laws.

The ex­ist­ing laws are not neu­tral; they re­flect the in­ter­ests of the rul­ing class. Those laws, which the zama-za­mas are ac­cused of break­ing, were passed to pro­tect the multi­na­tional mo­nop­o­lies that have run the in­dus­try since the days of for­mer min­ing mag­nate Ce­cil Rhodes.

None of these work­ers would choose such a per­ilous, inse­cure way to sur­vive and ac­cept such scant pay if they had any chance of a real job.

As Luphert Chilwane, a me­dia of­fi­cer for the Na­tional Union of Minework­ers, has said: “These il­le­gal min­ers are not risk­ing their lives just be­cause they are greedy, but be­cause they are des­per­ate to make a liv­ing.”

They are part of a grow­ing army of ca­su­alised work­ers who are re­duced to ac­cept­ing what­ever op­por­tu­ni­ties they can find to make a liv­ing. In the process, they are be­ing ex­ploited by deal­ers who pay them a pit­tance for what they mine and make a big profit sell­ing it. They are a part of the 76% of South Africa’s work­force who are af­fil­i­ated to any trade union, but are in the great­est need of one.

The new work­ers’ fed­er­a­tion to be launched in March as an al­ter­na­tive to Cosatu has, quite rightly, pri­ori­tised these zama-za­mas for re­cruit­ment. They should or­gan­ise them, fight for their rights to job se­cu­rity un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion and labour laws, and help them find se­cure and de­cently paid work, re­gard­less of their na­tion­al­ity.

One of Cosatu’s found­ing prin­ci­ples was in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, “the lifeblood of trade union­ism”. They claim to be in­spired by Ger­man philoso­phers Karl Marx and Friedrich En­gels’ po­lit­i­cal trea­tise, The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, which states: “The work­ing men have no coun­try.” Yet, they are de­mand­ing the de­por­ta­tion of 242 “il­le­gal” Chi­nese na­tion­als.

Cosatu is right to con­vey the anger of lo­cal work­ers and the un­em­ployed, but it should have di­rected this anger to­wards PPC and the Chi­nese firm for de­priv­ing lo­cal work­ers of em­ploy­ment and ex­ploit­ing the Chi­nese work­ers.

Cosatu spokesper­son Sizwe Pamla said: “This is not xeno­pho­bia, be­cause we un­der­stand the sit­u­a­tion of eco­nomic refugees. We just want Chi­nese na­tion­als to be prop­erly doc­u­mented, or­gan­ised and well re­mu­ner­ated.”

But the fact re­mains that if Cosatu has its way, it will be the Chi­nese work­ers – not the two com­pa­nies – who pay the big­gest price by los­ing their liveli­hood. Whether they were or­dered to come to South Africa or, like other migrant work­ers, were forced by poverty to seek a bet­ter life, they are still fel­low work­ers and an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist trade union ought to be re­cruit­ing those work­ers and striv­ing to im­prove their wages and con­di­tions, not de­mand­ing their “im­me­di­ate de­por­ta­tion”.

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