Political will still in the dustbins
Back to basics. Organise the unorganised. These are the current mantras of much of the labour movement and they were brought into sharp focus this week.
In the first place there was yet another rise in the unemployment figures.
And then there was the first serious cold snap of winter bringing subzero temperatures to the Highveld and what were said to be the worst storms to strike the Western Cape in 30 years.
Hardest hit were the homeless, along with the working poor and the legions of unemployed who lack adequate shelter.
Suffering too were workers recently evicted — and often controversially — from perhaps adequate shelter.
In almost all cases, organised labour was absent.
Among the working poor who were also badly affected by the weather this week were those men and women I regard as the hardest working and most poorly paid of entrepreneurial labourers: the scrap collectors.
They are not unionised because no union has yet shown any interest in them and they are frequently harassed by authorities.
It is they who, often with old, purloined supermarket trolleys, scavenge through the bins and bags of middle class suburbia, saving from cluttered landfills that which can be recycled.
But it is not only the unions that pay them no heed. Local government, too, shows little or no interest in this small army that provides tons of reusable waste to private companies.
It is an invaluable and unappreciated service that – in the Brazilian city of Curitiba – was used as a crucial part of a local government-driven “green revolution” that also created jobs.
Here the unions could — and should — have a role to play.
Curitiba is now regarded, although it still has its problems, as the most innovative — and greenest — city on earth.
The scrap collectors were organised, provided with large trolleys and paid what the scrap was worth. Today, 70% of waste generated in that city is recycled, with more jobs and upskilling provided.
In South Africa, harassed and often abused scrap collectors have no help and are paid a pittance. Although rates vary slightly, private companies such as those in Cape Town, pay R2 for a kilo of mixed plastic.
Tin cans — “We step on them to make them flat,” says local collector Imraan Barker — fetch 30c per kilogram, cardboard R1, plastic water bottles R2.50.
Imraan and his brother, Gahlil, start out before daybreak, with two trolleys, and cover 15km or more before delivering their bulging bags of household detritus, late in the afternoons.
On Monday this week, the brothers earned just R100 for a day’s labour.
This week they were unaware of the weather forecasts, but in bad weather they are also unable to work and to earn.
Much the same applied to the scrap collectors of Curitiba before the “cash for trash” (in the form of bus tokens to be resold) was introduced in 1989.
The people behind this Brazilian example admit that all that was required can be summed up in two words: political will.
By getting back to basics — organising and agitating for the good of workers — organised labour could ensure that political will is forthcoming.