Workers Vanguard No. 985

2 September 2011


South Africa

For a Class-Struggle Fight Against Labor Broker Parasites!

South Africa has been swept by a wave of strikes in recent months in the broadest labor upsurge the country has seen in years. Currently, municipal workers are waging a national strike, while cleaners employed mostly by low-wage contractors known as labor brokers have just settled a three-week strike. Other recently concluded strikes have hit gold and coal mines, paper mills and chemical plants, as well as companies in the steel and engineering sectors. These militant strikes are a gauge of the deep and explosive discontent in a country that has one of the widest disparities in the world between rich and poor. Some 57 percent of South Africans live on less than 325 rand ($47) a month while company executives earn an average of 59 million rand ($8.6 million) a year. The strike wave coincides with ongoing struggles in the townships over lack of “service delivery”—housing, electricity, plumbing, etc.

A common demand of the recent strikes has been for a ban on labor brokers, who pay wages lower than the already miserable norm for superexploited, mainly black labor. These workers are also deprived of benefits and subject to arbitrary firing. Throughout the capitalist world, the bourgeoisie has increasingly imposed temporary and part-time jobs and other forms of “casualized” labor to attack wages and working conditions.

The following article is reprinted from Spartacist South Africa No. 7 (Winter 2011), newspaper of the South African section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).

Labour-broking austerity has increasingly come under the spotlight in neo-apartheid South Africa as the biggest trade-union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and others have raised the demand for banning [labor brokers] in a number of strikes and appeals to the government. For the COSATU leadership, the point of these appeals is to promote illusions in the bourgeois African National Congress (ANC) and the ANC-led capitalist government which the COSATU bureaucracy, as a member of the Tripartite Alliance, is a component part of. They constantly plead that the ANC must crack down on labour brokers in order to carry out the supposed “decent work agenda” set at the ANC’s Polokwane Conference in December 2007.

These illusions only serve to undermine the fight against labour-broking slave labour—a fight which must be based on the workers’ only effective means of defence against capitalist immiseration: class struggle independent of and against the capitalists, their governments and political parties. It was the Polokwane Conference that elected Jacob Zuma as ANC leader with the strong backing of COSATU, the reformist Stalinist-derived South African Communist Party (SACP) and the openly anti-communist bourgeois-nationalist ANC Youth League of Julius Malema. Since becoming ANC leader, and subsequently president following the April 2009 general elections, Zuma has predictably reneged on the rhetoric of “decent work” and “banning” labour brokers, instead preferring some form of regulation amenable to the bosses.

Capitalists and their governments engage the services of labour brokers as a cost-cutting measure, to maximise their profits. Labour broking and other forms of casualisation serve to undermine trade-union organisation, downgrade general conditions of employment and circumvent labour laws. The bulk of the jobs created in the last few years fall within this ambit of precarious, insecure work with longer hours, unsafe conditions and lower wages. For example, one of the main demands of the recent Food and Allied Workers Union supermarkets strike was higher wages for workers employed by labour brokers, who are paid between R1,800 and R2,500 per month as opposed to the R6,000 wage of permanent workers doing the same job (Sowetan, 4 April). This represents a 60 percent wage deficit. Other slave conditions under which these workers toil include non-payment of fringe social security benefits like pension, medical aid, bonuses, annual leave, sick pay, injury at work and so forth.

Spartacist South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), stands for smashing the parasitic labour-broker middlemen through class-struggle means. We fight for trade-union control of hiring and upgrading. Under capitalism, this is the only way to undercut the employers’ efforts to manipulate hiring as a tool to divide the working class along racial, ethnic, national and religious lines, or as a means of screening out pro-union militants. Only through the trade unions and other organisations of the working class is it possible to fight for fair, equitable and objective criteria for recruitment of new workers and combat discrimination and persecution.

