IT’S become a a predictable part of the South African calendar. The strike season is with us again, one of those rituals that continues to set this country apart. Virtually everything about it appears to defy logic and common sense. In a globalised, highly competitive world in which South Africa consistently underperforms, protracted strikes involving wage demands way above the inflation rate are eventually settled at a generous 7−10%.

In the meantime, a great deal of violence and intimidation takes place. The rights of those who wish to work are rendered meaningless, property is destroyed and people are injured. A few may even die. The police are powerless (or choose to be) and no one is ever held accountable. The strikers get more or less what they expected in the first place. But next year there will be less of them because some will now be unemployed. In today’s world, the price of a labour aristocracy is fewer jobs, something the unions seem slow to grasp.

All this is true. It appears to be the theatre of the absurd, but there are other ways to interpret the situation. During the past two years over one million formal sector jobs have been lost. Those who once occupied them have not disappeared. Many are probably dependent on the earnings of those still employed. South Africa is a semi-welfare state: a comprehensive range of social grants acts as poverty relief, but unemployment is not adequately addressed (a powerful argument for the idea of a basic income grant.) It explains the apparently excessive wage demands. And in any case, an inflation rate of 4−5% has an entirely different meaning at the bottom of the wage scale.

Nevertheless, the unions seem to have set themselves up for righteous criticism and there is a great deal of it around. But this ignores a pernicious development that has bedevilled the workplace in both the public and private sectors for several decades: the widening wage gap. The more obscene examples hit the headlines. Just as the petrol workers went on strike, it was announced that Sasol executive directors had received pay rises up to 21 times the inflation rate. The chief executive officer reportedly earns R55 000 per day.

Yet, for those at the lower end of the wage chain, simply being employed cannot assure relative security, while the distinction between formal and informal sector work is increasingly blurred. With a structural trend towards downsizing the permanent workforce, job creation schemes are no longer a bridge to the formal economy. The brutal truth is that the existing economy simply cannot absorb the unemployed. Globalisation is a neutral-sounding word for some very bad news for working people. It involves a long-term trend to transfer wages into profit. What is termed the financialisation of economies, including South Africa’s, is a fancy phrase for greed and the desire for short-term profit. Capital expenditure and investment in a settled workforce have been neglected in the rush for shareholder value. We hear every day in the media about the movement of the markets, but what about the erosion of the living wage? Paradoxically, much current wealth is an illusion lacking a productive basis, ironically the ultimate threat to the capitalist system.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. In the recent past, the number of productive workers, including skilled staff and professionals, has not just diminished in numbers; it has declined in status and relative income as well. At the same time there has been an explosion in the number of managers on high salaries whose understanding of the world around them, apart from Thatcherite notions about the bottom line and disciplinary action, consists of little more than bumper-sticker slogans. Ten years ago the American journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich, went underground for twelve months as low-paid worker: hotel maid, waitress and Walmart employee. What she found was startling. Workers who needed to hold down two jobs to survive were remarkably diligent, productive and proud of their work. The problem lay with managers whose actions seemed to be little more than petty-minded obstruction designed to extract deference.

Anger is not confined to the townships. It’s increasing in workplaces too, wherever they may be: factories, offices, schools and mines. It’s not just about money, but also the way employees are treated in the globalised culture of crude capitalism. Employers have forgotten that work defines us as people and contributes to self-esteem and civic responsibility. This makes the apparent irrationality of strike action appear a great deal more explicable. And it is a reminder to those with a one-eyed view of shareholder value that it can all go down the drain with social unrest.

This article was first published in The Witness on 21 July 2011 and entitled ‘Not just about money’.