Saving jobs versus ensuring a safer future
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.