These demands must be included as part of the struggle with the bosses over the terms of employment, and linked to a political fight against the pro-capitalist, nationalist politics of the current trade-union misleaders. A class-struggle leadership must be forged to mobilise the unions’ power in a broader struggle against capitalist misery, uniting workers, unemployed and other oppressed layers against the common enemy—to organise the unorganised; defend immigrants, women workers and other more vulnerable sections of the working class; and fight the mass unemployment among especially black youth through a programme of jobs for all by dividing the available work among all labourers with no loss in pay. This all poses the question of the need for the working class to struggle for power.

Parasitic Middlemen

Labour broking is the practice of using employees supplied by a third-party company (the labour broker). Labour brokers sell their services to a client company which pays the broker for their labour needs. The labour broker pays the worker a meagre, unliveable fraction of the cost of labour that the worker provides to the client and then pockets the rest. The worker does not take part in the contract governing the terms of the labour he supplies.

The generally low levels of wages for South African workers are central to the super-exploitation of (mainly black) labour which colonialism and apartheid perfected and post-1994 neo-apartheid capitalism preserved. This means most workers can only make major purchases like housing, furniture or even decent schooling for their children through credit, by using their retirement benefits as collateral or by forming revolving credit schemes (stokvels) with fellow employees. Mandla Simelane, for example, is a machine operator at Transnet [national shipping and freight company] who makes R3,500 per month and hasn’t had an increase in his real income for seven years. He cannot use his medical aid scheme in private hospitals—conditions in public hospitals are appalling—nor can he access loans for housing. Thirteen percent of his wages goes to transport and he cannot support his wife and two kids with the remainder. As he explains it: “So I must rent my whole life is for rent. I live in a cycle of debt. I cannot come off debt because I simply cannot afford simple living expenses on this salary. I live on loan sharks and they live on me. This is the life Transnet wants for all of us” (South African Labour Bulletin, August/September 2010).

The mechanisms for coping with low wages all require permanent employment, and so they are beyond reach for workers employed by labour brokers and other casual workers, forcing them to live from hand to mouth. The same issue of South African Labour Bulletin reported on the case of a Transnet worker who has been there for over 30 years, on “temporary” contract terms for the last 20, and making only R2,000 per month after deductions! Transnet is one of the “parastatals” managed by the ANC/Alliance government.

Labour brokers are used to undermine trade-union organisation and reverse previous gains. In some instances companies have retrenched [laid off] whole departments and rehired the same workers under labour brokers with less pay and fewer benefits. By using labour brokers, the bosses can get a legal cover to avoid being held accountable for conditions of employment. This nullifies the collective bargaining rights which organised workers sacrificed so much to achieve as part of the struggle for trade-union recognition under apartheid repression. The central factor that makes it difficult to organise casual workers into trade unions is the lack of job security. Brokers can easily replace workers who join trade unions. As another attack on trade unions, labour brokers are used to provide scab labour during strikes.

Employment benefits and other working-class gains under capitalism are wrested and defended through class struggle, not some chamber bargaining or treacherous so-called “social contract” with the capitalists and their government. An example of the latter is the participation of COSATU and other trade unions in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), an institutionalised class-collaborationist structure involving trade unions, the capitalists and their government. NEDLAC is tasked with negotiating a deal to inform the pending legislation to either regulate or ban labour brokers. We are opposed to such sell-out “partnerships” with the capitalist enemy class. The idea that what is good for the capitalists is good for the workers, or that the bosses’ government can be pressured to serve the interests of the exploited, is a lie promoted by the trade-union bureaucracy to amnesty their betrayals and sabotage of working-class struggle. Workers need to understand that any gains they make face continual attacks under capitalism and can only be guaranteed by overthrowing the whole system based on production for profits through the exploitation of labour. A planned socialist economy, based on working-class state power, must be constructed on the ruins of the decaying capitalist system.

