THIS is not a year on which the labour movement will look back fondly. In fact, it has been an annus horribilis for almost every sector of society. But labour has been rocked particularly hard.
Unprecedented circumstances have given rise to unprecedented job losses. Temporary lay-offs which seemed inconceivable mere months ago, have now become inevitable.
Those still fortunate to have jobs have been given a terrible choice. Stay at home and remain unemployed, or go out to work and risk becoming a covid19 casualty.
On the level of productivity, working from home has always been one possible route to improved efficiency. And to some extent, necessity has been the mother of invention, forcing public and private sector entities to finally harness technology.
But every coin has two sides.
The stresses of adapting to new regimes of working from home, of working in domestic spaces not designed for work, of having to rely on computers and equipment not fine-tuned to specific needs, of removing the divide between private and professional life have been a challenge.
It hasn’t helped that so much is uncertain.
The economy was already volatile. Now, the overall contraction of economic activity has raised questions over what were once sure bets.
More and more companies, if they remain afloat, will scramble to find ways to earn revenue online. The turn from traditional point-of-sale will not only cut jobs, it will weaken synergies in the economy.
And the requirements of physical distancing, staggered work schedules, and tighter health regulations have added layers of complication and cost.
What is the fate of workers going into 2021?
The labour movement, which will have to modify its Labour Day celebrations tomorrow, finds itself in uncharted territory.
Where once the notion of collective action seemed self-evident, labour must now reassess its function in a work landscape now at the mercy of overriding economic and public health realities.
At the same time, there is also a sense of a world transforming itself. Could this be a case of the best of times, the worst of times?
The transformation is not limited to modes of work, or positive forces like the Black Lives Matter movement. It includes interests long aligned to worker welfare: the need for global health systems, the duty of the state to provide social security nets.
Salary relief grants show this. But the problems of access that emerged when employers refused to certify applicants underlined the gap between aspiration and reality.
Things like the aborted pandemic leave have also worsened the disconnect.
Just as the covid19 pandemic hit, the oil price also fell to a record low, underlining the precarious nature of the energy industry. Notwithstanding a billion-plus profit, Heritage Petroleum continues to experience infrastructure problems that have dire consequences for the environment. Another thing labour has to worry about.
The State, like individuals, is looking for alternative sources of income. While this is going on, labour will have less to bargain with for a long time to come.