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NATHANIEL LEE | Will Employment Equity Amendment Bill reverse workplace discrimination?

Government advised to take education, skills training seriously to correct wrongs of the past

More than 1000 DA supporters march to parliament to protest against the Employment Equity Act Draft Regulations on July 26 in Cape Town.
More than 1000 DA supporters march to parliament to protest against the Employment Equity Act Draft Regulations on July 26 in Cape Town.
Image: Brenton Geach

On Wednesday, the DA led a march through Cape Town to protest against the signing into law of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, which contains measures that purport to promote diversity and equality in the workplace.

The bill was assented to President Cyril Ramaphosa in April and inter alia seeks to pave the way for the minister of employment and labour to identify and set employment equity numerical targets for each economic sector.

According to the bill, employers with more than 50 employees must consult trade unions on the said employment targets.

It also requires that all salaries and wages be bench-marked according to job descriptions.

The DA has referred to it as “race quotas” legislation and has argued it will worsen racial tensions in the country.

DA leader John Steenhuisen asserted: “You are going to see companies that would ordinarily look at expanding, narrowing and keeping their workforce down.”

He added that the bill would cause incredible harm to the economy.

The ANC and Good Party have accused the DA of not having regard for past injustices, playing divide and rule and also seeking to drum up support ahead of the 2024 general elections.

The new bill seeks to amend the Employment Equity Act of 1998 which sought to advance the transformation of the South African workforce by setting equity targets, which it is hoped will ensure equitable representation of suitably qualified people from historically disadvantaged groups, based on race, gender and disability, at all levels of the workforce.

The added requirement of the bill is that companies seeking to do business with the state will be required to submit a certificate from the department of labour to confirm compliance with the act and its objectives.

This means labour inspectors would carry out inspections at workplaces and issue compliance orders in an effort to enforce compliance.

Twenty-five years after the passing of the initial legislation, it is pertinent to assess the efficacy of the act.

What becomes evident is there has been negligible progress towards addressing systemic inequalities.

It is therefore doubtful whether the firming up of the regulatory landscape through the amended bill would bring the desired results through social engineering.

The pitfalls of race-based policies of the apartheid era cannot be fixed by the introduction of more race-based policies, which would arguably amount to reversing discrimination.

According to labour law expert Michael Bagraim, the government must look at other ways of correcting the wrongs of the past.

His advice is for it to take education and skills training seriously if it wants to address the country’s skewed labour market.

“The only way you can do it is to improve education, in particular education of people who were previously disadvantaged.

“Now the education is completely broken, and it has led to a situation where you have got more white managers than black managers, has led to a situation where you have got more men than women. But you cannot fix something by using something that is social engineering.”

The DA Western Cape leader Tertius Simmers weighed in on the debate by stating that the bill would do the opposite of what the government claims it will, warning that 600,000 people would lose jobs through this amendment. According to official figures, the unemployment rate only affects 9.5% of the white population while almost one in two black South Africans were unemployed in the first quarter of this year.

In his book, Architects of Poverty, Moeletsi Mbeki argues that the high standards of living of the majority of whites in SA was achieved by the creation of an artificial scarcity of skilled manual labour and professionals, which is what gave rise to job reservation.

He then suggests that the country do the opposite if it is to develop – which is to create an overabundance of artisans, technicians, professionals and managers. This can only be achieved in the long term by a massive educational drive that actually produces qualified people, especially scientists and engineers.

Independent political and economic analyst and advisor Frans Cronje also notes that employers in SA are nervous of hiring workers because of the destructive behaviour of many trade unions and because of the risk and administrative burden associated with South African labour laws. It is clear that knee-jerk tampering with labour legislation can only lead to pauperisation of the black population which legislation such as the Employment Equity Amendment Bill purports to redress.

The improvement of the quality of education in SA is imperative towards the reduction of the workplace inequality gaps, the removal of racial tensions and resentments, and the normalisation of South African politics.

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