Inside Labour: End the summits, give us real jobs

2018-10-21 07:03

The much-vaunted Jobs Summit has come and gone with perhaps the most accurate media assessment being that it amounted to a damp squib.

Because it was, as such occasions tend to be, long on rhetoric and short on practical solutions.

For the government, in particular, job creation and future social cohesion seem to hinge on the hope of a flood of foreign direct investment.

To some within the labour movement, statements made in this regard seem to amount to “holding out a begging bowl to business”.

At the summit neither of the trade union federations represented — Cosatu and the Federation of Trade Unions — presented anything new.

Almost ironically, this was left to Business Unity’s Sipho Pityana.

He at least identified the real problem facing the world of work when he referred to “the disruption of labour by digitisation and the fourth industrial revolution”.

Not that this seemed to have much effect on the government and labour contingents; they appear to have their minds stuck in a recently bygone age.

So the traditional mantras of growth, investment and job retention/creation within a historic framework continue to be repeated.

We should also expect more of the same when the — also much vaunted — investment summit gets under way.

This, we are told, is the first step towards bringing in mega bucks in investments, mainly from regions such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China, all of which have less than savoury reputations when it comes to human, let alone labour, rights.

There have been pledges, we are told, but no details. And it should be borne in mind that investment does not automatically translate into more jobs.

So the hope that such investment — if some or even all of it arrives — will result in massive job creation and a turnaround in the horrendous wage and welfare gap, is naive.

As Pityana pointed out at the jobs summit, automation, artificial intelligence and robotics have already “happened with dazzling speed”.

He noted: “These seismic technological changes stand to disrupt our labour market and change the methods and types of jobs required by the economy.”

It seemed superfluous for him to add that the latest jobs talk shop did not “address this in any systematic and meaningful way”.

But he, too, still seems oblivious of the fact that the future does not promise different jobs: The promise is virtually no jobs at all.

At least for most humans.

South Africa is not alone in this.

I returned recently from the UK where, at the Labour Party conference, as with the Jobs Summit, there was a failure to grasp or come to terms with the gravity of the situation facing all sellers of labour.

The focus in the UK was also on job retention, creation and the prospects for more investment leading to economic growth – all apparently within the existing economic system.

At least, at the central committee meeting of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), the issue was on the table.

“The severity of the situation has been grasped,” said Saftu acting spokesperson Patrick Craven.

He admits that “trade unions have been very remiss” in dealing with the technological realities of the 21st century.

“They have tended to see the digital revolution only as a threat [to jobs and livelihoods] that it is under capitalism.”

Craven said the unions had generally failed to realise “the great potential these would offer in a rationally organised society”.

What form that rational society should take and how to achieve it are the real questions.

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August 18 2019