In what was a show of force to the rival federation SAFTU and to opposition parties ahead of the 2019 general elections, COSATU and tripartite alliance leaders used the platform of Workers’ Day to defend the proposed labour law amendments and national minimum wage.
The wheels for the 2019 general election were set in motion yesterday as the leaders of tripartite alliance descended on Port Elizabeth to celebrate May Day. Speaking at the COSATU rally in a packed Isaac Wolfson stadium in Kwa-Zakhele, Port Elizabeth, President Cyril Ramaphosa confidently defended the proposed R20 an hour minimum wage. He said the amount was just the beginning of the journey towards a better, living wage.
“As workers, it is you who have built this country to be what it is. This progress was achieved through your hands, your labour, your suffering and by your blood and sweat. This is the day in South Africa we take off our hats and say thank you,” he explained.
He was intent on defending the national minimum wage at its proposed level of R20 an hour. Amid applause, the president said, “This is a victory for workers of our country no matter what people may say. It is a victory for COSATU in particular which was the first to raise the issue. This issue was in the Freedom Charter. COSATU said the minimum wage must benefit all the workers in our country. When we did the research, we got that 6,6 million workers earn less than R20 an hour.”
Ramaphosa told workers that the proposed R20 an hour minimum wage was actually not the desired threshold. He said, “The living wage is much higher than a R20 per hour wage. But we said we need to form a foundation so we can keep going up. The challenge we faced is [that] if workers must earn R15,000 a month, a lot of workers will lose their jobs. Many companies will have to close their shops. The struggle for a living wage must continue but we must have a foundation. We also want to attract investors for our economy to continue building jobs.”
Secretary of the South African Communist Party, Blade Nzimande, urged workers to rise up and fight corruption and state capture.
Nzimande said that the SACP does not accept the recent increase in value added tax (VAT) from 14 to 15%. “As communists,” he said, “we don’t like the increase in VAT. The looters must pay. Tax the super rich. They are the ones who must take a lead in subsidising our programmes.”
COSATU president, Sidumo Dlamini subtly warned his organisation’s rivals.
“COSATU remains a formidable force representing the voiceless, the workers, the poor of this country and no-one will take that away. Let us stay focused. Let us not be distracted by those who wish they were born yesterday when they were born just now. People are saying COSATU is dying. This COSATU remains for the voiceless and to attain the freedoms that workers aspire [to] everyday,” he said. Dlamini’s reference here was to criticisms leveled against COSATU from the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).
Dlamini added that the national minimum wage would exponentially help workers improve their wellbeing. “The national minimum wage is very important for 6,6 million people who are workers who have been excluded and are [paid] peanuts. Some workers are earning less than a R1,000 a month,” he said.
Workers on the minimum wage
Tabeth Mooi (30) works for a group of private doctors in Port Elizabeth as a cashier. She has worked for the same doctors for eleven years but is still regarded as a casual worker. “To make matters worse, I am made to work three days a week. I get paid R2,350 a month. I have tried to persuade them to employ me full-time but all my efforts were fruitless. I pin my hopes on the proposed legislation,” she said.
An employee of a brick making company in Port Elizabeth said he is earning R30 when they load and offload truckloads of bricks. Declining to give his name, he said, “I have been working for the company for fifteen years. We only get paid R30 per load. If there are no loads that day we get nothing. The owner wants to see us at his company during every working hour even when there is no work. There is no labour union at the company and we don’t know where to complain. COSATU should visit companies and see how workers are being oppressed.”
Maria Murinda, 51, works as a domestic worker in Malabar. She said she is glad at the prospect of the R20/hour minimum wage: “Domestic workers are a group of people that is always being downtrodden and undermined. Yet our job is very important. I work from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. I do all the household chores. I am the first to wake up and prepare everything for my employer and his family before they go to work and school. I also make sure that everything is in order before they sleep. For that I get paid R1,800 a month.”
Murinda has two children who go to school in Motherwell. They stay in Motherwell with her older sister.
Cape Town march
Meanwhile about 3,000 workers and union members affilated to COSATU unions marched to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa and to Parliament. Led by COSATU’s Western Cape provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, the trade union federation is demanding safety and improved services from Metrorail.
“We demand a safety carriage for women and children as part of improving services,” said Ehrenreich. In September last year COSATU laid a charge of criminal negligence against the train operator, the issue being the worsening conditions of train transport over the past 10 years. “We are gatvol of Metrorail and we want them to fix the rail system urgently,” shouted Ehrenreich before the march moved to the parliament building where a memorandum was handed to Defence Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
Taking a swipe at recent statements by the leaders of rival federation SAFTU, Ehrenreich said that the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) and the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) are not supposed to be against the proposed minimum wage when their members earn below R20 a day. “The R20 minimum wage is not ideal but it’s a huge improvement to where we were before. Petrol attendants who belong to NUMSA earn R19 an hour and farmworkers who are FAWU members earn R14,30 an hour and this means their own members will benefit but they are against it,” said Ehrenreich, who has recently stated that he would not re-avail himself for the position of provincial secretary later this year. He has been in the position since 1996.
Amongst the demands by COSATU is that the government should help the federation to end racism in Cape Town and the Western Cape. The trade union federation is also against the VAT increase. “We want to say to President Ramaphosa that we campaigned for him to be in the office and we want government decisions to be informed by all the alliance partners. The alliance is ignored and the only time we play a meaningful role is when we are needed to campaign and that has to stop,” said Ehrenreich.