Jobs bloodbath: Time for worker control!

by Ferron Pedro

Featured in our latest uManyano lwaBasebenzi publication #2

Capitalist economists claim that retrenchments are an unfortunate consequence of an economy in recession. They argue too many workers in government mean it can’t pay its debts and if we don’t retrench some workers, businesses will fold. We must not accept this logic. It is not workers who have failed the economy, but the capitalist economy that continues to fail the working class.

Capitalism is a system of many con­tradictions. It requires people to work in order to have money for life’s neces­sities – food, shelter, water, electricity, healthcare – and at the same time does not guarantee jobs for every person, let alone a living wage. In fact bosses be­nefit from having a pool of unemployed workers as this creates the conditions of desperation that drives down wages. As jobs become automated and populations increase, the reserve labour pool will continue to grow. This contradiction has been evident for centuries and today we see it in an extreme form in South Africa.

Unemployment is at its highest in a decade: 29.1% at the end of 2019. The Expanded Unemployment Rate (which includes discouraged job seekers) is at 38.5%. The unemployment crisis only looks to worsen as more companies threaten retrenchments. In the first three months of 2020, a number of large companies announced retrenchment plans, with 10 000 jobs at risk already. Mining company Samancor said they plan to retrench 3100 people, while retail giant Massmart warns of the possible retrenchment of as many as 1440 workers as it looks to close 34 of its Dion Wired and Cash & Carry outlets. Tongaat Hullet, whose executives may face criminal charges of fraud, will continue their restructuring process with more job losses this year. They have previously announced that by March 2021, 8000 workers will be retrenched.

Despite legal challenges from unions, courts have given SAA and Telkom the go-ahead for retrenchments with Telkom announcing that 3000 of its workers are at risk of losing their jobs. Eskom is currently offering workers ‘voluntary separation packages’, a likely precursor to retrenchments. With Tito Mboweni announcing a reduction of the public sector wage bill by R160 billion, and a review of the 2018 public sector wage agreement, thousands of public sector workers are also at risk. If nothing is done, all EPWP workers face retrenchment as of 31 March 2020. The total budget cuts of R261 billion include not only these reductions in the wages of public servants but also huge cuts in housing, infrastructure, and public transport spending as well as in the education and health budgets. The capitalist class is on an all-out assault on workers and communities.

This crisis is rooted inside the logic of capitalism – a system that fails when the working class is not earning enough to buy the products it sells to make profit. When wealth becomes more and more concentrated at the top, as it is today, we enter periods of extreme overproduction, where the working class cannot afford to buy or consume all the products the capitalists force them to create. Cutting huge numbers out of the economy reduces the number of people able to consume what is produced in the economy, deepening the crisis even further, leaving the working class to suffer hardships and poverty while bosses hoard wealth and profits.

On 6 March, around 50 representatives of the organisations that attended the historic Working Class Summit in 2018 reconvened to develop a programme of action to fight back against these latest attacks on the working class by the ruling elites. The Working Class Movement, including student and community organisations, mass movements and SAFTU affiliates resolved to take ‘concomitant’ action against the government and the capitalist class who have declared war on poor, working class communities in order to overcome an economic crisis of its own making.

The Workers and Socialist Party supports the call for a general strike on 30 April 2020 as a show of our strength against these attacks and to fight for:

  • Defending public spending on service delivery, increasing public spending on social services, not least to address the public health emergency of the coronavirus pandemic and the social crisis of gender-based violence.
  • Defending the jobs of public sector workers, including EPWP workers, who must be permanently employed on a living wage.
  • Retaining public ownership of SoEs but placing these firmly in the hands of the working class. Workers, trade union and community representatives must make up the boards of directors.
  • An end to all retrenchments.
  • Immediate action on climate change.
  • Nationalising all sectors of the economy under the democratic control of the working class – the capitalist class, not us, must pay for the government spending crisis.
  • Strengthening and uniting working class organisations to fight for a socialist South Africa and world, where society and production are organised democratically according to need.

The Working Class Summit was a significant move forward in uniting the struggles of all communities, workers, youth and unemployed. The Working Class Movement that has emerged is a vehicle to forge ahead with a powerful programme of rolling mass action. We strongly encourage that it actively pursues the inclusion of new local shutdown campaigns, like those in Ladysmith and QwaQwa as well as resurgent student movements at Walter Sisulu University, University of Limpopo, Tshwane University of Technology, and Cape Town University of Technology amongst others. These represent an important fighting contingent of the working class. Building our organisational strength, we have an opportunity to take on the historic task of the formation of a mass workers party on a socialist programme to ensure united action, political independence and a clear programme to dismantle the capitalist state. This opportunity for the working class must not be lost. We must fight back now and face our real enemy: the ruling capitalist elites and the government that serves its interests.

Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni arrives to collect a memorandum from Saftu outside of Parliament ahead of the last year’s budget speech. Image credit: GroundUp