News / South Africa

Brian Sokutu
Senior Print Journalist
2 minute read
5 Nov 2021
4:30 am

Labour unions membership numbers dwindle due to pandemic

Brian Sokutu

'We need a clear programme of action on practical steps to deliver on these revolutionary goals that we have set for ourselves.'

Photo: iStock

With the labour movement having been hardest hit by the Covid pandemic, which has led to deaths and job losses, unions have reported a decline in membership numbers.

The National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) general secretary Zola Saphetha, speaking to The Citizen on the sidelines of the union’s four-day 12th national congress in Ekurhuleni’s Birchwood Hotel, said the its membership currently stood at 279 465, representing a substantial reduction.

Nehawu, South Africa’s biggest public sector union and Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (Cosatu) largest affiliate, had lost several members, especially during the hard lockdown period.

“Certainly, Covid has had an effect on membership. We have lost members who were frontline workers, like nurses.

“We have to go back to our members, to be where members are – the workplace, the aim being to reach the threshold of 300 000.

“We have to improve on membership, because it is clear that government is reneging in terms of delivering on the promised salary increment to public servants – not taking workers seriously.

ALSO READ: Human trafficking suspects admit to violating child labour laws

“Workers only have the union as their representative, so we have to be with the workers at all times,” said Saphetha.

Delegates from the country’s nine provinces are attending the congress.

Ending on Saturday, the results of the election of Nehawu national office-bearers will be announced and the union is expected to adopt a set of resolutions.

Among key resolutions expected to be adopted are:

  • Advocating for the Tripartite Alliance as the strategic political centre of power – not the factionally embattled ANC.
  • Giving meaningful support to the struggles of the people of eSwatini, Cuba, Palestine, Venezuela and the Western Sahara.
  • Pushing government to honour the promised salary increment to public servants.

Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi told delegates: “This congress has identified some of the key challenges that are facing the working class – defending collective bargaining, strengthening workplace organisation and international solidarity.

“We need a clear programme of action on practical steps to deliver on these revolutionary goals that we have set for ourselves.

“Uniting to defend collective bargaining is critical to defending the rights of workers and advancing their interests.

“Nehawu has correctly highlighted that collective bargaining is under siege in the public and the private sector in South Africa and internationally.

“If employers are allowed to weaken and defeat collective bargaining, that will reverse the gains of the working class since our 1994 democratic breakthrough. That will not only take away wages, but will harshly deal with the benefits and conditions of workers.

“If collective bargaining can be allowed to collapse in the state, it will put the very concept of a developmental state – biased towards the working class – at risk.”