Johannesburg - Big business is the greatest obstacle to the growth of small business in South Africa, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Thursday.
"We live in the most unequal country in the world... Our economy still suffers from concentration of the means of production and power in the hands of white capitalists," he said in a speech prepared for delivery.
"The main reason why we have failed to create employment is that we remain trapped in an economic structure which we inherited from the days of colonialism and apartheid."
Vavi was speaking at the launch of the SA Informal Traders' Alliance in Kimberley.
He said the informal sector was an integral part of the working class and the economy, and it had to unite against big business "experts" who tried to divide workers in the formal and informal sectors.
"They claim that employed workers are an 'elite' who are the biggest threat to small businesses," he said.
"On the contrary, there is far more that unites us than divides us, and we need each other if we are to solve our many problems."
Vavi said the informal sector had grown around the world as a result of the rise of unemployment and the "rapid casualisation" of workers.
"It has left more and more workers at the mercy of ruthless employers who will drive down wages, hire and fire workers at will, and flout laws to protect workers’ health and safety," he said.
"Faced with the grim choice of that kind of employment, or none at all, millions of workers have opted to take their chance in the informal economy."
Vavi said a significant number of informal workers were immigrants, who had come to South Africa in search of work.
"Many employers, particularly in construction, catering, and farming, exploit this chance to employ vulnerable, sometimes illegal, immigrant workers and reduce their labour costs still further, as well as flouting labour standards."
He said this could result in xenophobic attacks.
"We have to fight relentlessly against such attempts to shift the blame for poverty and unemployment on our fellow African workers and make them scapegoats."
Vavi said getting informal sector workers organised was the first step to improving wages and conditions.
"We can, and must, transform the lives of workers in the informal economy, but you will not be handed security and wealth on a silver platter," he said.
"No real, lasting improvements in the lives of the poor will be won without a struggle, for we know power concedes nothing without a struggle."