Trade Union Forum

Report by Mr. Bheki Ntshalintshali, COSATU, General Secretary

October 30. 2020.

 Saint Petersburg

 South Africa National Report to the BRICS TUF

South African Country Context Analysis and the impact of Covid-19

South Africa has been in a long term economic crisis, having recently emerged from a recession, with economic growth below 1%, a population growth rate that is currently at 1.28% per year, and the unemployment rate has broken into unwanted records of 42% (the worst ever seen in 21st century South Africa), and thousands of workers being retrenched monthly across different economic sectors.

The country’s situation is compounded by the collapse of the state in many regards. We have only recently emerged from the era of state capture where government was literally sold to the highest bidders. This has seen our key state owned enterprises being looted, mismanaged and brought to the verge of collapse. Law enforcement has been hollowed out and the guilty are untouched. Taxes have been increased upon the poor. Social services are deteriorating, and by the end of 2019, the public service had announced its intentions to retrench over 30 000 workers over a period of three years.

The collapse in governance, law enforcement, high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality and a flood of migration from neighbouring and even far away countries has further exacerbated a very volatile situation. This has seen a collapse in social cohesion and morality, a fight amongst the poor for scare jobs and resources, high levels of violent crime and outbreaks of violence amongst and between South Africans and migrant workers.

South Africa had it first case of COVID -19 on the 5th of March 2020, and due to increasing local transmissions, the number of recorded cases as at the 28th of October 2020, was at 717 851, with 647 833 recorded recoveries, and an unfortunate 19 053 deaths. Making the country home to the highest number of infections on the continent and the 12th in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented multiple challenges for the workers in South Africa. Those at the bottom of the income distribution have suffered a great deal. which include: 

  • Lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for our Frontline health workers; and other public service workers like teachers.
  • A decline of about 18% in employment between February and April due to the largescale retrenchments. Approximately 2.2-million jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2020 during the lockdown. The most affected sectors have been construction, personal services, trade, catering, tourism and hospitality, manufacturing and transportation, storage, and communications. The projected loss in government revenue of $18.2 billion is expected this year. The informal economy has been the most affected by the month-long lockdown due to inadequate social protection, which worsened the situation.
  • Workers particularly in the private sector were also greatly affected, who unlike public sector employees, have been subjected to strict principles of no work no pay.
  • Job losses were felt most among women and manual labourers. Sectors where women predominate, such as domestic work, clothing, retail and informal employment have been hard hit by income and job losses. Women face increased unpaid care work, with children at home from school, care for the elderly and increased housework and emotional support during the pandemic.
  • Salary cuts
  • Inadequate working conditions, which do not comply with the OHS laws, which government has had to review and be harsh on its enforcement.
  • Delays in the payment of Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) relief has taken a toll on some workers who are struggling to put food on the table and meet their financial obligations.

In addition to this, it is undeniable that Covid-19 has forever changed the working world. We have seen greater use, and reliance on technological systems for work and many companies have made it clear that the incorporation of remote working is here to stay. Over the last few years the South African trade union movement has been very clear about the need for a just transition into the digitalized economy. Attention should be given to prioritising re-skilling and the development of skills required in the “new world of work”. 

Union response-actions and gaps

The trade union Federations in South Africa have been working closely with other social partners represented in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). The trade unions representing labour in NEDLAC are the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) whom are represented here today.

On behalf of labour in the country, we put great emphasis on the need for trade union organizers to be able to access workers and workplaces and to respond to retrenchments.  Union organizers are essential workers and need permits to access workplaces, thereby helping unions to set up effective response teams, and assist with OHS matters. We also presented our submission on the R200 billion loan guarantee scheme and the crisis threatening its failure to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Small Business Development. We have also played a key role in developing the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, which was presented to Parliament by His Excellency the President Cyril Ramaphosa on the 15th of October, 2020. As we observed the 13th annual Global Day for Decent Work on the 7th of October, we took this as an opportunity to highlight the plight of workers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. We organised against the attack on collective bargaining, retrenchments, corruption, gender based violence and adequate protective gear for frontline workers. 

As courts and clinics closed due to COVID-19, we stood firm and demanded that the facilities remain open to address domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence as police received some 87,000 reports of domestic violence in the first week of mandated social isolation. South African trade unions also demanded that Government must increase the number of mobile clinics, both for COVID-19 testing and for treating victims for gender-based violence in all regions of the country with a special focus on vulnerable areas such as densely populated townships and informal settlements. 

Role of BRICS TUF during this time of crisis

It is our firm belief that the BRICS TUF can and must play a key role in bringing the world together. The BRICS unions must play the role in ensuring that it is a progressive movement.  Currently the world is in a mess.  Climate change is posing a great danger by the year.  Workers' jobs are thrown into turmoil by the 4th industrial revolution. The US is provoking a trade war with China.  Xenophobia and mass migration pose massive challenges not just to Europe but also to us in South Africa and even other BRICS member states.

During this time of crisis, we need to ask ourselves what will we do to help our comrades when they are under siege? E.g. how do we show/wage better solidarity with each other as the BRICS trade union movement? We cannot simply say we are all islands and wish each other good luck. There is greater need for working class solidarity. 

Closing Remarks

  • The challenges facing unions and workers in many of our states are the same: the changing nature of work, 4th industrial revolution, climate challenge, unemployment, and the need for skills revolution. Covid-19 has further exacerbated these challenges.
  • We have much to learn from each other. We must share our best lessons and see how can we learn from each other, from the local organiser to national leaders.
  • We should work together to drive the BRICS governments to adopt progressive laws, budgets and policies.
  • We should collaborate to ensure that the BRICS TUF remains a progressive force for change in the world and that it drives such policies in key multilateral fora
  • Equally we should not be content to sympathise with each other, we must extend practical solidarity to our fellow unions and workers when they are under threat be it in BRICS member states or elsewhere.



2020-10-30 12:10:00

Report by Ricardo Patah, UGT, President