Magazine article New African

A New Approach to Industrial Relations

Magazine article New African

A New Approach to Industrial Relations

Article excerpt

In general discussions about African growth and development, free markets are often touted as the model to follow, and FDI as the means to achieve it. However, this is far too simplistic for Philip Jennings, head of UNI Global Union, a confederation of trade unions from around the world. He spoke to New African at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town about globalisation, worker's rights, the Marikana tragedy and Walmart. Oh, and Margaret Thatcher.

WITH A SOFT IRISH ACCENT, and exuding warmth and charm, Philip Jennings is not your typical combative trade union leader. His union, UNI Global, is a relatively new organisation, which came with the advent of globalisation at the turn of the millennium with the view of helping the unions collaborate and work more effectively to reflect the realities of a global and interconnected economy.

In Africa, and South Africa in particular, UNI Global Union came to prominence when it opposed Walmart's investment into South Africa's Massmart, Africa's largest retail chain. Walmart is the largest private sector employer in the world, and its investment into Africa was a clear message that it deemed Africa open for business, and that Africa had now achieved a critical mass of consumers sufficient to attract a global player.

However for Jennings, who has had dealings with Walmart in the Americas, foreign investment needs to come with certain caveats: "You have to remember they've built their business model on the basis of repression of their own workforce and of the most ruthless exploitation of cost-cutting in the supply chain. Our line was that Walmart should respect the rules of the game in labour relations and make a much more solid commitment to developing local supply chains here in South Africa and in Africa.

"We are calling upon Walmart to invest in local production and suppliers. That was essentially our message at the beginning." It should be noted that Jennings and Walmart have had an adversarial relationship for some time now, and--alongside Margaret Thatcher--the giant supermarket chain is the only institution that Jennings showed any sign of antipathy towards. If anything, his rhetoric was tempered. Throughout our conversation, he constantly endorsed a constructive dialogue model of labour relations while at the same time putting the case forward for having a strong, but reasoned, trade union voice at the bargaining table.

"If you look at the German and Nordic models, if you look at the ability of the German economy to withstand the economic collapse that we've seen, part of the reason was that they had good working relationships with the trade union movement. When you look at competitive economies, the most competitive in the world, they tend to have good, well-organised unions built on a platform of dialogue and collective bargaining. You're not going to be uncompetitive because you recognise a union movement."

We met a few weeks after the death of Margaret Thatcher and, as you might expect, he did not sing the praises of the Iron Lady who had all but killed the UK trade union movement during her term in office. He denounced the "demagoguery" of the late British Prime Minister and warned African governments not to follow some of her mistakes. "There was a feeling that Margaret Thatcher squandered North Sea oil and where were the revenues invested, where were the infrastructure changes in the UK. Much was privatised and that balanced the government's books but what was the lasting legacy of Margaret Thatcher in infrastructure terms? It's difficult to find any.

"Africa should not make the same mistake. Africa has what the world wants, it has raw materials and commodities in abundance. But it will not be automatic that the people will see the benefits of this in a general sense, so our job is to raise this issue of taking advantage of Africa's new bargaining position, to diversify the continent's economies, to manufacture in Africa, to develop the skills of your workforces with this windfall, and not to squander it. …

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