South Africa's economic structure still reflects colonialism and apartheid, Congress of SA Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said on Friday.
"The main reason why we have failed to create employment, and on the contrary have been losing jobs, is that we have remained trapped in an economic structure which we inherited from the days of colonialism and apartheid," he told an informal economy conference in Cape Town.
"Like so many other former colonies, we have been over-dependent on the export of raw materials - in South Africa's case it's gold, platinum, coal, and diamonds."
This was why Cosatu had been campaigning so strongly for a new developmental growth path to take the country out of the economy inherited from colonialism and apartheid and build one based on manufacturing and a skilled, well-paid labour force.
"That is the only way we can hope to achieve the government's ambitious target of creating five million new jobs by 2020, a target which we have to reach if we are to tackle all the problems which are rooted in our levels of unemployment," Vavi said.
In South Africa and elsewhere, one of the biggest culprits in the impoverishment of workers was labour brokers who drove "informalisation".
"Labour broking amounts to the trading of human beings as commodities. Cosatu is determined to fight for the banning of this modern form of slavery.
"So long as labour brokers are allowed to operate freely, the establishment of decent work will remain a pipe-dream," he said.
The existence of the growing army of unorganised workers inevitably affected the power and conditions of unions in the formal sector.
It enabled employers to reject wage demands by threatening to sack the workers, outsource their operations, and hire other workers from labour brokers.
"This concerns Cosatu, both from the point of view of promoting human rights and social justice in general, and from the point of view of protecting the strength of the trade union movement."
Getting informal sector workers organised was the necessary first step in improving wages and working conditions. It was a task Cosatu could not shirk, but one in which it needed to work closely with civil society organisations in the informal sector.
Vavi said there was no simple answer to the problems of workers in the informal sector, but the creation of thousands of decent jobs should be central to any strategy to get rid of poverty.
To the individual worker secure and well-paid employment not only brought an income, but also self-respect, self-confidence, and personal dignity.
To society, lower unemployment brought more people into the market economy as they spent their wages on goods and services, which in turn created more new jobs to meet the growing demand.
There was hope for the workers mired in the informal economy, but they would not be handed security and wealth on a silver platter.
"No real, lasting improvements in the lives of the poor will be won without a struggle.
"We had to fight for our political emancipation in 1994; 17 years later we must revive those same traditions of selfless struggle [for] our economic emancipation, justice, and peace," Vavi said.