A new government needs to nurture workers’ hard-won constitutional and labour rights

Solly Phetoe is the general secretary of Cosatu. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo / Independent Newspapers.

Solly Phetoe is the general secretary of Cosatu. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo / Independent Newspapers.

Published Jun 10, 2024


By Solly Phetoe

NOW that the elections are concluded and the 7th administration will soon be constituted, we need to focus on growing the economy, protecting workers, giving relief to the unemployed and modernising the state.

A stable, progressive and coherent government is key to tackling these difficult tasks.

Naturally as a trade union federation, Cosatu will not agree to any attempts to roll back workers’ hard-won constitutional and labour rights painstakingly achieved over decades of struggle.

Nor should they be abandoned, as the real obstacles to growing the economy are load shedding, congested ports, struggling railways, ageing infrastructure, endemic crime and corruption, lack of investment, fragile sectors and SMMEs in need of support.

Providing mothers with maternity leave and unemployment insurance is not what causes weak economic growth.

Labour market stability is important to ensuring a productive economy. How is this achieved?

By respecting workers’ rights and treating workers as valued partners. By partnering with trade unions to address workers’ grievances. Most importantly, by paying workers a living wage so they can afford the food the body requires to be productive, the transport needed to get to work, the essential items of life their families need to live, and the liquidity to buy the very products that businesses want to sell.

These require a paradigm shift among employers, and perhaps it would be useful if some of our political parties updated their calendars and realised we are in the 21st century, 30 years into a constitutional democracy and not some sweat shop economy in the 1800s when workers were treated like slaves and lived short, brutal lives.

South Africa is lauded for its progressive Constitution and our human rights-based laws, yet all too often employers disregard workers’ labour rights. Recently the nation was horrified by the tragic loss of 55 workers at construction sites in George, Ballito and eNgcobo, as well as fishermen at sea off the West Coast.

The government led by the ANC, in partnership with Cosatu and business, has put in place critical labour market institutions to protect the rights of workers, resolve workplace disputes and promote labour market stability that is key to growing the economy and creating jobs.

These institutions require support and many need to be overhauled to fulfil their mandates.

The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) resolves thousands of workplace disputes from overtime pay to unfair dismissals. It seeks to ensure that our labour laws are adhered to, the rights of workers respected and the relationship between the employer and employees is not broken.

Despite its invaluable role, it has seen its budgets cut. This has caused increases in waiting times which benefit neither the employee nor the employer.

With a R1 billion annual budget, it has a massive footprint across the economy. The Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement due to be tabled in Parliament in October must allocate the funds needed to modernise the CCMA, and drastically decrease waiting times for cases to be resolved.

This should also include engaging the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) on the support it can provide to ensure that the CCMA has the resources it needs.

Workers are entitled to take matters beyond the CCMA to the Labour Courts. In most cases they cannot afford advocates’ hefty legal fees, let alone the years it takes for cases to be concluded in court.

To prevent this, the CCMA should be utilised fully to resolve cases. Legal Aid, on the one hand, should be allocated the resources it needs to cover workers, and the courts should be adequately resourced and overhauled to stem the continuous delays in proceedings which only advantage employers with deep pockets.

The UIF plays a major role in providing relief for newly unemployed workers, paid maternity, parental leave and support to struggling companies. It played a heroic role during the Covid-19 pandemic, releasing R65 billion to help 5.7 million workers take care of their families.

Yet it struggles with ageing systems vulnerable to corruption. This leaves workers queueing for days waiting to apply for and receive their benefits.

We have seen about four million atypical workers including artists, musicians, the self-employed, domestic and farmworkers, waitresses and others fall through the cracks as their employers fail to register and/or pay their dues. In some instances, the nature of their employment is not captured by legislation.

While engagements are taking place at Nedlac to ensure all workers are covered by the UI Act, the fund needs to be modernised so that workers and employers can register with minimal hassles, monitor payments, and receive their monies timeously, while the fund is protected from corruption.

Similar modernisation is needed for the Compensation Fund for Occupational Injuries and Diseases where again workers struggle to submit applications, let alone receive what is due to them.

We have more than two dozen bargaining councils. These are key to the growth of their sectors, yet many are barely functional. They require concerted leadership from organised business and labour in their sectors to turn them around.

The clothing and textile industry, where business, labour and government have established strong collective bargaining institutions, have shown impressive results that have taken an industry that was on its knees in the late 1990s, shedding 100 000 jobs, to one that has stabilised and is now growing, with 20 000 jobs created in the past few years.

Similar efforts are needed to boost the industrial master plans covering more than 15 job-rich sectors.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will soon appoint a new Cabinet. It will be critical to have a strong Minister of Employment and Labour with a deep knowledge of the lived experiences of millions of workers and the needs of the economy.

The new minister will find in Cosatu a partner, and in Nedlac a strong social dialogue platform bringing together labour, business and government to resolve and forge consensus on critical issues affecting workers and the economy.

What is needed is political will and unity in action.

Cosatu will continue to play its part in protecting workers, providing relief to the unemployed, growing the economy and capacitating the state.

Solly Phetoe is the general secretary of Cosatu.