One On One

Q & A – Cosatu Monyatso Mahlatsi

South Africa marked Workers’ Day on Wednesday under the theme: Deepen the Back to Basics Campaign, Consolidate the Struggle for the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and Advance the Struggle for Socialism. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to labour federation, Cosatu provincial secretary Monyatso Mahlatsi about the significance of the global event to South African workers. Makoni asked Mahlatsi how the situation of the worker today compares with the previous years, the challenges faced and what could be done to improve it. Excerpts:

How would you describe the situation of the worker in South Africa over the past year; is labour still faced with the same issues since the last Workers’ Day?
I think the situation of workers between last year and now  is actually a mixed bag. We have a number of things that have gone right, and others that still need to be addressed. For example, we have had some amendments to the labour laws and we have also had amendments to the Unemployment Insurance Act which has extended the benefits of unemployment insurance due to workers from eight months to 12 months now. But one big success is the introduction of the national minimum wage which came into effect early this year. However, at the same time, we have had a number of workers losing jobs. We have also received notices from a number of employers notifying us that they intend to retrench workers and as a result, we are faced with quite a bleak future as workers in that a number of people are now out of their jobs and we believe that poverty is on the increase. It’s mixed bag. So, as workers, we decided to mark the day in the form of a march and not a celebration because the situation isn’t really good for us.

What are some of the reasons given by employers who have indicated their intention to retrench?
It’s actually a variety of reasons. We have employers that are not doing well because of the slowdown in the global economy. The effect of the fourth industrial revolution has left some employers feeling that they are no longer profitable or competitive and as a result, they want to lay off some of their workers because they want to reorganise their operations. But on the other hand, you have a situation whereby the reasons for retrenchment are quite absurd. For example, we have a situation at the Post Office and Telkom, where they say they want to retrench workers. But in our view, the Post Office, for example, we have just secured for them, SASSA (SA Social Security Agency) business after a long battle with the state. We made sure that they got the business, but still, they want to retrench workers. At Telkom, they also want to retrench workers but our view is that those institutions are the ones that should be driving the mandate of the government of the day by making sure that state owned enterprises create jobs. Eskom also has a similar situation of possible retrenchment. Some executive managers there have already lost jobs. So, that shows the seriousness of that situation.

The impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is slowly setting in and many workers could soon lose their jobs. As a labour body, are you in any way preparing your members for this, say in the form of retraining?
That’s a very important issue and it also goes to the heart of our labour laws. There’s a generalised perception that the labour laws of our country are too stringent. But our experience is that, no, that is not the case. And the reason is, you have laws like your Skills Development Act, the Employment Equity Act and others which are intended to transform the workplace and make it an institution that reflects the demographics of the country, but that has not been happening. And employers now, instead of complying with the skills and employment equity laws, they just budget small amounts of money for that. And because of that, it’s difficult for us to enforce the workplace skills plans because employers just go and pay the fine when they are caught. If they were following these laws, that would have been the tool that would assist us to make sure that workers are empowered. As a result, there is a huge gap when it comes to ensuring that workers are empowered. Even though we try our best to push, we can only do so to a particular point. The state, through the department of labour, is supposed to enforce the laws. But the problem is that, some employers budget for the fines and they pay them off.

Are you able, at this point, to estimate how much the Fourth Industrial Revolution could cost the country in terms of job losses, maybe in the next three to five years and the particular sectors that might be most affected?
The more I looked into the matter and the more I got material prepared by different experts, the more scary it became. One paper that I read about a year ago, said at least 70 percent of current jobs are threatened in that these jobs can then be done by robotics and robots. NEDLAC (the National Economic Development and Labour Council) recently issued a report which said in almost every job, people can be replaced by robots. If you consider that we now have robots that can take care of children at home, you can see that no job is safe. I was of the view that domestic workers were a bit safe, but now their work can also be done by robots. And it’s not only in the private sector where jobs are threatened. Even in the public sector, jobs are not guaranteed. For example, there is a notion that you could have one teaching Mathematics in all the schools in the Free State via a video link. So, if it can go to that extent, it means even the teachers will be in trouble. This just shows it can really go quite deep. My fear is that only people who have money are going to survive and those without will be victims.

