Reaching goal eight in the green economy

What a system, what a crime
We can’t mend it, we must end it
End it now and for all times
In the city, at a corner
Stands a house that’s mighty and grand
Where in glory and in splendor
Dwells the magnate of the rand
What a system, what a system
What a system, what a crime
We can’t mend it, we must end it
End it now and for all times
In a tunnel hot as blaze
Excavating in a mine
He digs gold amidst the rock fall
And his life’s not worth a dime
What a system, what a system
What a system, what a crime
We can’t mend it, we must end it
End it now and for all times
Up above the mining compound
Where he joins the picket line
He’s a labourer agitator
And they pay him two and nine
What a system, what a system
What a system, what a crime
We can’t mend it, we must end it
End it now and for all times!

This song was sung by English miners lamenting the cruel and hazardous labour conditions that they were subjected to by the bourgeois magnates of the time. The song was popular with communists and socialists who have always identified with the struggle of the proletariat or working-class. Since the dawn of industry, there has always been a struggle between the worker and employer over a myriad of issues, mostly relating to the conditions of labour and compensation.

Today, in South Africa and globally, we celebrate ‘May Day’, which commemorates the events of the first of May in 1886 when more than three hundred thousand workers from thirteen thousand businesses across the United States of America, protested for better working conditions; in particular for an eight-hour work day, that has become the standard today, and for safer working environments, among other complaints.

Today, we take stock of the importance of labour representatives who work to organize workers and petition for better working conditions, because – even given the dire need for jobs, more so for the youth in South Africa – it is even more important to ensure that these jobs are dignified, safe and responsive to the demands of modern life. This must also be replicated across all industries, from the sophisticated executive jobs you find in the skyscrapers of Africa’s richest square mile (Sandton) to the rich green cane fields of Mandeni in KwaZulu-Natal where field workers harvest in the unforgiving climate, to the dangerous deep mines of Marikana where precious metals are dug out of the Earth by men and women who have traveled the breadth of the country for work.

We all want to work in an environment that is safe, with the correct tools for the job, under the right conditions; that has been the fight for which labour representatives have argued for, for centuries.

Just recently in our developing democracy, our country enacted a minimum wage bill which should subscribe employers to a minimum rate of compensation for workers. These are very important steps for a country to take in order to protect workers’ rights and to ensure their dignity is intact, especially workers who earn lower incomes. Traditionally, low-income workers have been vulnerable to manipulation and unfair labour practices because of their limited resources and education, but as we grow as a nation we work to fix these things, and ensure everyone has an equitable share of this democracy, as enshrined in our National Development Plan.

At the same time, our country is not immune to global economic factors which hamper productivity and growth, which in turn threatens jobs and the economy; which has contributed significantly to the unemployment crisis our country faces. It may sound alarmist to say crisis, but when you consider that almost sixty percent of the youth is unemployed, you must recognize that urgent action must be taken to remedy this, and the remedies employed must be sustainable and scalable.

The green economy offers such opportunities, in fact one could wake up tomorrow and start collecting recyclable materials for sale to recyclers or manufacturers and earn a pay that very same afternoon! It is important then to look to this sector to create employment for the many thousands of young South Africans who can and are able to carry out this work, in fact, already thousands of South Africans move throughout communities across the country collecting paper, plastic, glass and tin for recycling. The industry boasts global record high growth statistics and recycled materials are processed by multi-national corporations such as Mpact, Consol, The Reclamation Group, SAPPI, ArcelorMittal and many others.

We must therefore place cognizance on the fact that this industry is young and largely informal, and that whatever potential exists must prioritise creating dignified work and a living wage for the thousands of waste pickers who support big business through their collections. Waste pickers are individuals with limited or no academic background primarily from rural and peri-urban communities who forage in dangerous landfills, residential, industrial and commercial precincts; searching through bins and storm-water drains for discarded waste which can be resold. They take on the very onerous task of separating, sorting and gathering waste into their streams for industry and the pay they receive for this is significantly low; and as the industry grows and more waste pickers participate, there remains a great risk of lowered compensation.

It is incorrect that waste pickers be compensated as agents, as this strips them of the rights that typical labourers are afforded, such as protective work wear, training or the platform to negotiate better rates, leave days and many other worker benefits that the formal workforce has come to enjoy as a basic condition of employment: what a system, what a crime!

This industry is currently worth billions of Rands, locally; and even more so globally. Big business must ensure that their supply value chain does not exist to exploit waste pickers. History further teaches us that the function of fair-wage determination cannot rest solely on big business, and when you consider that waste pickers aren’t treated as formal employees then they are vulnerable to manipulation. Another aspect that is overlooked in this industry beyond the environmental function waste pickers provide, is that the aesthetics. Having an industry that moves through cities and communities picking waste offers cleaner spaces, but the structure of waste recycling is so in this country that most waste pickers disregard materials that cannot be recycled, while some of these materials may actually still be recyclable or reusable as a by-product, without appropriate training these collectors would not know nor benefit from this. This opportunity should be addressed by municipalities, who must find ways to rebate pickers for those materials and invest in energy generating infrastructure that can make use of this.

In Japan, the elderly collect waste, and contribute to the countries litter free environment all for the pleasure of meeting the royal monarch as thanksgiving for their contribution. This trade-off offers them dignity and pride, something that must be remembered; that compensation is about more than just paying a salary. Dignity is very important, and must be afforded to all people. Waste pickers in our country complain of ill-treatment and disregard when performing kerb-side collections in residential areas. There is no shame in waste picking, and it makes it evident that learning also needs to occur on the side of society on the impact and value waste pickers bring to our society.

Working to improve the workplace and worker rights should be the epicentre of May Day commemorations, and should also make us reflect on those areas where more can be done to bring all of society out of poverty through dignified, safe and formalized work.

It is therefore the intention of our Urban Recyclers Dignity programme to respond to this, by establishing buy-back centres in communities that provide training, protective gear that is brandished to make residential complexes more accepting and understanding of waste pickers, and surely we can make this industry a job creator! Lastly, we are working to develop this programme so it compliments municipal waste management strategies, because the time must come when our municipal rates and levies that we pay over, reflect our choice to live in sustainable and green communities!

Ms Simphiwe Ngema, Chairperson – Almal Foundation. Simphiwe is also a member of the Sustainability committee which oversees the Urban Recycler’s Dignity programme.

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