Human rights remain SA’s elusive dream
Another Human Rights (Sharpeville) Day has come and gone.
And where was the labour movement? It is a valid question to ask since trade unions are potentially the main organised defenders of the rights of workers – and workers comprise the majority of the population, whether employed or unemployed.
Cosatu and the Federation of Unions of SA did at least issue statements highlighting the fact that human rights for many South Africans remain an empty promise.
But the day was left largely to politicians, who mostly just promoted their own agendas.
Significantly, perhaps, there was little or no mention anywhere of the workers who were gunned down at Marikana in 2012.
They, like the men and women in Sharpeville in 1960, were protesting about their rights.
But overall, there has been no real action from labour, which is perhaps not surprising given the infighting and fragmentation within parts of the movement in recent years.
One result has been that unions across the board have often fallen far shy of adequately monitoring existing labour rights, let alone seeking their enforcement.
A consequence of this is that little more than 20% of workers in formal employment are now unionised. Twenty years ago, in the wake of postapartheid euphoria, union membership peaked at more than 45% of the working population.
The precise figures may be debated, but not the decline.
This week, I received more evidence to support the contention that the unions themselves are primarily responsible for the decline in membership. As a result of my column two weeks ago about overworked truck and bus drivers, and the danger they pose to themselves and all road users, several drivers contacted me.
Long hours behind the wheel, often accompanied by hard physical delivery work, seems to be the norm for many of them.
One driver provided his time sheet for a 752km, 14-hour overnight journey from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, which involved 22 deliveries.
Arriving in Port Elizabeth by 8am, he went on to make more deliveries – going nearly 20 hours without sleep. He admitted he suffered from “driver fatigue”. But he is also suffering from what might be termed as union fatigue. He and his workmates report that they received no assistance from the unions they approached.
In addition to the lack of sleep, the drivers also list the need to often speed so they can meet deadlines set by their employers. All of this for a minimum pay scale of R3 868 a month.
Of course, long-distance drivers, often working 70-hour shifts, make substantially more, but few earn much in excess of R10 000 a month.
However, they are the lucky ones in a fundamentally wealthy country where thousands of children die each year from malnutrition, and where more than half the population is mired in poverty.
This is an obscenity. It is also one that should be highlighted, not only on March 21.
And, if the unions wish to arrest their decline, they must pay more than lip service to political independence, and to organising and aiding the currently unorganised, let alone better servicing members – wherever they are.