It is critical for full-time, unionised workers to fight for the more vulnerable casual employees to gain permanent employment at the same conditions and benefits as a measure of self-defence and class solidarity. The fight to defend brokered workers should be tied to a struggle to organise the unorganised and to defend immigrant workers and others of the most oppressed layers in the working class, who are disproportionately forced into casual jobs.

A series of striking workers have won gains for temporary workers in class battles against the capitalists and their government. An important victory in the fight against labour brokers was won by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) auto strike in August 2010 against the Automobile Manufacturers Employers Organisation (AMEO). AMEO was forced to agree to stop the use of labour brokers from January 2011 while allowing existing contracts to run their course. Similar gains were also won by NUMSA strikes on behalf of casual workers in the motor sector (which includes component manufacturers, petrol station attendants, panel beaters [body shop mechanics] and other workshop workers). These gains include payment of minimum rates in the industry, social security benefits like retirement, death, disability and medical aid. However, at these companies NUMSA members only managed to have employers agree to the gradual phasing out of the labour brokers.

Friends of Spartacist South Africa and Workers Vanguard in the industry reported that employers in the motor sector have since tried to renege on phasing out labour brokers and hiring casual workers on a permanent basis. Instead of mobilising the social power of the union members which won this concession to begin with, the NUMSA bureaucrats have taken the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). This slavish dependence on the bosses’ courts is a cowardly diversion from class struggle which demoralises the workers and paves the way for defeats. The only language the capitalists understand is the one that hits their profits.

It is not in the interests of workers employed in the auto industry to be divided into separate, therefore weaker bargaining units (auto for car manufacturers; motor sector for component manufacturers and others; rubber for tyre manufacturers). These divisions only serve to undermine the collective strength of these workers. When the component manufacturers were on strike in September 2010, for example, auto workers belonging to the same union had to be sent home because they could not work without components, when in fact all should have gone out together in the same strike. The tyre and rubber strike from 30 August 2010 had the same potential of stopping car manufacturing.

We stand for industrial unionism, which means that all workers in the same industry should belong to one union and be covered by the same collective bargaining unit. Workers in the same industry are also divided up into different unions organised by different federations according to political affiliation. There should be one union per industry regardless of the political affiliations. The strength of the working class is in their numbers, organisation and discipline.

In May 2010 the Transnet strike by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (affiliated to COSATU) and the United Transport and Allied Trade Union (affiliated to the Federation of Unions of South Africa) brought both exports and imports to a grinding halt. This strike won permanent jobs for some 1,000 of the more than 5,000 contract workers at Transnet. During this strike workers were wary of their sell-out leaders, warning: “The strike is ours, not our leaders. They give us feedback after negotiations and if we reject it they must go back. The leaders don’t get to decide, we do” (South African Labour Bulletin, August/September 2010). While this is an expression of the union membership’s genuine mistrust of their leaders, what is decisive is an organised political opposition to the union tops’ class-collaborationist reliance on the bourgeois state and its politicians.

A class-struggle-based fight to smash labour broking is counterposed to, and not complementary to, the reliance on the capitalist state pushed by the pro-capitalist COSATU leadership. The union members who demand the banning of labour brokers in their strikes—strikes forced on the union leaders against their will—are fighting for their elementary class interests against a concerted capitalist ruling-class assault. The reformist COSATU leadership is a component of the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance government whose job is to uphold the rule and profits of those bosses against the workers. [COSATU head Zwelinzima] Vavi and Co.’s pleas to the anti-working-class Zuma government to implement legislation banning labour brokers are meant to retain their role as loyal (if occasionally “critical”) partners in class collaboration, to more effectively control and sell out their working-class base.

