Joseph Maqhekeni. Picture: SOWETAN
National Council of Trade Unions president Joseph Maqhekeni's says developments mark a massive shift in the government’s approach. Picture: SOWETAN

FACED with a possible fall into oblivion and a deepening rift in the tripartite alliance, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said on Tuesday labour’s exclusion from current discussions on the economy was futile.

With economic growth plunging, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and President Jacob Zuma have held a series of meetings with big business to discuss ways to avoid the threat of a credit rating downgrade to junk status.

Business has outlined its concerns and suggested measures to turn around a bleak situation. Proposals that are likely to affect labour include calls for privatisation, tax increases and slowing the growth of the public sector wage bill.

Unions fear that such meetings with big business could erode the gains they have made in protecting their members in the workplace.

The government has not met with labour despite Mr Zuma’s assurances last week that he would do so.

The Presidency could not be reached for comment on Tuesday but it is understood that a meeting between the two could take place this evening.

On Tuesday Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said the labour federation was upset at being overlooked in the crucial discussions. He said excluding labour was an unsustainable approach to solving the economic problems. Labour played a critical role in ensuring a "stable environment" in the workplace.

"We think that the government is making a mistake … this is becoming a trend," Mr Dlamini said.

The government would not be "doing labour a favour" by including it, as it played a critical role, he said.

National Council of Trade Unions president Joseph Maqhekeni was also concerned about labour’s exclusion, saying it marked a massive shift in the government’s approach.

"Our assessment is that government is getting closer to business and further from labour," he said.

Mr Maqhekeni said this was a dramatic change, even from the approach of former president Thabo Mbeki.

However, Federation of Trade Unions of SA general secretary Dennis George said he was not fazed by being excluded from the talks.

Mr George said the government was forced to step back and listen to business after Mr Zuma’s disastrous axing of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene for little known MP Des van Rooyen.

After representations by business leaders, Mr Zuma backtracked and appointed Mr Gordhan to the portfolio he occupied before Mr Nene.

The current working groups were a continuation of that process, Mr George said.