In solidarity with Workers on International Workers Day, 1 May 2016

By Siphokazi Mthathi (Executive Director, Oxfam South Africa)

I grew up with my grandmother as a farm worker. When she was forced by the farm-owner to move out, we went to a village in the then Homeland called Ciskei, where she got a small plot of land and could farm for herself. My aunts and uncles worked for the farm-owner when they were younger, and later moved to the towns where they worked as domestic or mine workers. As workers they never really enjoyed rights as we grew to understand them, and had to constantly fight for their dignity. It was during my uncle’s rare visits back home from the mines that I was introduced to a Union and what Unions were fighting for. As a student I watched Cyril Ramaphosa, then Union leader, address a rally and talk to students in our schools in Grahamstown. He spoke very passionately of May Day as being about the fight for the dignity of workers, and how unions were working with the ANC to fight for liberation. By the time democracy came, my mother had done 27 years of service as a domestic worker. She had worked so hard, never taking holidays, never having time to spend with us, and developed countless health problems from overworking, leaving us with nothing to live from. The struggle for the dignity of workers, for them to have fair pay, enjoy rights, have social protection, time to rest and do “what they will”, has always had a great personal meaning for me.

Under apartheid, workers in South Africa were barred from celebrating this day because it was associated with Communism. In the eyes of the apartheid regime, that was a direct confrontation with white supremacy, domination, exploitation and oppression of the black masses. In fact, political activists fighting Apartheid were branded socialists and communist terrorists and imprisoned. The call for workers’ right to celebrate May Day became a key demand of the South African Labour Movement, uniting workers and creating a foundation for the rise of the workers’ movement at a time when political parties were banned.

Since the dawn of democracy, workers in South Africa have been able to publicly celebrate International Workers day/May day. This day came about as a result of workers organizing around the demand for “8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep and 8 hours for what we will”. It became a rallying point for many workers in the world, catalyzing the growth and unity of purpose of the global labour movement.

Over the years, we have seen the workers movement grow, with significant legal and material victories. Pro-workers’ rights legislation, such as the Labour Relations Act (LRA), would not have been possible without workers organization and Unions. Internationally, worker protection frameworks such as the Convention on Domestic Workers adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2011 is a sign of great progress especially for “vulnerable” workers. Nevertheless, it hasn’t been easy for workers of the world. The rise of capitalist power and the free market philosophy has seen employers push for the watering-down of laws and protection for workers, deregulation and commodification of labour; while advocating for the reversal of rights and victories workers achieved over decades.

As the nature of work under neo-liberal globalization is changing, worker organizations across the world struggle to hold together as the powerful force of the past. The commodification and privatization of labour has seen phenomena such as labour-broking/outsourcing, where workers are made vulnerable and the mechanism for them to invoke their rights, such as collective bargaining, is inapplicable. Such obstructions to justice necessitate even stronger worker organizations to defend the rights of workers everywhere. In the case of South Africa, the close ties of unions with political parties is perceived to have presented challenges for worker/union autonomy and drawn union leadership away from their accountability to workers. It is a welcome development that in August 2014 an amendment to the LRA that gives rights to labour brokered workers was introduced. The amendment gives protection to labour-brokered/outsourced workers that they didn’t have before.

In some cases, worker leaders have been co-opted by companies, limiting their ability to lead workers with visionary independence towards achieving their demands. Thus, workers have sought to organize themselves differently, sometimes away from traditional union formations. In South Africa, we have seen this happen in Marikana, where workers lost faith in their union leadership and decided to self-organize. Similarly, in the Western Cape, farm workers organized a rebellion against “slave wages” demanding a minimum wage increase from R68 to R150 per day. Oxfam South Africa (OZA) is part of the movement that is working with worker organizations in shaping policies and demands for a fair and just dispensation for workers, to establish a living wage, decent work, and living conditions for workers. We work in partnership with worker organizations, worker-support organisations, workers in the so called “informal economy” to address inequality in and beyond the workplace.

The need for vulnerable workers to strengthen their formations and create exemplary forms of organizing to defend worker’s dignity and rights is an urgent task; particularly to combat the failure to disrupt the patriarchal definition of work. Under the current neoliberal system, women form the majority of precarious workers, and what is currently considered “informal work.” In various parts of the world, women workers, feminists and women’s movements continue to demand recognition and compensation around women’s productive and reproductive work, insisting that work is gendered, and care work is work. Movements of domestic workers across the world particularly inspire us, and have won significant recognition for vulnerable women workers worldwide.

These feminist movements inspire us to ask, “Was the 8-hour day of the workers’ movement ever intended for women? What does 8 hours of work and 8 hours of what we will mean when women have to come home from work to cook, clean and care?” When women continue to subsidize societies and capital as they do in many parts of the world, as in South Africa, can we ever really enable women to live free from poverty and injustice? OZA, working with its partners and allies, is committed to addressing these questions and shaping solutions. Across the world, Oxfam works in support of workers’ rights because this is central to our vision of a just world without poverty.

Today, we are all challenged to stretch our imaginations, to envisage frontiers of development and economic growth that go beyond what we have known. This May Day comes at a time when South Africa faces many challenges, including those of political leadership and an economic crisis for the poor. It’s a challenge that we must seize, if we are to realize a just world without poverty, where all can enjoy conditions of equality and dignity.

Today we recognize the workers of the world who go unnoticed, and are undervalued. We celebrate the fighting spirit of workers in the world who clean our streets, homes, universities and shiny offices. We celebrate the spirit of the outsourced ones, with little formal bargaining power but, who keep fighting for what is just. We are in solidarity with those who are overworked and underpaid; who leave homes in the dark and return in the dark. We are all indebted to and in solidarity with those who face daily risks as they go underneath the earth’s belly to extract precious minerals to be exported somewhere far from where they work and live, while they scrape to survive to feed themselves and their families. We encourage the employers who recognize the real value of workers, who treat their workers with dignity and pay them fairly. We also encourage governments who refuse to sacrifice workers to the alter of investor-imposed development. We celebrate these workers, their movements, and their resilience!

We must continue to advocate for all workers to have dignity, to live the lives we are working so hard for, to spend time for what we will. I watched my mother miss out on the freedom she worked for, but we are here to fight for that freedom, to live that freedom today.