The COSATU tops push the utopian notion that the government can be persuaded to act in the interests of the workers instead of the capitalists. This lie is based on a wrong and reformist view of the bourgeois state—a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole capitalist class—as a neutral arbiter between the historically irreconcilable interests of the working class and their bourgeois exploiters. The Namibian case is an example of the futility of reliance on the bourgeois state, showing once again that all bourgeois reforms are easily reversible. The Namibian government passed a new Labour Act in 2007 that banned the practice of labour broking. When a labour broker company challenged this provision in the High Court, the court first upheld it, before, in December 2009, the Namibian Supreme Court overturned the ban on labour brokers. Its justification was that the ban violated the constitutional right to “practise any profession, or carry on any occupation, trade or business”—for the capitalists and their state, the bottom line is the “right” of capital to exploit labour.

The COSATU bureaucracy has in the past used the same con game of betraying legitimate working-class struggles by channelling them into appeals to the ANC-led capitalist government. Examples of this include demands by the majority black working class to close the apartheid wage gap; opposition to the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policies adopted by the ANC government in 1996, which led to privatisations and retrenchments. During the 2007 and 2010 public sector strikes, the COSATU leaders initially promised to call secondary solidarity strikes by the strategic mining, industrial and commercial trade unions, which have the social power to shut down the economy and stop the capitalists’ profits. But both times they cancelled these solidarity strikes.

Their threats to call a general strike against labour brokers have remained just that—an empty threat—as the COSATU leaders were more concerned with ensuring ANC victory in the local government elections. In another recent act of class treason in the service of the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance, the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) bureaucracy suspended a threatened 13 May national strike by their 220,000-members-strong union to avoid embarrassing the ANC five days before the 18 May local elections. In the eyes of the COSATU bureaucracy, the workers are voting cows for the ANC’s chronically corrupt (like any capitalist government) black elite gravy trainers. Even when they do happen to call such token actions, their aim is not to fight to win but to blow off steam from their angry and restless base. Instead of opposing attacks on their members, their main complaint is usually about not being “consulted” by their Alliance partners.

The hypocrisy of calling on this state to ban labour brokers is underlined by the fact that the Zuma government is one of the biggest users of labour brokers in the country. Top ANC honchos—such as president Zuma’s son Duduzane; former economic adviser in the presidency and prominent ANC member Moss Ngoasheng; and former public service director general Robinson Ramaite; amongst others—make profits as owners of or shareholders in labour-broking companies. Meanwhile, while occasionally talking tough about the need for an all-out ban, Vavi and other union leaders have repeatedly indicated their willingness to compromise and accept some kind of “regulation” of the labour-broker bloodsuckers.

South Africa is one of the countries with the highest unemployment rates in the world, and this is not because of this or that government policy that can be changed through pressure. Well over a century ago, Karl Marx described in Capital how the maintenance of the “industrial reserve army” of unemployed was an integral part of capitalism, serving to degrade working conditions and to lower wages for all workers. As Marx explained:

“The over-work of the employed part of the working-class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to over-work and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working-class to enforced idleness by the over-work of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists.”

Defend Immigrant Workers!

The use of labour brokers overlaps with labour practices that border on outright criminality by the racist (and still overwhelmingly white) South African bosses. While a norm against blacks under apartheid, since 1994 these have disproportionately hit immigrant workers. There are commonly reported cases of employers, especially in the farms, employing workers escaping poverty and other life-threatening situations in neighbouring countries, only to call the police to arrest and summarily deport them when pay day arrives. They are sometimes paid in food rations instead of money. Their wages are always much lower than local workers.

A study by researcher Jean Pierre Misago of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Forced Migration Studies Programme found that labour brokers may have been directly responsible for inciting the November 2009 anti-immigrant attacks at De Doorns in the Western Cape. Both South African and Zimbabwean contractors (brokers) were supplying local farmers with workers. South African contractors complained of income losses due to competition from their Zimbabwean counterparts. They pressured local ANC leaders and incited local residents to attack and chase Zimbabweans away.

