By Tahir Maepa
Before the turn of the 19th century, British trade unionists Sidney and Beatrice Webb saw the role of trade unions as an important vehicle for the democratisation of the economy and society.
For them, trade unions embodied democracy since they were based on the principle of “government of the people by the people for the people”. The universal understanding has been that unions are “a necessary element in the democratic state”.
Rutgers University’s Andrew Murphy defines tolerance as “the selfrestraint of not restricting or reducing the rights or autonomy of others or other ways of being and acting”.
Democracy and tolerance have shaped the character that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) proudly embraces today.
Without democracy and social dialogue, the world economy could experience unprecedented disruptions and discontent. This is a point that seemingly escapes the international trade union movement. It continues to act confusingly under an incapable, pompous behemoth somewhere in the Pays Bas (Low Countries) who cannot see beyond her nose. Global workers are unhappy and disillusioned with the current leadership at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). If this is not managed, the workers could revolt against their comrades.
The governing body meeting that was held in March last year established rules for the election of the next director-general of the ILO, who will take over from the incumbent and British national Guy Ryder. The elections for the new DG are scheduled to take place in March. The significance of these polls lies in the fact that the African continent is fielding a very competent and knowledgeable person, Professor Mthunzi Mdwaba.
As his campaign was attracting support, it came as a surprise to learn that Sharan Burrow, the secretary-general of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), had written a letter to the organisation’s affiliates. In it, she commands the trade unions and federations that “should Mthunzi Mdwaba seek to meet with you, please politely decline and indicate that the ITUC general council will take a final decision later in the year”.
Burrow’s style is undemocratic, oppressive, intolerant and borders on racism and harassment. Many workers would be flabbergasted to learn that their leader stoops very low to deal with those she dislikes, and others who are different from her. Burrow singles out Professor Mdwaba for no reason when there are other candidates in the running for the ILO director-general position.
Mdwaba’s election stands to reshape the ILO’s identity in its 102-year history. His candidacy is significant for our time. He is an African who is the leader of employers, a workers’ rights activist and a champion of social dialogue. Mdwaba rattles the comfort zones and debunks certain stereotypes which are inherent in multinational organisations such as the ILO.
The world embraces the human rights culture which strongly opposes sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination. Burrow’s superiority complex and bias against Mdwaba that came at the expense of Australia’s “Stolen Generations” reveals her true colours. She appears to believe that the most effective way to lead the organisation is through an iron fist. Her comrades have to endure intimidation and threats from her office at Boulevard du Roi Albert II in Brussels.
The governing body had decided to go along with the UN’s resolve to cut pay for staff and the ILO’s professional staff without consulting the workers. What was more outrageous was that the Workers’ Group supported the decision that would have undermined not only the welfare of workers but the ethos that underpins the ILO as a champion of social justice.
The ITUC’s role in this debacle indicated that the trade union doesn’t subscribe to its expected duty of protecting workers. What is not known to most people is that the Employers’ Group, under the capable leadership of Mdwaba, saved the UN workers from the corrosive character leading from the ITUC headquarters in Brussels.
Mdwaba, as a person born under the clutches of apartheid in South Africa, fully understands the plight of the poor and suffering peoples of the world, while Burrow comes from a background of entitlement. She hopes that when her term ends at ITUC, she will get a position at the ILO.
It is time global workers showed Burrow who is in charge by choosing a person who is committed to democracy, social justice and decent work to lead the ILO.
Workers of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains!
* Tahir Maepa is the general-secretary of the Public and Commercial Union of SA.
** The views expressed here may not necessarily be that of IOL.