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Labour 'is committed to solving jobs crisis'

Cosatu would oppose accord cutting wages of low-paid workers

Reneé Grawitzky, in Business Day,
14 March 2000

LABOUR was committed to seeking a solution to the economic crisis facing the country, Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) parliamentary office head Neil Coleman told a recent conference.

However, he cautioned that labour could not enter into a national agreement to stimulate jobs and growth if it reduced the income of low-paid workers.

He said no one could oppose an agreement that contributed to low levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality. However, suspicion existed in SA that such an agreement would affect the wages of workers. "How can you expect the victims of economic crisis to bear the brunt?" he said.

This emerged during a debate on whether SA needed a national agreement for employment and growth at a conference organised by the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (Naledi) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Labour, he said, was aware of the need to resolve the social crisis facing the country. The "greatest pressure" was on labour to address this. In such a context, caution had to be exerted to prevent the mechanical transposing of another model into the SA scenario.

Rainer Zugehör from the German-based Max Plank Institute said all social pacts in Europe accepted the need for wage moderation or some form of flexibility in terms of the employer/employee relationship. He said it was difficult for unions to be involved in discussions on a social pact or national agreements for growth as they had to look beyond their members' interests to those of "outsiders" who had no jobs.

"Trade unions will only go this route when the country is in a crisis," he said. This had occurred in countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Denmark.

Coleman said labour could not support an agreement that worsened the current conditions. He said internationally there were two types of accord process embarked upon - an incomes accord and an accord driven by economic crises which lead to a social-type accord.

The former, he said, was more defensive in nature and required some form of wage restraint coupled with tax concessions and social security benefits. Often, benefits did not materialise. The latter approach was based on the social democratic-type models which emerged in post-war Europe.

University of Witwatersrand sociology professor Eddie Webster proposed a "class compromise" where key players improved their positions through "positive terms of mutual co-operation". This would lead to agreements reached in order to ensure that the "social costs of globalisation were not borne by working people (including the unemployed) alone".

A framework agreement, he said, would include provision for "regulated flexibility" in the labour market; some form of income security or basic income grant and some extension of social services and improved tax collection and social service delivery.

Coleman said there appeared to be a preparedness on the part of government to enter into some form of national agreement. Ultimately, a meaningful agreement would have to be reached first within the tripartite alliance.

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