The COSATU tops’ promotion of “Buy South African” protectionism fuels anti-immigrant poison and perpetuates the lie that South African workers share common interests with their country’s capitalist exploiters. This is bourgeois-nationalist poison that needs to be rooted out of the labour movement if the working class is to be able to fight, not only as a class in itself, but as a class for itself conscious of its historical task as the gravedigger of capitalist wage slavery.

An article in the May-July 2010 issue of the Democratic Socialist Movement’s (DSM) paper Izwi Labasebenzi (Xhosa/Zulu for Workers Voice) exposes the parasitic nature of the labour-broking bloodsuckers and criticises the COSATU tops’ “posturing.” But it is notable (and not surprising) that they don’t say a single word about the need to organise the largely unorganised casual workers and defend immigrants. The DSM and its international collaborators of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) are notorious for adapting to backward consciousness. They have repeatedly supported “strikes” by cops, prison guards and other armed thugs of the capitalist state, who they consider “workers in uniform.” For years the DSM was buried inside the bourgeois-nationalist ANC, before more recently leaving the ANC to tail after the nationalists of the Pan Africanist Congress. The DSM reformists’ current calls to “break” the Tripartite Alliance and form a “new workers’ party” are not about fighting for the independent class interests of the proletariat. They are aimed at forming a “new” reformist party, which would just continue the working class’s subordination to nationalism and the racist capitalist state under a new label.

In early 2009 the CWI’s leading section, Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in Britain, scandalously supported the wave of virulently chauvinist strikes which swept construction sites at Britain’s oil refineries and power plants. The strikes covered themselves in the bloody Union Jack and demanded “British jobs for British workers,” a slogan long associated with the fascists. The CWI whitewashed these reactionary mobilisations, lyingly claiming that they were not anti-immigrant, and a Socialist Party supporter even played a key role in the strike committee at the Lindsey refinery! (See “Down With Reactionary Strikes Against Foreign Workers!” Workers Vanguard No. 930, 13 February 2009.)

As experience proves, labour brokers attack both local and foreign workers, thereby providing a strong objective need for united class struggle against the common capitalist enemies. Local workers must recruit immigrants to their unions with the same rights and working conditions as the only way to combat the employers’ divide-and-rule schemes. For instance, the National Union of Mineworkers—COSATU’s biggest affiliate—has a membership reflecting the heavy concentration of immigrant workers in that strategic industry. This is despite the ANC-led government’s 2003 Immigration Act prohibiting employment of “novice” immigrants in the mines, which has limited the number of immigrant workers entering this industry. Foreign workers bring rich struggle traditions from their own countries to supplement those of their local comrades. South African workers should demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants! We fight for the working class to take up this demand as part of our perspective of fighting for a socialist federation of Southern Africa extending beyond and against the existing colonialist-imposed borders, which have no national legitimacy for the African peoples who were colonised.

Intensified Exploitation in the Post-Soviet World

The increased use of labour brokers is part of a broad range of increased austerity measures—including wholesale privatisations of public enterprises, retrenchments, outsourcing, two-tier wage schemes, short time and other attacks on labour—which have been aggressively pursued by the international capitalist rulers especially in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a bureaucratically degenerated workers state. In the western European imperialist countries such attacks have seen the dismantling of the social welfare state, as the bourgeoisies of these countries see no need to continue paying for these concessions to the working class of their own countries. This increased exploitation allowed the capitalists to heap up enormous profits, squeezed from the blood of the working class and the poor. This is one reason, among many others, why we say the capitalist counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union represented a world-historic defeat for the international proletariat.

In South Africa, the fall of the Soviet Union—which had provided the main financial, military and diplomatic aid to the ANC/SACP-led anti-apartheid forces—created the conditions for the negotiated settlement with the white rulers. Concluding in 1994, this sell-out deal was a betrayal of black freedom which led to the establishment of the neo-apartheid order. The ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance regime was put in power (at first in a short-lived coalition with their erstwhile jailors from the white-supremacist National Party) to defend the interests of the still dominantly white capitalist class against the majority black poor masses.

