protection of workers in focus

LET'S face it, nobody likes labour brokers or micro-lenders.

LET'S face it, nobody likes labour brokers or micro-lenders.

These are the two sectors of the economy that attract nothing but derision, because they trade in the one thing we all see as unfair; they charge a fee or commission for doing what more formal businesses can't do; manage the risks of operating a private company in a developing economy.

We may not like it, but that is the truth. Micro-lenders and labour brokers are a feature of our economy precisely because ours is a capitalist economy and has all the features of global capitalism; casualisation, outsourcing, temporary, casual and seasonal work.

These are all part of our economic reality.

This reality is nothing new, but our progressive labour legislation has ensured that many workers have been drawn in to the formal labour market or have progressively won rights for themselves, which have improved their conditions of work, their pay, and their benefits.

Miners were employed through agencies, domestic workers on temporary contracts, until 1994, most black public servants were temporary workers.

Today more than 500000 workers are employed through labour brokers in an industry worth almost R25billion a year.

Quite rightly, what has angered trade unions is that the excessive practices of some unscrupulous labour brokers continue, despite our progressive labour legislation.

Why is this? Frankly, it is a product of a dysfunctional state and weak unions. The fact that the Department of Labour cannot properly enforce laws and regulations is the root cause of excesses in labour-broking and other industries, such as mining, construction and domestic work.

The fact that unions cannot organise these workers is a testimony to the focus of these organisations on other issues.

But what are the issues? Firstly, there is the lack of a proper distinction between seasonal and casual work.

In any economy that has agriculture, tourism and similar industries there will be a section of the workforce that are seasonal, that is, employed for a part of the year.

Then there is casual work, where workers are hired on contract because employers do not know how long they will require the worker.

Then there are those unscrupulous employers who seek to manipulate this uncertainty. These are whom the worst of the labour brokers serve. They deliberately hire workers on short-term contracts, regardless of the duration of the work opportunity.

Those who call for the banning of labour brokers would have all these lumped together, as if all are guilty of the same crime. In reality, such a ban would only do two things; result in large-scale job losses and drive labour broking underground.

In no way would such a move result in anything positive, such as decent work.

To create decent work, we need legislation and regulation that is developmental.

In the first instance, this requires the enforcement of existing legislation.

Currently the Department of Labour does not enforce many of the laws it is supposed to, including those to do with temporary and casual work.

Secondly, we need an approach to supporting entrepreneurs that allows for those who have temporary work to become employed in full-time, permanent jobs.

The policies that Cope and the DA have proposed seek to ensure better regulation, the enforcement of the rights of workers and the ending of exploitative practices by labour brokers.

But what we will not do is lie to workers and suggest to them that if they are banned from casual or temporary work, they will get decent work.

Decent work is the outcome of an industrial strategy that takes years to bear fruit.

But to pretend to workers that this can be resolved through legislating against temporary, casual and seasonal work is tantamount to telling workers that capitalism can be defeated by banning it. Such claims are opportunistic.

The Cope and DA policy intervention provides for regulating this sector and laying the basis for formalising it. The proposed ban only provides for wishing capitalism away. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride and capitalism would be a thing of the past.

Clearly, this is not the case. Workers should pay heed that politicians who offer quick fixes usually last as long as their solutions.

We make history, not on conditions of our own choosing, to paraphrase Marx. Let us change the economy, but not by putting our faith in wishes and dreams.

Dexter MP is Cope's national spokesperson