State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy

Photo by Cflm001 | CC BY 2.0

South African workers prepare to host the BRICS

Across the world, trade unions are under unprecedented threat, as just witnessed in the United States in the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision which denudes an already weak labour movement of public sector power and funds. Where, then, does organisational hope for working people lie?

The greatest potential for labour internationalism may one day exist within the largest combined proletariat: the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc. The BRICS state leaders meet in Johannesburg from July 25-27 and union officials gather in Durban the following weekend. Since 2012, the BRICS Trade Union Forum (BTUF) has brought labour leaders together, attempting to traverse extremely difficult terrain using an ever-changing roadmap.

Unfortunately, it is becoming obvious that along this path, BTUF leaders suffer a well-known problem: signaling to the left while driving the vehicle towards the right, as the ground underneath the vehicle keeps shifting. For the BTUF to reach the desired location would require major adjustments in navigation, new passengers and very different maneuvers.

Overall, BTUF membership is uneven across the BRICS’ working classes. The absolute size of trade union membership and density (i.e. the percent of the workforce unionised) vary, with China’s high numbers reflecting workers’ often frustrating ‘company union’ status:

+ China: 240 million; 90% of workforce

+ India: 87 million; 33% of workforce

+ Russia: 24 million; 32% of workforce

+ South Africa: 3.3 million; 30% of workforce

+ Brazil: 17 million; 17% of workforce

South Africa’s BTUF affiliates are the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), allied with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) since the 1980s, with 1.7 million members; the traditionally most conservative (and historically white) Federation of Democratic Unions of SA (Fedusa), with 700,000; and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), which has radical pan-Africanist rhetoric but suffers substantial internal strife, with 260,000.

Membership figures ebb and flow. Aside from Fedusa which won back a public sector union last year, all have lost support. After the traumatic 2012 Marikana Massacre of 34 Lonmin platinum mineworkers who were on a wildcat strike, Cosatu’s National Union of Mineworkers (Num) surrendered much of its membership (down from 300,000 to 187,000) to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (250,000 workers).

Even if divided and weakened, South Africa probably hosts the most advanced and coherent of the BRICS union federation affiliates, and certainly boasts the most militant proletariat. Yet due to internal rivalry following ideological and strategic divergences, the BTUF specifically excludes the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) and its 680,000 members.

Saftu’s formation last year, after Cosatu’s leader Zwelinzima Vavi and the 350,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) were expelled, followed by the Food and Allied Workers Union (with 130,000 members) and a few others. The reason was Saftu’s much stronger opposition to ANC neoliberalism and state corruption than Cosatu’s loyalist members, at the time led by Num.

Saftu is excluded from the BTUF on spurious grounds: it has not been admitted to the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), a corporatist institution which critics argue is a ‘toy telephone,’ often irrelevant.

As Cosatu itself warned in 2016,“Government continues to boycott and undermine Nedlac by sending junior bureaucrats with no decision making powers, while big business continues to condescendingly treat Nedlac as a platform, where they think that they can go make presentations and not engage. We will shut down Nedlac if these social partners keep undermining and undercutting it in this manner.”

However, such threats aside, Cosatu remains committed to building Nedlac and as a result, the boycott of Saftu – especially of its leader Vavi and Saftu’s metalworkers affiliate (South Africa’s largest union by far) led by Irvin Jim – shifts the BTUF ideological orientation much more to the centre. As a result, the BTUF is likely to maintain its status quo approach, no matter how dangerous this is for members, societies and the environment.

That route forward is merely continuation of predictable annual meetings in which trade unionists endorse the business-as-usual BRICS agenda, even while huge changes are underway in geopolitics, economics and environment – nearly all of which undermine labour, the broader society and the natural environment.

A different route would be to confront these contradictions head on, and to pursue greater shopfloor and grassroots unity. On July 21-22, the weekend before the BTUF meeting and just before the BRICS leaders’ summit, Saftu will gather thousands of its members plus civil society allies for a Workers’ Summit, which will more clearly spell out major policy and political differences with the other federations.

For example, in April, Saftu put tens of thousands of workers on the streets against a proposed minimum wage – one strongly supported by the other three federations but which ranges between just $0.80-$1.50/hour, i.e., ‘paltry’ according to Vavi. (The realistic poverty line is $110/person/month.) However, there are occasionally signs of potential unity amongst left-leaning trade unions.

