“Workers’ rights should be a central focus of development”-Joseph Stiglitz
By: Nyasha Mcbride Mpani
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on various facets of people’s lives. The South African government was caught in between a rock and a hard place in a bid to try and curb the spread of the virus. While decisive action was indeed necessary in order to save lives this action came at a cost on workers’ rights. At the peak of the spread of the virus, stopping and containing the blowout of COVID-19 in South Africa was a more of a l priority for the government than worker’s rights. While such policies proved effective in limiting and containing the spread of the virus, a number of workers’ rights were supressed by the implementation of the state of disaster by the government. The pandemic saw workers being placed in a vulnerable and precarious position as it exposed them to deep-seated inequalities. Furthermore, the pandemic exposed lack of adequate safeguards to protect the rights of workers – occupational health and safety, access to benefits, and workers’ voice. With the pandemic rescinding, there is urgent need for the protection and promotion of the rights of workers to be made a top priority again. The legislature as a strategically positioned arm of government has a critical role to play in fostering the rights of workers in South Africa and ensure that post-Covid19 workers’ rights are protected.
The pandemic brought the challenges faced by workers under the magnifying glass and made the (the what) so clear for the world to see. According to PRI Association (2020) the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns interrupted the lives of workers across sectors and geographies and had a heavy impact on their rights to organise as well as affected their union density as many faced retrenchments. These disruptions according to PRI Association (2020) “emphasised the vulnerability and precarious employment status of some workers and have exposed a widespread lack of adequate safeguards necessary to protect workers and enforce rights in times of crisis”. It should be noted that with the presence of the pandemic a number of workers lost their jobs and further went on to bring to the fore the perplexing circumstances in which many workers live. Post-covid19 workers are faced with challenges such as issues to do with compulsory vaccination, employers not adhering to health and safety protocols. The pandemic has showed that workers’ salaries are not enough to stand the current economic conditions as they are just surviving from pay check to pay check, with no capacity to set aside savings and making them dependent on the state aid for subsistence.
Challenges faced by workers
Workers in South Africa faced a myriad of challenges prior the advent of the Covid19 outbreak. Some of the challenges that the workers have been facing date back into the apartheid era and little has been done by the government to address these challenges. Some of these challenges include poor working and living conditions, low wages, greater safety provisions for workers in the mines, entitlement to overtime, dangerous conditions in work places and rising inequality. These challenges have been prevalent prior to the pandemic, however the virus managed to place these challenges under a magnifying glass and it exacerbated its impact on the workers.
Poor working and living conditions- a number of workers in South Africa have been complaining about poor working and living conditions in particular those working in the mines and in farms. The Marikana massacre in 2012 is a case example that saw mine workers protesting against poor working and living conditions. Even after the protests the working and living conditions have not entirely improved. The workers are still faced with lack of services and still have their water and air polluted as a result of the activities of the mine. According to (Makgetla/Levin, 2016) “water is polluted by run-off from slime dams and inadequate sewage, fumes from ventilation shafts, dust and sulphur dioxide emissions deteriorate air quality”. A community activist in Marikana had this to say about the working and living conditions in Marikana;
“The settlements just keep growing. There is no longer any land near water points and new areas cannot reach electricity supplies. Pit latrines are inadequate and poorly constructed. Raw sewage is a problem especially when it rains. There is supposed to be a programme to collect rubbish but it is inadequate and pigs and dogs live off the piles of waste. People are building right next to power lines and by vents from the shafts, exposing themselves to environmental hazards.”
Consequently, workers in farms such as grape farms as well as in mines are still battling with poor working conditions with their rights being infringed (Levine,2021). Workers are still working long hours to meet targets. Migrant workers in these farms do not have the freedom to challenge these violations to their rights as some do not have necessary documentation to stay or work legally in the country. The only option they have is to continue to work until the job is finished. The oppression is far worse for them with very low wages. The pandemic has exposed the super exploitation and deepened poverty on farms and in mines.
Low wages- The issue of low wages is still a bone of contention between employers and employees. With the rising fuel prices that has been caused by the Russian-Ukrainian war, the cost of living has skyrocketed in South Africa. The price of basic commodities has increased and subsequently the standard of living. Workers are bearing the brunt of this rise in prices as their wages have not been increased. Employers have found a perfect excuse to not increase their workers’ wages citing the negative impact the Covid19 hard lockdown had on their business. This however ignores that the companies had not been paying their workers well prior Covid19. The protest in Marikana in 2012 and its sporadic effect into the orange farms etc. was as a result of low wages. Whilst the wages were improved after the strike, currently the workers are still demanding a wage increase as the current wage is no longer viable in the current economy.
Compulsory Vaccination-As measure to open up the economy are still being implemented, the rights for workers to choose between being vaccinated or not is not being respected by other companies who have already placed and compulsory vaccination rule at their workplaces. This compulsory vaccination entails that anyone who still wants to keep his/her job should be vaccinated. The rule infringes on the right of choice for a worker. While the policy makes it clear that employers should recognise objections to vaccination on medical and constitutional grounds. This has not been the case as some employers have taken the power to decide from workers and have forced them to follow the company directive to get vaccinated.
Employers not Adhering to Health and Safety Protocols- According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), that is sections 8 and 9 “an employer has a legal duty to provide and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of its employees and others who are directly affected by its activities”. This section makes it a prerogative of the employer to protect the worker from any harmful hazards at work. The safety and health of the worker if of paramount importance and the employer should ensure that sensibly feasible measures to control exposure in the workplace are put in place. With the coming in of the Covid19 pandemic a number of workers have been exposed to the virus at the workplace with their employers failing to adhere to the OHSA dictates. In some instances, the employer does not procure enough PPEs for the staff and in a case where there is a confirmed Covid19 case the offices or premises are not closed for sanitisation. Some of the cases where non-compliance was witnessed include Albany Bakery in Secunda and Pax Agricultural Primary Co-operation Limited in Mpumalanga where the employer was found not complying with occupational health and safety (OHS) Act standards. These cases indicate how workers right are being infringed upon at the expense of business. While the law is there to protect the workers, the exploitative nature and abuse of the power by employers has seen a number of workers being forced workers to work under unsafe conditions. This has sent a number of workers to their early grave.
Untrustworthy Workers Union- There is enough evidence that some workers have lost confidence in workers’ union because of their leaders who have become aligned to employers who are exploiting them. Rogue workers’ union have abused workers for some time, a case example being the AMCU which was caught in bed with Lonmin executive during the Marikana massacre. Their untrustworthy behaviour exacerbated workers mistrust of workers’ union as they saw them as an appendage of the employer. While some workers’ union have proved to be standing for the workers’ rights, the rising unemployment levels in the country which has been worsened by the virus has seen the union density declining. Further impacting on the union’s influence and impact.
Contract workers-Another route that workers are being exploited in South Africa is through the option of employing contract workers. To the employer it is very financially sound to employ contract workers as they can be excluded from the collective bargaining agreements because they are regarded as skeleton staff. Furthermore, contract workers are used as a result of their special skills but solely as a cheap labour as appointing these contract workers can be a means to save money. It is also “wise” to use that as it is easy to shift work risks onto contractors and contract workers. A lot of this happens in mines and farms where a number of contract workers are appointed to do the work at cheap labour fees.
How can parliamentarians influence the protection of workers’ rights post the SA pandemic?
Parliament is the legislative arm of government and it is seized with enacting, revising and abolishing laws. As a constitutionally enacted body it is strategically positioned to protect workers from abuse from employers. The challenges that have been discussed above that workers have been facing can be addressed with the aid of parliament. Parliament has three roles which are oversight, legislature and representation. Given these roles, parliament can foster the protection of workers in a plethora of ways;
Parliament’s Oversight Function
The oversight function of parliament best places this constitutional body in the right position to address the issue of workers’ rights in South Africa. Through their executive oversight function, parliamentarians can meticulously examine and follow-up the work of various ministries, government departments, companies and organisation and call them to account for infringing workers’ rights. Portfolio committees such as that of labour have a key role to make sure all employers be it private and public are not infringing on the rights of citizens and that labour laws and the labour act is being implemented in companies. The rights of disabled, migrant workers, farm workers, domestic workers are being respected. Furthermore, parliamentarians through their oversight can seek to safeguard inclusivity of the marginalized workers’ groups such as migrants, people with disabilities, etc. Strong executive oversight by parliamentarians will encourage efficient and effective promotion of workers’ rights.
Parliament’s Legislative Function
Through its legislative function, parliamentarians have a key role of thoroughly scrutinizing existing labour laws timeously and ensure that the laws are good laws and that they are fair and they are workers centric. Furthermore, parliamentarians can protect workers’ rights through ensuring that aside introducing legislation that protect workers from abuse, they can amend, approve or reject government draft laws which may have a negative impact on the rights of workers. It should be noted that because of this role, MPs and in their parliamentary groups do have access to and ask questions of those that live and work within the subject matter i.e. workers’ rights on the suggested labour law and act and get an opportunity to hear opinions of workers and that of expertise on the topic. This is important as it informs and prepares parliamentarians before they vote and debate on the proposed amendments or deciding on whether or not to give a nod to the adoption of the law. Furthermore, this role affords parliamentarians to see the gaps in labour policies be and be given expert advice on how they can be mitigated in line with existing laws and International Labour Organisation standards.
Parliament’s Representative Function
Parliamentarians are required by law to play the representation role. They are tasked by the constitution to represent all people in their communities despite gender, colour, creed, economic, political or social status. While workers are represented by workers’ union, parliamentarians also do represent this constituency as it makes up the labour force of the country. In addition, workers reside in a parliamentarian’s electoral district and they do deserve parliamentary representation. Through its representative role, parliamentarians can protect workers’ rights by making sure they advocate for workers concerns in Parliament. They can forge the representation through conducting consultations with workers’ unions and workers which can be done through formal public hearings or less formal opportunities to ask feedback, concerns including online submissions, field visits and town hall meetings. Through this role, parliamentarians can be able to ascertain what needs to shift in the country’s our labour policies to protect the rights of workers. As peoples’ representative’s parliamentarians are mandated to keep their fingers on the pulse and be able to quickly attend to workers concern and ensure that they rights are not being violated by greedy employers.
Given the role and function of parliament and parliamentarians, it is important to note that Parliamentarians have an obligation to ensure that workers’ rights are protected post-covid19. The rights of the workers have to be protected at all cost in order to ensure that they are protected while their still working and when they retire. It is a prerogative of parliamentarians to ensure that they:
Lobby for adequate housing options to workers– Workers deserve proper housing options that are affordable and habitable. Parliamentarians as policy makers should lobby that housing schemes that cater for all workers are put in place so that workers can also have access to adequate housing schemes. In addition, Parliamentarians can also lobby companies in particular mines and farms to subsidize rental accommodation for their workers at their workplace.
Lobby for basic social services and infrastructure needs, –The pandemic brought to light the deplorable situation that some workers in mines and farms are exposed to. As the response to the virus demanded proper sanitation, workers in these communities did not have these services as they are staying in deplorable communities e.g. Marikana. Parliamentarians have a key role to play in ensuring that mine owners own up and provide basic social services to their workers so that basic sanitation infrastructure is there in their communities.
Advocate for wage Increase- The cost of living in South Africa is exponentially increasing. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has further worsened the situation and caused a hike in fuel prices. The impact or effect of this is taking a huge toll on workers who have not received a pay increase from their employers. It is thus important that Parliamentarians advocate for a wage increase across sectors and ensure that workers are being paid enough to meet their needs and to match the living costs of workers due to the high inflation rate in South Africa.
Regulate the use of contract workers- A number of companies are abusing the use of contract workers so as to abuse them. Parliamentarians should move in quick and promulgate a law that tightens and significantly reduces companies use of contract workers. Parliament should task the department of labour to ensure that workers’ contracts, especially those of contract workers, migrant workers, must afford more security during unexpected circumstances.
Call for the abolish unpaid internship– most organisations are now making use of it as a source of cheap labour. Interns should be viewed as workers and should be paid a living wage with their needs included or taken care of. Policy makers need to ensure that they promulgate a law that protects interns from being abused.
Advocate for the enforcement of social and labour laws and ensure transparency: South Africa has laws that do protect workers from abuse. The challenge that the country faces is the enforcement of these laws by responsible bodies. Parliamentarians using their oversight role have the mandate to ensure that they monitor employers. There is need for parliamentarians to monitor that the employers are complying with the social and labour laws that govern the employer-employee relations.
Advocate the end of abuse of workers: Parliamentarians should ensure that they advocate for an end to abuse of workers in organisations and companies. Stories of workers abuse that are reported in farms and mines as well as in domestic places such as for maids and gardeners should not be tolerated. Parliament must continue to advocate for an end to abuse of workers and advocate for their protection and for their rights and concerns to be respected.
The pandemic has brought to the fore the challenges that have been facing workers over the years. It can be noted that workers are facing a number of challenges such as low wages, poor working and living conditions, untrustworthy unions among many other challenges. Parliament as a constitutional body is strategically positioned to address these challenges through its three major functions which are legislature, oversight and representation. Through these three roles parliamentarians can adopt various ways to address these challenges and ensure that workers’ rights are respected. With the Russian-Ukrainian conflict it is now more and more clear that workers are in a difficult position. It is parliament’s obligation to ensure that it focuses on advocating for adequate housing options to workers, basic social services and infrastructure, wage Increase, regulate the use of contract workers, call for the abolish unpaid internship and advocate for the enforcement of social and labour laws to ensure transparency. While laws are in place to protect the workers from having their rights violated, it is important that parliament becomes a lever that advances the rights of workers so that workers’ rights are not only protected but promoted.