The use of contract labour and temporary employees in this country proliferated with the passing of the Labour Relations Act of 1995 by the Alliance government. The COSATU leaders were part of the negotiation process that passed this legislation which, for the first time, recognised labour brokers as employers of the workers they hire on behalf of the so-called “client” companies.

Adding insult to injury, the government is now pursuing the so-called youth unemployment wage subsidy, which would further segment the labour market by replacing older permanent employees with even more poorly paid and super-exploited young workers with no rights. In the last decades, we have seen fierce battles fought by youths and workers against similar attacks. For example, in 2006 French youth went into the streets to protest the CPE law aimed at slashing wages and job security for youths, getting support from a series of one-day general strikes by the main union federations. In 1999 Mexican students at UNAM university, mainly from working-class backgrounds, fought a protracted and bruising battle against the assault by the country’s capitalist rulers on their right to education.

Build a Revolutionary Party to Fight for a Workers Government

For the black majority the apartheid state was like a giant labour broker responsible for miserable working and living conditions characterised by slave wages; migrant labour from Bantustans and neighbouring countries living in single-sex hostel dwellings barely fit for animals; pass laws for black urban influx control; denial of trade-union and political rights; etc. The introduction of labour broking and other increased casualisation coincided with increased expectations for social justice and redress amongst the poor majority following the end of white minority political rule. But since taking power 17 years ago, the capitalist government of the ANC/SACP/COSATU Alliance has single-mindedly pursued policies of social decay for the majority of the population. The occasional criticisms by COSATU and to a lesser extent the SACP are only aimed at covering up their complicity and keeping disaffected workers within the political fold of bourgeois nationalism. Break with the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance!

Immiseration of the working class is inherent in capitalism, especially in its epoch of imperialist decay. Prior to 1994, there is a very rich history of class struggle, mainly by COSATU unions, against casualisation. These included fighting to ban overtime work, the fight for a 40-hour working week without loss of pay and a demand to make all casual workers full-time after three months of continued employment.

But the growing social and political power of COSATU following its founding in the 1980s was paralysed by its increasing political subordination to the ANC. In the absence of the intervention by a Leninist-Trotskyist party armed with a programme for proletarian power, none of the political currents within COSATU, including the so-called “workerist” opposition, were able to make the leap to a perspective of struggling for proletarian leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle. By the time of the 1994 sell-out deal, the COSATU bureaucracy was integrated into the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance and jumped at the opportunity to join the capitalist government, sending 20 of their leaders into parliament under the ticket of the ANC. This further cemented the subordination of the working class to bourgeois nationalism.

Workers must refuse to pay for the economic crisis of the capitalist system of their exploiters. In the fight for employment and decent living standards for all, a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class should put forward a set of transitional demands to provide a bridge from the current struggles and consciousness to the fight for workers power. Such demands were formulated by Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, in the 1938 Transitional Programme—the founding document of the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution.

Trade unions and other mass working-class organisations should fight for a sliding scale of wages. “This means that collective agreements should assure an automatic rise in wages in relation to the increase in prices of the consumer goods,” wrote Trotsky. In the fight against unemployment, working-class organisations should fight for a sliding scale of working hours, demanding the division of available work amongst available labour without loss of pay. These demands should lead to only one revolutionary conclusion, in Trotsky’s words: “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from calamities generated by itself, then let it perish.”

This is the only programme that can guide the fight for a class-struggle leadership in the unions. This task is inextricably linked to the struggle for a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party—the instrument needed to lead the proletariat to victory in a socialist revolution. Such a party must be forged in political combat against reformist organisations like the SACP, fighting to win class-conscious militants from the working class base of these organisations to a genuine communist programme. A revolutionary vanguard party must take its cue from the words of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in their March 1850 “Address of the Central Authority to the [Communist] League”:

“For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of the existing society but the foundation of a new one.”