Such shopfloor resistance was witnessed when in mid-June, tens of thousands of Num mineworkers and Numsa metalworkers at the parastatal electricity supplier Eskom engaged in wildcat protests – allegedly using intimidation and ‘sabotage’ –sufficient to create a rolling national blackout. The unions’ objective was to discredit Eskom’s 0% wage offer (the inflation rate is 4.5%), and they immediately succeeded in gaining a new offer above 6.5%. South Africa’s capitalist class was visibly unnerved by this show of strength, a precedent that might even lead to formal institutional Num-Numsa reconciliation, as Num’s more critical leaders won greatly increased power at their recent electoral convention.

Moreover, Num is now threatening to end electoral support for the ANC and transfer it to the SA Communist Party (SACP), a party itself debating whether to enter the 2019 election probably as a pressure point to make SA president and ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa more amenable to its demands. The SACP already has several cabinet positions, yet core ANC policies are still neoliberal. (Recent exceptions include free tertiary education won through intense student battles, land “expropriation without compensation” – so far more rhetorical than real – and a National Health Insurance plan that appears perpetually underfunded.)

BTUF labour remains repressed, super-exploited but (unevenly) militant

This is also apparent on home turf, for in some BRICS countries, the labour movement is extremely weak, e.g. China, which is characterised by state control, lack of autonomy, migrant labour discrimination, low wages and wildcat strikes (often harshly repressed). Conditions are worsening due to new technologies and to fewer freedoms to organise.

The 2018 International Trade Union Congress Global Rights Index has South Africa in the second rank of countries where workers have won basic rights (i.e., among the world’s best 38), a decline from 2014 when it was in the highest group, alongside European social democracies. Next is Russia, in the third rank of countries, i.e., facing “regular violations of rights,” followed by Brazil in the fourth rank, with its “systematic violations.” The worst group – including China and India – are labeled as countries with “no guarantee of rights.”

One result is a relatively low level of absolute wages in the BRICS, illustrated within a sectoral case study: the textile industry. In 2011, South African textile workers were paid €3.8/hour, compared to €2.8 in Brazil, €0.8 in coastal China, €0.7 in India and €0.5 in inland China (the average wage in rich countries was €16.8/hour, but lower still are prevailing wages in places with vast labour reserves such as Vietnam and Bangladesh, at €0.3/hour).

Profits soar up the value chain, to the copyright owners and brand managers usually in the Global North, for as the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) remarks, “Even in a simple jacket, physical components, including labour, fabric, lining, buttons, sleeve heads, shoulder pads, labels and hangtags, account for only 9% of the price; the remaining 91% of the value is for intangible assets, including a wide range of services such as retail, logistics, banking and marketing.”

In other words, within a complex world division of labour characterised by global supply chains, the power of corporations controlling upstream value-chain components means that both BRICS and hinterland economies continue to suffer from super-exploitative processes: a wage rate that is often lower than the cost of reproducing labour-power.

As an example, South Africa’s Bantustan system was typical of the migrant labour relations that left caring for children, sick workers and the retired as a task for women in far-off settings, with little or no state support. This form of internal migrancy has usually emerged because it is extremely profitable, insofar as the employer does not bear the full cost of social reproduction. Such a system characterises labour on the east coast of China, as well as sites like Marikana where mineworkers killed in 2012 were all migrants.

As a result of low wages paid to the majority of BRICS workers, labour’s input into GDP is relatively low. In most of the five (except South Africa), the recent period (2011-15) has witnessed a deterioration of the contribution of labour to GDP, according to UN DESA. Fixed capital investments that would raise labour productivity have been weak. Instead of incoming Foreign Direct Investment taking advantage of wage differentials, recent years witnessed much less capital-deepening investment.

One additional factor in labour productivity is worker militancy. One way to measure business-labour relations is the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual listing – based on polling 14,000 business executives from 137 economies – of shopfloor collaboration on a spectrum from most ‘confrontational’ to most ‘cooperative.’ In the 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Report, three of the BRICS – South Africa, Brazil and Russia – rated amongst the most confrontational third of the world’s national workforces.

Indeed, South Africa has ranked as having the world’s most militant proletariat since 2012, the year of the Marikana Massacre. The other two BRICS, India and China, are measured as having amongst the world’s more cooperative half of national workforces.

WEF militancy rank

+ South Africa: 1
+ Brazil: 32
+ Russia: 48
+ India: 82
+ China: 88

Of course, the supposed average-level ‘cooperation’ in the two largest BRICS may disguise intense pockets of labour militancy: in China there are several thousand illegal wildcat strikes per year, and in India in September 2016 there was a national strike of an estimated 180 million workers, the largest in world history.

