Workers and the poor remain the most vulnerable in times of crises

4 May 2020 by Reneva Fourie

May 1 was declared International Workers’ Day in appreciation of the power of worker unity and worker solidarity and to affirm the rights of workers to have decent conditions of service and wages. The Second International, held in Paris in 1889, extended a decision by the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions in the United States and Canada recognising an 8-hour workday as of May 1, 1886, following a very effective, but costly, general strike by more than 300 000 workers in over 13 000 workplaces in the USA. 

As we celebrate International Workers’ Day this year, our consciousnesses of worker conditions are heightened due to the Covid-19 pandemic, for workers have no choice but to sell their labour to survive. Our essential workers were at the frontline of ensuring our sustenance during the lockdown period and they are now bearing the consequences as some, particularly healthcare and retail workers, are testing positive for the virus. Workers have also had to bear the brunt of loss of income and jobs. Workers and the poor remain the most vulnerable in times of crises – whether natural as in the case of the pandemic, or man-made as in the looming economic recession. May Day serves as a reminder that worker unity is the only protection that exists against these vulnerabilities. Worker unity is essential if the common interests of workers are to occupy prominence in the programmes and policies of the government.  The Nedlac victory around a substantive social security network allocation of R40 billion within the broader Covid-19 support package by government, would not have been possible without a collective progressive voice. But more needs to be achieved. The number of trade unions organising in one sector is excessive. The plethora of trade union federations including Cosatu, Fedusa, Saftu, Nactu is too much for one country. This dispersal of worker power weakens its voice and capacity; hence the victory secured at Nedlac by labour and the community combined amounts to less than ten percent of the total Covid-19 support package. While a multitude of perspectives is useful, the coalescing around common interests commands more authority. The consolidation of worker ideas, voices, energies and resources is essential in the context of the dominance of business interests in South Africa and in the world. This unity becomes particularly important as digitalisation, artificial intelligence and robotics change the nature of work. Just as worker struggles in the past went beyond the workplace by having challenged the impact of apartheid on society as a whole; workers currently also have a responsibility to practically and ideologically influence the trajectory of what is termed the fourth industrial revolution. Workers must shape the inevitable expansion of digital technologies into the workplace, society and even the body to ensure that it is beneficial and developmental in character. It is possible for the nature of work to be redefined to minimise job losses, shorten working hours and increase leisure time, whilst securing higher wages. Likewise, workers are a key lobby for a redistributive tax, which could be reaped from the process of automation and directed towards a fund for the expansion of a universal basic income, thereby ensuring a better quality of life for all. Such an ambition requires togetherness. Maximising the power of workers does not only require better integration domestically, it also requires solidarity internationally. International Workers Day is an outcome of class struggle. Workers had to protest and die before an eight-hour workday was agreed to. All peace-loving South Africans, of which the majority are workers and the poor, must have compassion with progressive struggles around the world that seek to create more just and equitable conditions for their people and should condemn governments who wish to undermine such processes. 


 International worker solidarity implies an awareness of and support for the struggles for democracy in countries like Swaziland and the Saharawi Arab Republic and the condemnation of increasing South African support for the Swazi or Moroccan monarchies.  It implies a rejection of token support from countries like Turkey and the USA, albeit miniscule in content, when they are facilitating instability and causing suffering of workers and the poor in countries like Libya and Syria, and ignoring the sufferings in their own countries. Workers must particularly reject such token support when it is associated with military equipment, as in the case of Turkey. Likewise, it is not correct for workers to be silent when Israel oppresses the Palestinians and wages terror on countries like Lebanon and Syria. The World Federation of Trade Unions represents 92 million workers from 126 countries. The International Trade Union Confederation represents 176 million workers across 156 countries and territories. If all that power was harnessed towards calling for the protection of human rights, the lifting of sanctions against countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and Iran, a global cease-fire, and a universal basic income amongst others, the world will be a much better place. As the champion of the working class, Karl Marx famously put it: “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains”. 

* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security and currently lives in Damascus, Syria.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

Source: IOL at