Give back to the jobless the right to choose

Winnie Serobe, a leading member of Soweto’s Ikageng Women’s Group, is an imposing woman; both physically and in her moral courage. During Apartheid she courageously resisted the inhuman laws that subjugated her people and with her women’s group she defended the rights of countless helpless families. Now, 10 years into democracy this pensioner has another battle to wage, this time on behalf of South Africa’s unemployed. The indefatigable community leader has a burning question: “Surely the labour laws that were written with the interests of workers at heart were not intended to prevent the poor from getting jobs? But they do, and what can be done about it?”

Earlier this year a young woman approached Winnie Serobe and asked for work. The woman’s mother was severely ill and she had a young child to support. She had also lost both her aunts, reportedly to HIV/AIDS. Like so many other households in South Africa, this young woman’s home had no food and was gripped in the unyielding vice of poverty. Mrs Serobe’s children have left home and she so eagerly wants to employ someone to help her around the house. Yet as a pensioner she only receives R740 per month and cannot afford to give more than R300 a month to a home help. Here is the crux of South Africa’s unemployment problem; labour laws are shutting the jobless out of work and causing unimaginable social and economic harm.

At a meeting organised by the Diepkloof Interdenominational Churches Committee in Soweto last week, Mrs Serobe explained that although the young woman was prepared to work for R300 a month, she couldn’t employ the woman for fear of falling foul of the rigid employment laws. “I’m going to be punished if I can’t pay the minimum wage” complained Mrs Serobe. The state’s desire to protect this young woman from exploitation now meant that she will be deprived of food. “Where is the exploitation?” an emotional Serobe asked the gathering, most of whom seemed to identify with her tragic dilemma.

Winnie Serobe is not the only Sowetan to complain about the laws. Sol Tshesane owns and runs a small store in Soweto and not only has to contend with competition from large stores and many ‘spaza’ shops, but with labour regulations too. “I’m told that I have to pay one and half times wages for overtime – but I can’t afford this.” Tshesane also explained how, in his 50 square metre shop, he is expected to provide his staff with a separate changing area and with lockers. “Who decides this? Who decides what a living wage is?” he asks. According to Tshesane, the laws stop him from expanding his business and employing more people. Every day five people come to his shop looking for work, and tragically, he has to turn them away. “It’s so hurtful” says Mr Tshesane.

In South Africa there are approximately 5 million people actively looking for jobs. In addition there are an estimated 3 million who are out of work but have given up the unequal struggle of looking for work. 8 million people, equivalent to the combined population of Johannesburg and Cape Town, are without jobs and increasingly without hope.

One way of giving hope to the millions of unemployed is to give them back their power to decide for themselves how and when they want to work. The Free Market Foundation has proposed that people unemployed for more than 6 months should be entitled to a 2 year special exemption certificate – or SPEX. The SPEX would belong to the individual and would exempt any employer from complying with the dozens of restrictive labour laws in respect of that person. Essentially the SPEX allows a jobless individual to break free of the minimum wage laws, collective bargaining and myriad other rules and regulations that stop businesses from employing people. For a limited period the individual would get work on his or her terms, not those decided by powerful unions and officials in Pretoria.

The Churches Committee invited Iphaphras Motimele and several colleagues from the Department of Labour to their meeting so that they could understand labour law better. In addition, Winnie Serobe was keen to find out how the government might react to the SPEX. The thrust of Mr Motimele’s argument was that the Department of Labour was actively involved in protecting workers from abusive employers and he cited one or two horrific incidents of work related injuries. The SPEX however wouldn’t change safety laws and wouldn’t allow the abuse of workers.

Motimele also stressed the 80 000 learnerships that the Department was co-ordinating; training people in the hope that someone somewhere would give them work. Yet 80 000 learnerships is inadequate in the face of 8 million unemployed. But it’s important to remember that learnerships are paid for by taxes, taken out of the productive private sector that provides work and generates profit. Leaving businesses with that money so that they can expand and employ more people would seem more sensible than creating work for a few Department of Labour officials.

In any event as Jomo Malaka, a young unemployed Sowetan explained to the audience, learnerships are not going to create employment. Malaka has a matric certificate and a college diploma. He doesn’t need more training; he is frequently told that he is over-qualified. What he needs, and needs desperately, is work.

For the small businesses and more importantly, for the countless numbers of unemployed people in Soweto, the message of the meeting was clear. The government had forgotten them. The employment laws agreed to by big business, the government and the unions has shut South Africa’s most vulnerable people out of work. For Winnie Serobe who sees the pain and anguish of unemployment every day, the answer is clear; the unemployed need the power to decide for themselves how and when to work. The SPEX certificate would give them that power and offers a workable solution for government to address the most pressing problem facing South Africa.

Author: Richard Tren is a director of health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article\4 October 2004 - Policy Bulletin / 15 December 2009
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