Sav­ing jobs ver­sus en­sur­ing a safer fu­ture

CityPress - - Business - Pa­trick Craven busi­ness@city­press.co.za

There are many is­sues cur­rently be­ing fiercely de­bated in South Africa, all of which in­volve se­ri­ous ques­tions around the ac­tual or po­ten­tial loss of thou­sands of jobs.

They in­clude clos­ing coal-pow­ered gen­er­a­tors, nu­clear power and re­new­able en­ergy; the prob­lem of ris­ing obe­sity and the sugar tax; al­co­hol abuse and the ban­ning of ad­ver­tis­ing; and the en­force­ment of plain pack­ag­ing for cig­a­rettes.

The trade unions in the dif­fer­ent sec­tors in­volved are cam­paign­ing for ur­gent short-term mea­sures by govern­ment to save at-risk jobs.

They are ab­so­lutely right to in­sist that ev­ery­thing be done to save jobs.

It is im­por­tant, how­ever, for the unions not to lose sight of some of the longer-term is­sues that these de­bates raise, and in par­tic­u­lar not to al­low their le­git­i­mate con­cern about jobs to be ex­ploited by em­ploy­ers. Their only con­cern is their prof­its; the mo­ment their busi­nesses cease to be prof­itable, they don’t care about their work­ers’ jobs and don’t hes­i­tate to re­trench them.

So, we should be scep­ti­cal when em­ploy­ers use the pos­si­bil­ity of job losses as their rea­son to di­vert at­ten­tion from crit­i­cisms of the harm­ful ef­fects of their prod­ucts.

This is most clear in re­la­tion to the sugar tax, al­co­hol ad­ver­tis­ing and cig­a­rette pack­ag­ing.

There is abun­dant ev­i­dence that obe­sity, di­a­betes and other life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions are spread­ing and made worse by the ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion of sugar. There is even clearer ev­i­dence of al­co­hol abuse lead­ing to in­creased crime, road deaths and se­ri­ous ill­nesses. Smok­ing still leads to thou­sands of avoid­able deaths.

In all these cases, govern­ment has the duty to take steps to deal with these prob­lems.

The com­pa­nies that pro­duce these goods can­not ig­nore the prob­lems these prod­ucts cause.

In the case of en­ergy sup­ply, there is a pro­found de­bate as to the best way to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity in the fu­ture. The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem is that car­bon fu­els will not be there for­ever.

There will also be on­go­ing prob­lems with the health and safety con­se­quences of ex­tract­ing coal and oil.

Nu­clear power poses all these prob­lems mul­ti­plied many times, with po­ten­tially dis­as­trous con­se­quences as we saw in Ch­er­nobyl in Ukraine and Tokaimura in Ja­pan.

So, there are strong ar­gu­ments for mov­ing to­wards re­new­able en­ergy sources.

The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem in all these cases is that com­pa­nies are driven by the need to max­imise prof­its. The same ap­plies to state-owned en­ter­prises like Eskom.

Eskom is not want­ing to close coal-fired power sta­tions out of con­cern for the fu­ture of the en­vi­ron­ment, or an ea­ger­ness to en­cour­age the use of re­new­able en­ergy, but sim­ply to max­imise prof­its or to min­imise losses. That is why the unions are right to fight against these clo­sures.

In the long term, how­ever, work­ers, like ev­ery­body else, will ben­e­fit from safe, re­new­able en­ergy, a health­ier en­vi­ron­ment, fewer killer dis­eases and less crime.

So, while the unions are fully jus­ti­fied in their cam­paign to save jobs, they should recog­nise that the only way to se­cure jobs into the fu­ture is to change the whole ba­sis on which the econ­omy is run. Cam­paign for public own­er­ship and demo­cratic con­trol of all these and other key in­dus­tries.

That will be the only way to en­sure that in­vest­ment de­ci­sions are based on a plan not only to erad­i­cate the neg­a­tive ef­fects of dan­ger­ous prod­ucts, but, more im­por­tantly, to cre­ate jobs and to rad­i­cally im­prove the lives of work­ers, com­mu­ni­ties and the en­vi­ron­ment in which fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will live and pro­vide a bet­ter life for all.

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