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Union federations unite in South African national strike

8 October, 2020Thousands of workers took to the streets of South Africa’s main cities and towns to protest corruption, gender-based violence, and to protect jobs and collective bargaining agreements from arrogant employers.

The national strike, on 7 October, which coincided with World Day for Decent Work, was called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) with support from the other main federations: the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU).

IndustriALL Global Union’s five affiliates in South Africa belong to three of the federations. The combined membership of the federations represents millions of workers. The unions say the law should be used to deal with corruption through prosecution, and anti-corruption strategies should be put in place.

The unions wanted an end to gender-based violence and for the government to ratify Convention 190 on curbing violence and harassment at work, and to develop an implementation plan. The gender pay gap must also be closed.

On health and safety, unions want employers to comply with labour laws and not leave the burden on workers and their families.

Petitions presented by the unions called upon the government to act on preventing retrenchments of workers after over two million jobs were lost during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown which began in March. The retrenchments, which were high in sectors such as mining, added to the already high unemployment levels. According to Statistics South Africa, the expanded rate of unemployment is 42 per cent, which includes those who have given up looking for jobs.

The unions say there is an attack on collective bargaining and demand that sections of the labour laws must be amended to force employers to comply. Additionally, employers were not promoting social dialogue but are instead ignoring labour laws and existing agreements.

Joseph Montisetse, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), said unions were shocked “by corruption involving the Unemployment Insurance Fund Temporary Employer/employee Relief Scheme which were meant to benefit retrenched workers and also those employers who were in financial problems because of Covid-19.” Some employers claimed Covid-19 relief funds but did not pay them out to workers and have since been arrested for fraud.

Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) said: “Employers did not waste the crisis imposed by Covid-19 and the lockdown, which they used to attack workers’ wages by unilaterally imposing wage cuts of between 20-25 per cent without consulting with the union.” But the unions are fighting back.

As part of the national strike, the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) picketed outside the offices of garment retailer Cape Union Mart in Johannesburg, demanding that the employer respect signed collective bargaining agreements and stop using threats and intimidation to force workers to sign new contracts that are inferior to existing ones.

André Kriel, SACTWU general secretary said: 

“The COSATU strike is significant because it is unifying. It confirms concretely that all South African workers, irrespective of union federation affiliation, are crystal clear about common core issues which they must fight in the current conjuncture: corruption in the public and private sector, job losses, attacks on collective bargaining and gender-based violence”.

IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches said:

“We are in solidarity with the millions of South African workers who are fighting for jobs, against gender-based violence, and for the protection of collective bargaining. These are issues at the core of union activities, and employers should not be allowed to destroy what the union has gained through years of struggle.”