In most cases, those without money are the workers who are also your members, how do you hope to save the situation as a labour organisation?
We are definitely not going to put our hands on our heads and cry. We have started a process to address that. One key activity we have embarked on is, we are engaging employers on the introduction of technology in the workplace. And our view is that the introduction of technology is something that we cannot stop, but we must engage with the employers and agree that technology that is required should be the technology that is intended to make production easier, manageable and consistent, but not intended to replace human beings or workers in the workplace. That’s the route that we are currently undertaking. At the same time, we are also educating and empowering our shop stewards and our officials to be able to engage on this issue of the fourth industrial revolution. We have also drafted a programme that will see us visiting institutions of higher learning in the province on the matter. We have already engaged the University of the Free State, Central University of Technology and Motheo College. We have met with the heads of those institutions to get an understanding of how they are preparing their students to fit into the fourth industrial revolution. But at the same time, we need to go back to the workplace and ask the employers how they are capacitating their workforce so that they don’t become obsolete when the time comes.

How has the introduction of the national minimum wage been received by employers in this province?
We have received a number of diverging views. There are employers who feel the new rate of R20 per hour is too high. There also employers who feel that it’s a bit steep, but they can afford it. We mustn’t also forget that there are employers who are already paying above the national minimum wage. We have done blitzes where we have gone into workplaces to find out if those employers are complying or not. We started in Welkom, we have done it here in Bloemfontein and also Ladybrand just a few days ago. We are beginning to realise that almost half of the employers, especially in Welkom and here in Bloemfontein, have complied. The other half that’s not complying is mostly in the retail sector. We are yet to visit businesses in the other sectors.

Are the workers happy with the new national minimum wage of R20 per hour?
We have two issues here: we have the national minimum wage, but we also have what is called the living wage. Our campaign is to achieve a living wage. But we then felt that pushing for a living wage without having a minimum will be problematic. So, we started with the minimum, and now we looking at a campaign for a living wage. The amount of R20 per hour is not enough but we said, we currently have workers who are earning around R1 800 per month and taking their salaries to about R3 200 will still not be enough for them to cater for their families but it could be just a starting point.

And what’s the figure for the living wage?
We don’t have an exact figure at this point. When we had our Collective Bargaining Conference in 2013, we came up with the figure of R4 800. But that’s about six years back now and at this point in time, there are people doing some studies to see what could be best amount.

The theme for this year is quite broad. It says ‘Deepen the Back to Basics Campaign, Consolidate the Struggle for the National Democratic Revolution and Advance the Struggle for Socialism’, can you please break in down for us?
On the issue of going back to basics, Cosatu was founded on the principles of being an organisation that is rooted in the workplace, whereby the basic objective of our existence is to represent and advance the interests workers and consolidate that. So, when we say going back to basics, we want to realign our focus. We believe that at some point, because of the developments and complexity of labour relations field, at some point we ended up being too much focused on policy development and issues at the CCMA (the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), barganning issues and all that, which drew us away from the workplace. On the second aspect, the NDR is a concept that we adopted a number of years ago when we entered into the alliance with the ANC and the SA Communist Party, and the meaning of it is that, we change our country from what it used to be dark days of apartheid to an ideal country that we want without bloodshed. It’s a national process of change that takes along the whole country through democratic means in the form of a ballot and not the barrel of a gun. We want to strengthen and protect the changes that are going on in our country. And fighting for socialism would sound like an abstract idea but what drives us is that current world order is tipped at making the rich richer while the poor get more poorer. So, we don’t want people to be defined by what they have but their existence. Our needs need to be fulfilled regardless of what a person has or does not have.