A new breed of trade unionists needed for SADC

Despite having been dead for 36 years, music legend Bob Marley’s work remains relevant in 2017 as was in the 1970s when he released most of his music.

A small workers rally of no more than 250 retail workers in Namibia’s capital Windhoek last week held a May Day event to protest their slave-like working conditions. At the event Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” song was played to the workers. Afterwards, the only unionist at the event quoted from Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ telling the workers that “none but ourselves can free our minds”.

The small event in Namibia might look isolated but the message by the legend Marley rings true for all workers in SADC.

While the world took to the streets, some to celebrate Workers Day and others to protest their discontent with the prevailing working conditions, most of SADC remained silent. So insignificant was workers day in SADC that events billed around the day were under reported in the media.

With the exception of South Africa, most of the events in the region were either organised by those countries’ governments or political parties but not by the workers themselves.

The winds of apathy are blowing in the region and workers have been reluctant to stand up to organise themselves to fight for a greater good. In cases where trade unions existed, the union leaders have turned into bosses. Some have become hardened capitalists and are now on the forefront of what we term modern day slavery while others are too busy using the unions as stepping stones for their political careers. Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai is one such leader.

We are aware that times have changed and so did the labour markets across the region. We are also cognisant of the fact that labour or a worker is now defined differently in many parts of the region. Let’s take Zimbabwe for example, the country’s economy has evolved that the traditional workers on a factory floor are no longer in the majority, one no longer finds thousands of farm workers converging to fight for better wages because those farm workers are now the small-scale farmers producing in the country while many considered unemployed by the formal economy spend days trading on the informal market to earn an honest days wage. These people also needed to organise themselves, take to the streets and celebrate or protest their working conditions, even if the employer is no longer the “white boss”.

The labour market in Namibia has also changed to the point that one finds a lot of young people who have semi-skilled jobs who are not represented by unions. These are young people who work for mushrooming fast-food outlets in the country, and many clerical jobs at small and medium companies around the country. It is true that logistically it becomes a problem organising such numbers, unlike in the past when companies used to employ more than 100 workers. The saddening tale is the fact that many of these youngsters work under the illusion that they have white-collar jobs. Unions need to move with the times to make room for these segments because even university graduates require union representation, unlike in the past when they were always employed in management or professional categories.

South African unions have remained relevant and a force that is revered by the ruling elite of the country. Unions in that country are even contemplating establishing a workers political party that would solely fight for the plight of the worker.

While the economies and working conditions differ, SADC citizens require trade union movements specially tailored for their conditions to serve them.

May 2017
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