SAMANTHA ENSLIN-PAYNE: Labour rights in SA are something to celebrate, not denigrate

07 April 2019 - 00:09

It is 24 years since the Labour Relations Act became law. As one of the first major pieces of legislation of the democratic era, it was regarded as an important step in eradicating the ills of the past. Subsequent labour legislation built on this. Yet we still hear that SA's labour laws are hindering job creation. It came up again this week when Moody's said in a credit opinion on SA that "a number of structural challenges hamper growth, such as the limited flexibility in the labour market as well as skills shortages that result in an increasingly high unemployment rate".

The annual Global Competitiveness Report is often cited as further proof that labour laws are hindering the country's growth. The 2018 survey ranks SA 111th out of 140 countries when it comes to hiring and firing practice, 136th on co-operation in labour-employee relations, and gives it similarly low scores on flexibility of wage determination and labour policies. But when it comes to workers' rights, we are ranked 25th. That is something for SA to be proud of. And when we discuss weakening those rights, we are forgetting where this country comes from. The labour laws promulgated after 1994 offer important protection to workers, some of whom are still vulnerable because they work in dispersed locations. It is difficult for domestic and farm workers to collectively bargain for better working conditions and pay. Workers shouldn't have to rely on employers' goodwill. And for those in factories or mines, the labour laws provide a framework for companies and workers to engage.
Business still raises the issue of inflexible labour laws (granted, not quite as often as it used to as there are more pressing issues, such as Eskom, occupying its mind), yet there were scant objections by companies when they were required by law to provide separate facilities and services for employees and customers during apartheid.
Policy uncertainty is another constant issue business raises as an obstacle to investment - labour laws provide one area in which there is policy certainty. It doesn't automatically follow that if we have more flexible labour laws, more people will be employed. And if it is so difficult to reduce a workforce, how are so many companies now able to shed jobs?
Moody's issues, anyway, relate primarily to high government debt and the contingent liabilities risk from state-owned enterprises that "limit the capacity of the government to absorb shocks and use fiscal stimulus".
The Global Competitiveness Report highlights health and security, which it says are "'among the worst in the world". Another stumbling block to competitiveness is low ICT adoption, with only 54% of adults having access to the internet, while "the digital and critical-thinking skills" of the workforce are "inadequate for a successful economy in the fourth industrial revolution".
Addressing most of these issues hinges on government action.
But then, how does a lengthy strike, such as that at Sibanye (now in its fifth month), benefit anyone?
Does such a long strike make a union (and therefore its members) stronger? Not if a company has to shut operations. Compromise is needed. But when we have that conversation, the implication is that labour should compromise. And yes, it should - in some circumstances. But what compromises should companies make? If we expect unions to be cognisant of the constraints companies face, should companies not be cognisant of the broader impact of job cuts, and take some pain?There has been talk of the need for a social compact in SA. If we ever got to that point - where we could have that conversation without shouting at each other - a compact should be focused on the values by which we want to define ourselves in our own eyes and the eyes of the world, and surely workers' rights would be one of those values?• Enslin-Payne is acting editor of Business Times...

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