Monday, April 11, 2011

Open Letter to Cosatu’s Chief.

Dear Mr Vavi

clip_image002Like the incessant chirps of countless crickets, the suggestions and advice on unemployment must be deafening. They have probably become indistinguishable, and those louder than others are likely tainted by vested interest, ideological bias, conflicting theories and the need for you to be guided by your own support base. Your job is indeed unenviable.

You have access to far more information and data about labour than many of us could have. You have most likely been bombarded with more theories and views from different levels of authority and expertise than most of us have been exposed to. You have heard it all. So it is not my intention to regurgitate the current arguments and test your patience and goodwill on matters of statistics, data, classical and neo-classical theories, ideological posturing, legal constraints and labour rights. None of that is helpful anymore. They merely enhance the conflict and drive us further apart.

I come from a working class background, indeed a mining background and have worked underground myself. My parents were the products of the age of deprivation. Having survived a world war and the great depression, they taught me the value of prudence, modesty and realistic expectations. Since then, I have covered labour affairs in many news reporting functions, from shop steward meetings to ILO conventions, and later as an employee communications facilitator, gained many further insights in interacting with employees at all levels, including managers and shop stewards.

I come from a place that has a deep respect for labour. That place recognises the nobility of work. That place acclaims labour as the main contributor to wealth creation – statistically, logically and ideologically. This is not alien thinking to business itself, as reflected in Cashbuild’s recent sacrifice of shareholder value to pay staff from a share trust. It recognises that we do not create wealth by owning things – only by doing things. That principle has been recognised even in scripture. It implies the unthinkable to many still locked in cold war rhetoric – that the paramountcy of capital over labour is a false one. Indeed in the creation of wealth, it is not capital that should attract labour, but labour that should attract capital.

This postulate flies in the face of the current status and logic; one that assumes inherent conflict and appears to have been accepted readily by both capital and labour. We can only assume that both parties find it expedient to be locked in this conflict. This stance has undoubtedly had an effect on employment retention and job creation, destroying for many the prospect of being meaningfully employed. But it will be cumbersome and counterproductive to analyse the detail which will merely reignite old paradigms.

I share a view with a growing number of people who see the era we live in as one of renewal, for questioning centuries of behaviour, and for out of the box, perhaps even outrageous thinking.

The reversal of the roles of attraction to one where labour woos capital in a market orientated environment is perhaps where the answer truly lies. It will require a complete revision of labour’s raison d’être and at the very least should form part of a serious discussion within organised labour’s ranks. It would be presumptuous for anyone outside of intense labour involvement to suggest how this could be done. An immediate practical answer may be the formation of labour cooperatives and application in some companies on a trial basis, but it should go much further.

The only statement I would make is that on closer inspection, the concept is not as alien as it may appear. In reality it is already rooted in the principle that it is not ownership but action or doing things that creates tangible wealth. I concede that this axiom has been severely contaminated by a rather narrow understanding of “ownership”, and the “doers” being stereotyped and divided into conflicting “classes” within business – from a controlling “executive class” representing shareholders to a subservient “working class” and with a hybrid class in the middle. This is no longer useful. The executive class in particular should and is being thoroughly scrutinised. I have previously intimated that they should be reclassified into creators, builders and professional managers to give a more accurate reflection of their true value.

We need to examine labour as a unified function before personifying it into preconceived ideological stereotypes. The key consideration is that all “doers”, from creators or entrepreneurs to the blue collar worker, have to form a partnership united in one goal – making a contribution to society as a whole. In the end tangible wealth is created by adding value to people’s lives, doing something meaningful for others. All the rest our modern world has concocted is nothing but froth and invariably implies not the creation of new wealth but the shifting of wealth from one interest to another and exacerbating the intolerable wealth gap. The common goal for all should be maximum wealth creation through meaningful products or service, and optimum sharing of wealth for long term sustainability. Gain or wealth distribution always has to be secondary to wealth creation itself. Distribution is not arbitrary, but can be malleable and negotiable. I understand that this may appear to threaten the current union power base, but ultimately, nothing is more noble, generous and empowering of others than ensuring one’s own dispensability. On the other hand, power lies with contributors and changing organised labour’s raison d’être could strengthen its role in society as a whole.

I have clearly only scratched on the surface of a subject that has occupied far greater minds for centuries. There is one, perhaps all encompassing principle that should permeate our thinking – the dignity of work. The evolvement of our species into seeing all things primarily from the perspective of self gain, has robbed mankind of its greatest strength: the ability and need to care for each other. The dignity of employment lies only partly in its provision of material comforts. Its real value lies in the opportunity it creates of doing something meaningful for others. Changing our definition of work from being an opportunity of contributing to a means of getting has demeaned the entire concept of work.

As an anonymous beatitude says: “Our greatest need is to be needed”.

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