Hu­man rights re­main SA’s elu­sive dream

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@city­

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.

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