Mike Bonile Sikani: “For South African workers, health and safety is key to a just transition”

Mike Bonile Sikani: “For South African workers, health and safety is key to a just transition”

Mike Bonile Sikani (centre) pictured here during a just transition seminar held in Cotonou, Benin this August.

Mike Bonile Sikani is the national education secretary for SACCAWU (South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union), an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Following a seminar on the just transition in the Global South held in Benin this July, Sikani told Equal Times about the ways in which his union’s 107,000 members are affected by climate change and why decent working conditions are as crucial to a just transition as environmental protections.

What do climate impacts look like for commercial and hospitality workers in South Africa?

Our members are not spared from the negative effects of climate change, and SACCAWU has three primary areas of concern in this respect. The first is that we process and sell perishable goods that are agriculturally-orientated so the quality of the fresh produce that is sold in the shops is directly linked to the climate. The second point is linked to the transportation of goods; we are concerned about the level of emissions that are generated and what it does to the environment. Thirdly, is the issue of spatial inequality in South Africa. During Apartheid, workers were forced to live in what were known as ‘designated areas’ or ‘locations’ which were far away from the urban city life. The majority of workers still live in such places today.

This creates emissions because there are high volumes of taxis [minibuses] on the road. It is also the case that workers are forced to spend too long and too much money travelling to and from work. Workers spend approximately 60 per cent of their take home pay on travel and this has a knock-on effect on all sorts of things: the quality of food they are able to buy, the housing they can afford and the type of education they can access, all of which leaves them in stuck in a cycle of generational poverty. Women workers are also face danger when travelling home late at night after work. The workers in these locations are also more vulnerable to climate impacts such as a lack of water. And a lot of informal residential areas are based in industrial waste channels, meaning the processes of mining or whatever. Instead of the government identifying a healthy place for these people to stay, people simply put up informal structures so that they can be close to the nearby industries that need a flexible labourforce.

Give these multidimensional impacts of climate change on your members, what are some of the steps that your union has taken to address these issues?

Like in all unions in South Africa, we are working on an economic sector-based climate policy. There is a draft document in circulation which will be shared at our summer school from 10-15 December to broaden our policy articulation and buy-in. We will then prepare our documentation for the 2019 CEC [Central Executive Committee] and NEC [National Executive Committee] so that we can have a better appreciation of the policy direction. Once we have the policy in place, we will then employ various strategies to engage our primary class opposition at a local, employer and national level. For example, there are initiatives that are led by local states to mitigate against the effects of climate change and we want to plug into those. At a national level, we need to ensure that we present our case as a union to say: ‘This is the contribution we want to make in the development of the debate around climate change’. And for employers, we need to work with them to update their approach to industrial development, as they leave out so many critical aspects of what is supposed to go with their health and safety policies. For our workers, health and safety is key to a just transition.

Do you have any particular examples?

We want to propose environmentally-friendly business operation guidelines because, as it stands, the primary occupation of these corporations is the security of their goods, not the health and safety of their workers or environmental standards. Take cold room stores, for example. This is a key area of hazard in our industry. About 10-15 per cent of the workforce are exposed to an environment [cold rooms] that were designed in the 1960s and 1970s but which are still in use today. We have data that shows a number of negative impacts that come with exposure to that space, such as health affects on your lungs or after a while, your body does not absorb heat as it is supposed to. As workers become older, employers will remove workers from that environment but they won’t provide any health interventions or assistance to help you live with the conditions that you have developed as a result of your work. Just as we did in the olden days with asbestos, should you become sick as a result of your job, there should be policies in place to protect those workers.

Is there anything that you picked up at the just transition seminar in Benin that you have been able to take home with you?

The Benin session revealed to me that there ought to be greater interaction between the different unions on the continent. We should have internal organisational linkages that ought to assist African workers. We should also have the opportunity to discuss the kind of issues that we did in Benin in a sustained fashion.

At the same time, we have observed with pain that instead of a thorough policy development exercised by the 53 member states of the African Union, there is a habit of photocopying. And that process of photocopying by our different governments at times leads to crises. For example, if you were to talk around the issue of national development policies (NDPs), across the continent the NDPs are pretty much the same, despite our different national contexts, and there has never been a critical engagement with local communities and workers. It is the same approach they are now taking in respect of wages and inequality. Where they [AU member states] fail, they all fail; where they succeed, they all succeed. As we have an African Union at a political level, there ought to be an African Economic Forum led by the union movement to create worker-oriented solutions to our continent’s various economic issues.

What would a genuine just transition in South Africa look like, and is it possible in the near future?

We have three primary tasks: 1) ideology. We are shallow in articulation of ideology and what it is that we think. And I think it can be nothing less than a socialist solution to the crisis that we face on the continent. 2) The whole body of politics of Africa. We look outward instead of looking inward. Every government department and every government that comes into office, their primary concern is to satisfy the G7, G20 and appease the IFIs [international financial institutions] and the United Nations at the expense of what the people need. 3) Trade unions on the continent and in South Africa have to go back to the primary reasons for their existence.

When we master that game we can begin to clear identify the social drivers that are driving our movement and create genuine alliances with multiforces which will then fit in proper in the ideological and political space with our primary agenda of being captains in respect to offering economic solutions for the continent. But at the present moment, we have been unable to master that challenge.