In the ongoing debate in parliament, the voice of labour has been surprisingly muted. Surprising because we are still a country with an underdeveloped economic base in which the lot of workers is quite precarious in the face of globalisation forces. What exactly are the ground rules as we join Africa in opening up our primary resources to the rising East? Why aren’t the unions placing some pressures on the politicians – from both sides of the aisle?
Most of our early politicians came out of the trade union movement and the nexus between the two sets of institutions for long remained intimate and strong. Not any longer, if we are to go by increasing rapid developments in the last decade.
Trade unions, even those traditionally close to the present government, now appear estranged from the decision-making process – even as it concerns matters directly affecting the livelihood of workers. Union leaders should therefore adapt their organisations to the new challenges if they are to regain effectiveness in securing the rights of labour.
Our plantation economy was a harbinger of the industrial revolution that severed the spatial identity between the place of production and consumption – factories and consumers. Costs of moving goods, people, and ideas fell rapidly – especially for goods. Steamships and railroads allowed things to be profitably made far from where they were consumed.
The first (steam) and second (chemical/electric) industrial revolutions fostered and were fostered by the first severing. These revolutions also increased the demands made on labour as the profit motive drove what became known as the “capitalist” mode of production. Trade union agitation led to the formation of the “welfare” state in which there was minimum protection for the basic needs of the workers. As a poor colonial and post-colonial state, our safety-net was never that secure to begin with, but the ideal was established.
But Pandora’s Box had been irrevocably thrown open: the severing of production and consumption inexorably continued. Costs of moving goods, people, and ideas continued to plummet – now especially for ideas. Cheap and reliable telecommunications made it profitable to organise complex manufacturing tasks in far-flung localities that previously required physical proximity.
Late in the 20th century, factories were unbundled. Supply chains were internationalised and this wave of globalisation was unleashed. Today’s factories don’t make things, they make bits and pieces that are assembled somewhere and sold somewhere else. Globalisation began operating at a higher resolution. Instead of harming or helping the fortunes of a firm as a whole, it could reach right into the factory and help or harm a particular production stage, a particular department, or even a particular job.
There are three aspects of this qualitatively new world that globalisation has produced, which trade unions should factor in to prevent the hard-earned rights of workers from being completely eroded.
Firstly, the winners and losers from globalisation are much harder to predict. By their very nature, lower trade costs for goods tend to affect all traded goods in roughly similar ways, and this is why one could tell which sectors would win from further trade cost cuts. When the main barrier is the cost of exchanging information across distance (trading ideas), it is difficult to identify winning and losing tasks.
Secondly, is the suddenness of changes that can be unleashed as multinational firms constantly manoeuvre to maximise their profits. There are no loyalties to nations and nationalities, and production will be switched to other locations at the drop of a hat – even in a commodity like bauxite.
Finally, the old notion of a business being a self-contained unit and the trade union tactic of dealing with an “industry” is over. This globalisation has brought its gaze within individual factories, and competition will increasingly play itself at the level of tasks within firms.
Trade unions will have to adjust both their organisation and operations to this new paradigm: protesting to counterbalance the market power of firms and stabilising the vagaries of manufacturing employment are no longer enough.