There is extreme variability in these BRICS labour experiences, resulting in unevenness and diversity of trade unions and federations. Still, universal trends are bringing BRICS workers into closer alignment, especially worsening casualisation and the 4thIndustrial Revolution’s technological displacement of workers, as well as growing surveillance and privacy threats.

Workers demand insourcing and a 4thIndustrial Counter-Revolution

The 4th Industrial Revolution – conjoining latest advances cybertech, robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, biotechnology, etc – is a major theme in the 2018 BRICS summit. Naturally, official rhetoric has downplayed the likelihood of vast service sector unemployment, intensified social engineering and e-totalitarianism such as China’s ‘social credit,’ or technological disasters of the sort anticipated when AI and robotisation are combined.

In their official BTUF statements, the trade unions asked leaders to assist in the “de-monopolisation of the world market of software and IT-equipment, internet infrastructure management” (2016). This was based upon a valid critique of tech-corporate power, and was especially appropriate in India from where the resolution emanated. In 2017, however, “We appeal to the BRICS governments to seize the opportunities brought by the new round of industrial revolution and the digital economy” – yet the BTUF failed to identify the many associated dangers.

Against these trends, resistance to surveillance, robotisation and casualisation is not impossible. In South Africa there was an outcry by Cosatu’s banking union the South African Society of Bank Officials in 2018 against a major bank (Nedbank) for its planned replacement of 3000 workers with 260 robots.

More successful were campaigns in 2015 for the ‘insourcing’ of thousands of university workers across the country, with a consequent rise in wages by a factor of two to four. (Regrettably, it was mostly student activism that won this demand, with most unions absent from the #FeesMustFall and #OutsourcingMustFall campus struggles.)

However, the South African labour movement’s consistent demands to ban outsourcing in all sectors have been rejected by the ANC. The more militant unions, including not just Saftu but also some in Cosatu, lost campaigns against the introduction a sub-minimum youth wage in 2015, and against new labour legislation which includes a weakening of unions’ ability to call strikes.

The most important legal cornerstone of the 4thIndustrial Revolution is corporate intellectual property, and destruction of these commercial rights applied to essential medicines was also the objective of South African workers during the early 2000s, in the case of Big Pharma’s monopoly control of AIDS drugs. Just as stigmatisation of HIV+ South Africans was peaking, Vavi and Cosatu trade unionists formed a courageous alliance with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), demanding free medicines for more than five million affected people.

Although this campaign fatally soured relationships with then-president Thabo Mbeki, who was an AIDS denialist, international allies joined TAC and Cosatu to win a Trade Related Intellectual Property System exemption in 2001. As the medicines then became free by virtue of generic companies’ provision, via South African state health clinics, life expectancy rose from 52 in 2004 to 64 over the subsequent dozen years.

And in a battle against President Jacob Zuma lasting through most of the 2010s, Cosatu (along with the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance) undermined state surveillance capacity and Public Private Partnerships – both also crucial to the 4thIndustrial Revolution – with successful activism against e-tolling on Johannesburg-area highways.

In campaigns that have not yet been won, trade unions have also worked closely with the Right2Know movement, demanding free data and airtime so as to achieve the right to communicate, and opposing surveillance and Big Data social control. R2K welcomed Cosatu’s crucial support against Zuma, to continually derail the so-called secrecy bill (“Protection of State Information” bill) which would have hampered whistle-blowing.

At the time, in 2011, the unions also strongly opposed the commodification of information, lack of transparency, and other threats associated with the emerging 4thIndustrial Revolution. Vavi endorsed the 1955 Freedom Charter: “The law shall guarantee to all their right to speak, to organise, to meet together, to publish, to preach, to worship and to educate their children… All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands.”

All of this represents a 4thIndustrial Counter-Revolution, in which potentially vital technology (e.g. AIDS medicines) is appropriated as part of the world commons, and destructive Big Data and surveillance techniques are regulated or prohibited, bottom up.

These are some of the most encouraging signs of counter-power. But within the BRICS, when it comes to discussions about the dangers of outsourcing and 4thIndustrial Revolution, such signals are muffled to the point of silence.

Indeed, when trying to promote workers interests here and in nearly all other crucial socio-economic battles, the record of BTUF advocacy by national trade union leadership in the BRICS countries reveals many more disappointments than successes.

Part Two considers the ways the BTUF’s ‘social dialogue’ advocacy strategies within the BRICS can, sadly, be characterised not as watchdog, but as lapdog.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: