Let us not forget our Labour Department amid the Covid-19 pandemic

15 July by Michael Bagraim

As we have spent the past 100 days under lockdown and have been through the trauma of trying to get payments from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) for emergency funding, and as we move into the period of enormous retrenchments and UIF claims for retrenched employees, we tend to forget our Labour Department.

We also tend to forget that under the umbrella of the department there are the following: UIF, Compensation Fund, Productivity SA, Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, National Economic Development and Labour Council, and the administration of the National Minimum Wage.

There is also Public Employment Services which assists companies and workers to adjust to the changing labour market conditions, and the labour policy and industrial relations branch.

Importantly, and under-resourced, is the inspection and enforcement services which have to examine how national labour standards are applied in the workplace, through inspection and enforcement of labour legislation.

They try to educate and advise employers and employees on the labour market policies. A lot of our concentration has been focused on the administration of the ministry, and the breakdown of this administration in various departments.

In particular, it is clear the administration of the UIF is non-existent and many will say the same for the Workmen’s Compensation Fund. It is extremely unhelpful to have laws and regulations if they can’t be administered and overseen.

It is appropriate to say that in South Africa today there are many businesses that routinely break our labour legislation, with no consequence.

Likewise, we have an unbelievable lack of resources within the department to enforce these laws. The inspectorate is thin and many of the trade unions don’t have the personnel and know-how to assist.

What has become clear is that with the fragmentation of the trade union movement, and with the shrinking of our workforce, the trade unions are becoming less powerful and don’t have the influence they had a decade ago.

We will have to have a restructure of the business community, and organisations such as Productivity South Africa will become more important.

Organised labour and organised business should get together as soon as possible to improve the productive capacity of the economy and contribute to the entire workforce. In line with this, we have nine pieces of labour legislation that have become incredibly important over the years, more so during the pandemic.

For example, the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act will become our focus over the next few months. Likewise, we hope the National Economic Development and Labour Council will become more active and, indeed, proactive in the restructuring of the economic environment.

Nedlac could become more relevant in starting to debate the upliftment of small business and job creation.

Recently, the Department of Employment and Labour was restructured by the Presidency to put more emphasis on job creation. To date we have seen little result, which suggests we have had negative growth in all areas of job creation.

We could easily blame the water crisis, the electrical crisis and the introduction of the national minimum wage for the quarterly shrinkage which has been reported every quarter for the past five years.

It doesn’t help to blame, but we do need to understand why there has been this shrinkage, and once we understand, we need to look at solutions.

I have written in previous columns that the harsh regulatory authority has been one of the real reasons for the lack of growth. I speak to small business owners daily and I often engage them in conversations about the growth of their businesses.

Universally these business people lament the interference in their businesses and they tell me horror stories of spending fortunes on trying to defend themselves against spurious claims in the CCMA, Bargaining Councils and Labour Courts.

It has become increasingly difficult to manage staff and to terminate employment. These difficulties have made each employer reluctant to expand their business and to take on more staff.

The pandemic has focused every business on ways to save on overheads. Most businesses are telling me their biggest overhead is salary, and they are all investigating the reduction of same. Even capital expenditure on computerisation and mechanisation is palatable in the face of the difficulties created by our labour law.

Bearing in mind the mass retrenchments and the major upheaval to the business community, the department still has to regulate the labour market through policies and programmes leading to sound labour relations and the enhancing of occupational health and safety awareness and compliance in the workplace.

Unfortunately there is still a strong feeling that the department has failed in its mandate to provide adequate social safety nets to protect vulnerable workers.

The Department of Labour has said it wants to formulate legislation and policies to attain labour market flexibility for competitiveness of enterprises which is balanced with the promotion of decent employment. Although I haven’t seen any evidence of this, I hope there will shortly be some thoughts about this issue.

It is all very well to have the various functions of the Department of Employment and Labour in place, but we do need to ensure that when an employee is wronged, he or she will have access to a cheap, fair and efficient adjudication body and process.

The CCMA has done us proud over the past 25 years in making sure rights are enforced.

However, that system of efficiency at the CCMA is clearly being threatened. With the advent of anything up to 7 million retrenchments during the pandemic, the CCMA could break if it is not given sufficient support, funding and leeway. It does not help anyone to have rights if these rights can’t be enforced.

I put out a plea to the Department of Employment and Labour to strongly support this well-structured CCMA. One does not want to take a world-class institution and destroy it by overburdening it.

* Michael Bagraim is the DA’s deputy spokesperson for Employment and Labour, and a labour lawyer.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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Source: IOL at https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/opinion/let-us-not-forget-our-labour-department-amid-the-covid-19-pandemic-50616592