Inside Labour: Junk status, labour and fair trade

IN THE current political and economic turmoil, protesting trade unions, community, political and religious groups have all tended to focus on one man: President Jacob Zuma. At the same time, most seem to acknowledge that Zuma is only a symptom of a much deeper malaise.

Perhaps because of the media focus, the main underlying concern seems to be the economy and what junk status may mean. But, as many in the labour movement are concerned, most citizens have been operating with that status for years, caused largely by policies that cost many thousands of jobs. The interest rates paid by the poor dwarf those levied on any junk status nation.

In the immediate term, of course, the decision by the ratings agencies - who do have political agendas to preserve and strengthen the existing system - will not have a direct effect on most citizens. In the longer term, as interest rates rise and government revenues become increasingly squeezed, the pain will be felt and it will be the working poor and those even poorer whom they support, who will continue to suffer most.

But this is the pain that most South Africans have suffered for years; pain at a greater level than was necessary even under the present system, even at a time of global economic crisis. Especially since 1996 when tariff barriers were collapsed to a level even the World Trade Organisation did not demand, a flood of cheap products – initially mainly garments and footwear – from countries such as China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam poured in. Jobs disappeared and mashonisas multiplied.

At that time the trade union movement spoke with one voice, although not loudly enough, demanding that South Africa should trade only with those countries that provided the same labour rights, pay and conditions as applied here. This was an eminently reasonable call for fair trade that also provided solidarity to workers in other regions and countries.

But no one in government was listening. And with major labour federation Cosatu affiliated to, and dominated by, the ANC government, such ethical demands soon fell by the wayside.

However, over the past 20 years, usually only in protests against job losses, the issue continued to be raised. All it amounts to is a call for the implementation of the fair trade that the liberal system supposedly supports.

Most recently, it arose in the row about the dumping of chicken portions from Brazil, mainly because some turned out to be rotten. This was the latest episode in a long-running saga concerning poultry imports. Unions and producers have for years pointed out that wages - and costs, generally - in the United States, for example, are much higher than in South Africa. Yet poultry from the US, after being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, can be sold more cheaply than the local product.

Tinned tomatoes and cocoa

The same applies to items such as tinned tomatoes from Italy and, incredibly, confectionery that involves cocoa, wheat, milk and sugar from the oil and gas rich, but agriculturally poor, United Arab Emirates. And the UAE is also a collection of autocratic monarchies with little respect for labour rights.

Various forms of subsidy play a part in such transactions and while they keep the tills of wholesalers and retailers in South Africa jingling, they also destroy local jobs and local industry. In a number of cases, products sold here are also produced by virtual slave labour. Yet it is against such competition that workers in South Africa are told they must compete; that they are simply too expensive.

What the pro-business lobby that makes these arguments fails to point out is what life is like for workers and their families in countries and regions where products are produced more cheaply. And that is not just in the sweatshops of Bangladesh or China.

Take Italy, for example. Two years ago I read a report by Italian academics Alessandra Sciurba and Litizia Palumbo about the horrific conditions of near slavery on Sicilian tomato farms. The grossly exploited workers were Romanian women, desperate migrant workers.

Last week, seeing Italian canned tomatoes still underselling the South African product, I returned to that report. In the process of further research, I discovered that Britain’s Guardian newspaper had last month followed up Sciurba and Palumbo’s report: virtually nothing had changed.

Then we should also consider that, by International Labour Organisation estimates, there are more than 215 million child labourers, more than half of them in “harzardous work”. They are cheap, expendable and make for low cost productivity.

These abuses occur among trading partners and are becoming worse as the profit-driven race to the bottom continues. Time perhaps for the labour movement to resurrect strongly that demand for truly fair trade? Such a policy might at least give meaning to, if not radical, at least moderate economic transformation.

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