SOLLY PHETOE | SA needs to strengthen labour laws to boost compliance at work place

More than 30 people died when a five storey building under construction collapsed in George, Western Cape earlier this month. About 75 workers were on site when the building collapsed.
More than 30 people died when a five storey building under construction collapsed in George, Western Cape earlier this month. About 75 workers were on site when the building collapsed.

May has been celebrated since 1886 as Workers Month to honour the struggles and sacrifices of generations of workers to improve the working and living conditions of millions of workers in SA and across the world.

We recently celebrated 30 years of democracy, and this week we will hold our seventh democratic elections. It is natural to be sceptical of politicians in a democracy, more so after our painful experience of state capture and corruption.

Yet it is equally important where good things happen not only to acknowledge that but to encourage more. As we approach the elections, opposition politicians will say workers are worse off under the administration led by President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC.

One appreciates that opposition politicians are desperate for votes so they can land a cushy job in Parliament. So one needs to treat their claims with a degree of caution and compare them to objective facts.

Not long after Ramaphosa took office, the world was plunged into a global pandemic, Covid-19, requiring the lockdown of much of the world. Millions lost their lives and jobs. Yet on many counts, SA did well.

Why? Because the president acted decisively, he brought on board the leadership of business, labour and civil society and marshalled the state to shift its resources to confront an unprecedented pandemic. We were we able to release R65bn from the Unemployment Insurance Fund to help 5.7-million workers to take care of the economy and keep businesses afloat. 

A comprehensive health and safety plan was put in place and one of the world’s most effective vaccination campaigns rolled out, saving millions of jobs and lives. In fact, we fared far better than many wealthier nations in the West.

In 2019, the National Minimum Wage came into effect, raising the wages of 6-million workers from farm to domestic, from restaurants to hotels, from petrol stations to security companies.

In 2023, 900,000 domestic workers were brought under the Compensation of Occupational Injuries and Diseases Fund for the first time. Compensation cover were extended to ensure better cover for workers for illnesses that may only become visible after a worker has left their employer.

The Employment Equity Act was strengthened to nudge recalcitrant employers to do more to ensure their workplaces reflect SA’s diversity and that all workers, irrespective of race, gender, religion or disability, are supported to meet their full potential. 

The Act was also amended to require companies seeking to do business with the state to be in compliance with both the Employment Equity as well as the National Minimum Wage acts.

While we have made substantial efforts in strengthening workers’ labour rights in law, much more needs to be done to boost compliance at the workplace.

Over the past few days the nation has been traumatised by recent tragedies costing the lives of 55 workers in horrific incidents at construction sites in George, Ballito and eNgcobo as well as fishing boats capsizing off Hout Bay and Shelly Point.

These were painful reminders. And while we have done well to entrench workers’ labour rights in a variety of progressive laws, we have far to go to ensure that they become a living reality for workers across all sectors.

What is to be done? How far to go to ensure that they become a living reality for workers across all sectors.

Cosatu will be seeking an urgent engagement with the minister for employment and labour, Thulas Nxesi, to put in place an urgent plan of action. The key elements of the action plan need to include: 

  • Ensuring the families of the deceased are able to bury their loved ones with the dignity they deserve, including retrieving bodies still trapped,
  • Releasing the funds affected workers and their families were entitled to have their employers registered and paid their dues as legally obliged to the Compensation Fund for Occupational Injuries and Diseases,
  • Expediting investigations into these tragic incidents and holding the guilty employers fully accountable, including their arrest and prosecution,
  • Embarking on a nation-wide joint workplace health and safety blitz between the department of employment and labour and organised labour, targeting in particular high-risk sectors such as construction, fishing, chemical and other factories, mining, security, transport among others,
  • Tabling at Parliament the long-awaited Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Bill and the Mine Health and Safety Amendment Bill to tighten gaps in the existing Aacts.

These tragedies are yet another reminder that the lives of workers depend upon strengthening our labour laws and in tightening their enforcement. We dare not entertain reckless calls by opposition politicians desperate for a headline to scrap our labour laws and expose vulnerable workers to abuse and death. 

Cosatu will be engaging with government led by the ANC at Nedlac on measures to strengthen workers’ protections in law.

We should not normalise workers continuing to be subjected to such abuses, having their lives placed in danger and their families plunged into poverty. 

It is time such employers were sent to prison. Workers deserve to have their rights respected at all times.  .

  • Phetoe is Cosatu general secretary

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