Wed, 15 Jul 2020

INSIDE LABOUR: On chicken, dumping, and union power

26 Apr 2019, 16:13 GMT+10

The cut-price Dutch are back again. After a rather lengthy hiatus caused by bird flu bans on exports, poultry from the Netherlands is back on South African shelves.

And it arrived without so much as a whisper of protest from the unions. Only anti-dumping campaigner Francois Baird of FairPlay pointed out yet again that local poultry producers were among the most efficient anywhere and that job losses loomed.

There was, however, a murmur from within the bowels of the trade and industry department to the effect that higher tariffs on chicken would hurt the poor by making the country's favourite meat more expensive. It is a flawed argument because the question is one of fair trade, not tariffs.

In any event, even if - as happened in Venezuela with a variety of foodstuffs- a great deal of cheap chicken was dumped on the local market, a short-term bonanza for the poor would quickly turn into the loss of thousands of jobs, adding to the numbers of the desperately poor.

Fair facts

So here are some facts: studies, both locally and internationally, show that South Africa produces whole chickens cheaper than any country in the European Union (EU). And, of course, all these countries are signed up to the World Trade Organisation that supposedly supports fair trade.

But the WTO allows producers to fiddle the figures. They do so by allowing the whole bird to be regarded as raw material, not a finished product. The add-on costs of cutting up and packaging the chicken pieces are what openly qualify for export trade costs.

Subsidies are, of course, no longer permitted for farm produce in the EU. However, EU farmers can get financial help for steps to "preserve the environment". A perhaps convenient loophole.

The whole issue could have provided leverage for the labour movement, especially with the national elections only weeks away. But then the unions have had a fairly low media profile for this sixth, post transition, poll.

READ: Is worker abuse a dark secret behind Brazil's food safety lapses?

This is probably understandable, given that the fragmentation and confusion on the political scene, peppered with allegations of fingers in tills, is mirrored in the labour movement. Also, in common with a global trend, fewer workers are now unionised and the movement is considerably weaker than it was even ten years ago.

But South Africa still has at least 20% of the workforce unionised. The United States Bureau of Labour Statistics, for example, has collected union data since 1980. This year it announced the "lowest ever" level of unionisation: 10.5% of the workforce, down from near 30%.

We are still in a better position, although once hoped for consolidation into one federation in one country, along with one union, one industry, withered away years ago, despite the occasional murmurs about resuscitation. And the movement has continued to fray at the edges with breakaway - "mushroom"- unions coming and going.


Overall, there has been a steady decline in the number of unionised workers. But, as of this month, there are 207 trade unions that remain registered, although some have not filed their legally required audited financial reports and could face deregistration.

A number of unions, including the once powerful SA Municipal Workers' Union and the Chemical Energy Pulp and Paper Wood & Allied Workers' Union have also been virtually bankrupted through the apparent filching of millions of rand.

The smaller of the two main anti-apartheid federations, the National Council of Trade Unions, also remains in a state of turmoil. This was triggered when general secretary Narious Moloto - now campaigning for Parliament as president of the Pan Africanist Congress - insisted on holding both positions.

Then, as already been covered in this column, there is the position of SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), not supporting any one party while its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers, has sponsored the Socialist Revolutionary Workers' Party. Among its candidates for Parliament is the deputy general secretary of Saftu.

All parties have one common theme: support for job retention and creation. This being so, perhaps, once the new Parliament sits, the labour movement as a whole could come together to put pressure on government to act urgently on the matter of dumping, not only of chicken, but sugar, clothing and much else.

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