Workers of the world, compete!

Saturday, 20 July 1996

The government can take away almost everything, but they can't take away my paranoia...

THERE'S a magnificent Highveld sunrise streaming through my hotel window which, with the warmth of the heater, creates the illusion that I could frolic in the fountain with the goldfish.

The blinking time and temperature display on a nearby building tells a different story. 2°C.

Does everyone know what it's really like out there?

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) seems to be seriously thinking about it. They've appointed a 14-person commission to look into the future of labour as we move into the world economy.

And a good thing too. While the government storms across the UK and France waving the banners of free trade and open economies, and freely convertible currency, someone needs to take the trouble to explain to people back home exactly how this will affect us.

Cosatu's members should be particularly concerned. Unionised industries are most likely to be affected by free trade. But it's also the owners of those industries that should be worried.

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Suppose you own a factory that produces dust jackets or overalls. You make these to order from specifications provided by companies including sizes, cut, number of pockets, number of zips, position and size of company logo, and so forth.

In the old world, you would travel to each of these companies, quote based on the specs provided, promise a delivery date, conclude the deal.

You made a profit, your factory workers enjoyed union-negotiated wages and working conditions, and everyone was happy.

In the new world, your competitor canvasses by telephone. He invites your customers to connect to his Internet site where they are able to custom design their overalls, play around with various combinations of colour, design and logo placement, get full pricing and delivery dates on every combination.

But he's not even in this country. He's in South Korea, or Singapore, or Malaysia, or pick your favourite Asian Tiger.

And he's going to beat your quote without blinking. Because his workers are not unionised.

You pay a living wage. He can pay starvation wages. He can even hire children to do the work of adults at half the price.

And he can call in military police to beat the bejesus out of anyone who might consider saying "Workers of the world unite".

And you're going to have to explain to your workers that you have to cut wages if you are to stay in business.

Of course they can't really survive on R10 per day. But that's what your competition is paying his workers.

Meanwhile, the car company that used to buy dust-coats from you is in trouble, because their locally assembled cars are a whole lot more expensive than those new Indonesian imports.

None of this is meant to be alarmist. I believe that opening up the economy is good for us. But there's nothing so far in our trade policy that suggests that those we trade with should have non-exploitative conditions of employment.

Should we have such a policy? Is it even possible to define such a policy?

Cosatu might possibly answer yes to both questions.

But this is a free South Africa. And Cosatu now represents the interests of its members rather than being a force for wider social change. Forcing such a dramatic policy shift may be quite impossible.

But the catch is that Cosatu's sphere of influence after globalisation will be even more severely diminished.

The September Commission -- named after Cosatu vice-president Connie September -- has the unenviable task of coming up with a long term strategy that will ensure that South Africa's unionised workers continue to have jobs in the next century.

Deputy Minister for Mineral and Energy Affairs, Susan Shabangu, is on the commission. I hope she's privy to the thinking of Ministers Manuel, Naidoo, and Erwin on these matters.

Otherwise, the Nats and Inkatha might be mopping up the ring of an ANC/Cosatu slugfest come next election.