REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Thousands of South Africans marched in cities around the country Wednesday as a major trade union federation called a one-day strike to protest against labor brokers -- and remind the government of the movement's power.
The strike, called by the COSATU federation, was aimed at the mining, manufacturing, retail and services industries. The protests were peaceful, but business groups claimed the action cost the economy hundreds of millions of dollars.
Protesters called on the African National Congress-led government to ban labor brokers, who find low-wage casual workers for businesses. COSATU said brokers left thousands of workers in low-paying, short-term jobs instead of higher paid full-time positions. It accused major retailers of abusing the system to reduce the cost of wages.
Marchers wearing COSATU's red and yellow colors carried banners reading "Labor brokering = slave labor."
The strike also was called to protest new highway tolls that the federation says will hurt the poor by adding to the cost of goods and services and of commuting to work.
"The introduction of a tolling system that brings in the private sector to operate the tolled roads is, in our view, nothing else but privatization," the organization said in statement.
Analysts said the strike was designed in part as a show of the federation's strength within the ANC alliance ahead of the ruling party's leadership conference this year. COSATU is expected to wield significant influence at the gathering, where South African President Jacob Zuma is seeking a second term as party leader -- virtually guaranteeing him a second presidential term as well.
Federation General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said the strike was designed to remind the government the power of the working class.
"Today we are here to remind some fellows where they are coming from. They don’t know any more the power of the working class," Vavi said. "This is not a march. This is an occupation of the city of Johannesburg by the workers."
The ANC government plans legislation to regulate labor brokers, requiring employers to convert casual employees to full-time employment after six months. Business groups argue that brokers help find jobs for poorly skilled workers who would otherwise be locked out of the workforce.
Carol Paton, an analyst writing in the Business Day newspaper, said the strike was more about showing the federation's political muscle because its battle to eliminate abusive practices by labor brokers had largely been won.
"Any trade unionist knows that sometimes it is good to have a strike," she wrote. "Strikes unite and mobilize workers, they build the union and send a message about the power of worker unity to the rest of society and they keep the organization vibrant and alive."
An editorial in the same newspaper attacked the strike as politically motivated and pointless:
"The fact is that SA [South Africa] is becoming the kind of place in which workers strike at the drop of a hat because the law supports pointless strikes and politicians are too scared to criticize, never mind actually do something about it."
Wednesday's strike came a week after the end of an illegal strike at Impala, a major platinum mine, which dragged on for several weeks, costing the company an estimated $320 million.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Union members march through downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday during a nationwide one-day strike. Credit: Kim Ludbrook / EPA