“We have to fight relentlessly against attempts to shift the blame for poverty and unemployment on our fellow African workers and make them scapegoats,” Vavi said in a speech prepared for delivery at the World Social Forum on Migration in Johannesburg.
“We must link the dangers of racism and xenophobia to the underlying social crisis and turn people’s anger against their real enemy — the capitalist system of production, distribution, and exchange.”
Vavi blamed the end of the apartheid system for the manner in which non-South African workers were being treated.
“Since 1994, there is also worrying evidence of an undercurrent of anger being misdirected to non-SA workers, and foreign-owned small businesses.
“At a time when the country has experienced massive unemployment, the country has experienced a high influx of immigrants, either legal or undocumented, causing some people to put the blame for their predicament on foreigners, particularly those from other African countries.”
He described migrant workers as being “so desperate that they are prepared to move to wherever they can reach to earn some money, which in turn made workers in the countries they moved into feel that their own jobs were under threat”.
“The immigrant workers then become scapegoats for frustrations arising from persisting socio-economic ills and the lack of an understanding of the root causes of the crisis facing people from other countries, which can then dangerously take the form of seeing ‘them’ and ‘us’.”
Vavi called for migration and socio-economic policies which would identify the problems associated with xenophobia and racist conditions that migrant workers faced, and would find ways to address them.
As part of interventions to curb migration problems, Vavi also urged the African Union to intervene.
“International migration policy in Africa therefore must be part of a broader, comprehensive development plan for the continent, to reverse the persisting problems of underdevelopment and growing inequalities and human rights violations that deepen poverty and social crisis.
“Only then will we reduce the pressure on people to migrate in the first place and cut across divisive attitudes of blaming people from elsewhere for their problems.”
He said several African countries had signed international and regional treaties and conventions on migration, but the basic underlying economic crisis should still be investigated.
He also called on African trade unions to defend “continent-wide minimum standards of workers’ rights to form and join unions, have the same labour protection under the law, and the same minimum wages and conditions, regardless of national origin”.
“The aim must be to level up rights and conditions of workers, rather than levelling them down to the lowest prevailing standards of poverty.
“In the long run, however, workers’ rights depend on sustainable socio-economic development in Africa as a whole. Otherwise we will face continued high unemployment and underemployment, and the consequent danger of racism and xenophobia.”
Vavi also paid tribute to former president Nelson Mandela, who died at the age of 95 at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, on December 5 last year.
“There could be no finer role model for this gathering to follow. He, better than anyone, showed us how to resolve difficult and complex challenges, bringing people together, building unity from division and delivering peace from conflict.”