On Monday, 1st of May we celebrate Workers’ Day in South Africa. Other countries may refer to it as Labour Day or May Day although it is not always celebrated in May. On this day, we celebrate the contribution of workers and those who fought for workers’ rights in the past.
Workers’ rights are at the forefront of global politics once more. Over the past months, we have seen violent and widespread protests in France because of (necessary) proposals to increase the retirement age. Medical staff, including doctors, went on strike in the UK over pay. In the rest of Europe strikes in various transport sectors are ongoing and expected to disrupt travel into the summer season. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US found that the number of people involved in strikes has increased by 50% in 2022.
In South Africa, nationwide strike action and stay-aways were planned by the EFF and Cosatu earlier this year.
What is happening? Why are we seeing more worker protests now - relative to the last few decades -despite global economic output increasing over that time? The answer lies in the way economic growth has been distributed. More of the spoils have ended up in the hands of the financiers and entrepreneurs, and less and less have gone to the middle and lower-class workers. And now, whilst most of the globe is experiencing a cost of living crisis, workers have had enough. When even middle-class workers, like junior doctors and nurses in one of the richest countries in the world, can no longer afford a reasonable lifestyle on their wages, the pendulum has swung too far.
In South Africa of course, the situation is far worse. Official statistics put unemployment in excess of 30% of the population. 19 million people receive grants from the government every month. And of those working, 75% earn less than R5 800 per month. Many workers will pay more than a quarter of that wage just towards transport alone.
It was encouraging to see that Old Mutual recently increased their minimum wage to R15 000 per month. However, their top 5% of employees still earn 12.4 times the bottom half of their employees. And the CEO earned R36.5m! Even if you consider that half his remuneration consisted of long-term incentives (I would argue that 3-5 year share incentives are hardly long-term), the difference between the top and bottom remains problematic.
The problem is structural. The odds have been stacked against workers for the past few decades. And if we don’t do anything about it, we run the risk of having our current form of capitalism being replaced by something else. The longer we wait to reform the system, the greater the risk is that our system will no longer resemble capitalism - which in turn means our collective wealth will be at risk.
You and I may feel powerless to do something about this. However, at the very least, we can stop defending the current form of capitalism. Or we can perhaps even imagine a system that eradicates poverty or improves equality. Or maybe we can try to imagine the world of most workers and contribute in every way that we can, to change their plight.
Perhaps this Workers’ Day, we can commiserate with the workers and perhaps we can appreciate that strike action, unrest and instability are unlikely to disappear until the system has changed to improve their plight – and then undertake to do something about it.