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Local government continues to strive in actualising the achievement of workers rights

Posted: 05 May 2016


This year’s 1st May marked the 22nd observance of what has become known as the May Day and Workers’ Day since 1994 in South Africa. This day is now celebrated by more than 60 countries including Germany, Russia, Ireland, Greece, Austria and the United States of America (USA).

Its history goes back to the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, USA, where police engaged and tried to disperse a large crowd of protesting workers. More than 300 000 workers from 13 000 businesses went off their jobs and around 100 000 workers went on to public protest. They protested for a day’s hours of work to be reduced from 10 to 16 hours to 8 hours.

As part of the engagement with its tension, workers threw stones at the policemen and the latter reacted with unleashing fire live ammunition and as a result more than 40 lives were lost between the 1st and 3rd May 1886 period only. The pinnacle of the altercation was marked by a bomb that was thrown by an unidentified assailant at the policemen followed by the death of a policeman and the execution of four of the leaders of the protesting workers – Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher. The execution was administered by the USA government on the 11th November 1887.

The system had won the physical battle but workers had changed the course of history. At its national convention in Chicago, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labour), proclaimed that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labour from and after 1st May 1886" and per this proclamation so it was.

In South Africa, one of the outstanding characteristics of the apartheid system was the exploitation of workers. The system thrived on cheap labour organized through internal and external migrant labour system regulated by, among others, laws related to passes, influx control, job reservation, wage labourers and poverty wages. Work conditions for workers in all sectors especially in mines and agriculture were appalling: unsafe, unhealthy and dehumanising. Labour struggles still continue today with the organised working class and the poor continuing to struggle to overcome political, economic and social legacies of apartheid – these include massive inequalities and unemployment.

Within this historical context, workers have been organising themselves into several formations influenced largely by socialist and communist ideologies against what they perceived to be a racist and exploitative system. The roots of workers’ struggle can be traced back to the vast influx of majority white workers who came to southern Africa from across the globe in search of work and fortunes in the wake of the discovery of diamonds and later gold. In the 1980s workers organised mass protest actions against labour laws which had proved to be worsening in their suppressive nature. Their leaders at this time included Elijah Barayi, James Motlatsi, Cyril Ramaphosa and Jay Naidoo.

The Constitution (1996) of South Africa recognises the right of workers. Further, the Labour Relations Act (LRA) has given workers redress through mediation, conciliation and arbitration. The country has developed and is implementing numerous laws including amendments to the LRA to strike fair balances between affairs of workers with that of government, business and civic organisations. South Africa accepts that representation of workers’ rights is necessary for effective collective bargaining which is an important way of regulating industrial relations and of determining workers' wages and benefits.

Furthermore, industrial relations policy is regulated through labour legislation that is negotiated at the statutory National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). Workers’ federations, employer bodies, government and civic organisations are represented in NEDLAC. The Council debates and facilitates consensus on social and economic policy issues. South Africa's post-1994 labour legislation is among the most progressive in the world, providing for different institutions to settle disputes, ensure fairness in the workplace and nurture sound and co-operative industrial relations.

Although the legal context and the protection of workers’ rights in the country have been improved, the situation is not without compacted challenges. For instance, the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) has been waging actions which lasted longer than anticipated and resulted into significant monetary and time loss on the side of local government and as such contributed to service delivery compromise which has, in turn, together with many other factors contributed to service delivery protests. Nevertheless, taking into account all historical progress made and without discarding challenges of the day, government in general and local government in particular, soldiers-on to serving the interest of all including workers’.

In conclusion, local government, among other spheres of government, continues to strive in actualising the achievement of workers’ rights within and beyond its work spaces. Beyond improving the provision of financial and related benefits of workers, local government has, among others, prioritised needs of capacity development, wellness including emotional wellness, work and family balance, recognition and reward, development and growth, work place condition improvement and physical protection, and safety for workers under its employ.

SALGA, the employer representative of local government, continues to add value to the awareness and education of communities on the importance of this Day and within its space, continues to organise programmes to observe this historical importance. Every year at this time it writes and creatively explores ways through which to advance the cause and course of the workers’ struggle.



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