Mashaba – a voice worth hearing

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Avoid clichés like the plague, I've told would-be journalists over the years. Our media are riddled with them – clichés, not plagues, although some of us no doubt find the media to be a plague. (Hi Schabir!)

So when I see things like, "rags-to-riches", "self made man", "iconic brand", "triumphing against all odds", "crippling adversity", my eyes kind of glaze over.

Except it's occasionally true.

Herman Mashaba is founder of iconic brand "Black Like Me". Born to a domestic worker mother, he survived crippling adversity triumphing against all odds in a true rags-to-riches story.

Enough of that. I'm not going to plague you with more clichés because today is not about the biography of a remarkable South African.

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Mashaba happens to be Chairman of the Free Market Foundation – an organisation I have been a supporter of for several years now.

The FMF early this year decided to launch a constitutional challenge to S32 of the Labour Relations Act. The FMF cited 50 respondents, including the Minister of Labour, the Minster of Justice and Constitutional Development, and the 48 Bargaining Councils giving them six months to respond.

By the original deadline of 31 July 2013, the Minister of Labour, 27 Bargaining Councils and the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development had responded. Others asked for an extension (including Cosatu which is not a respondent but declared an interest in the proceedings). The FMF agreed to an extension to 30 September.

On 30 September, Cosatu asked for a further extension to 31 October. The Free Market Foundation turned down the request and has since proceeded to apply for a court date,

What is this all about?

Under the Labour Relations Act, we have these creatures called "bargaining councils". Their function is to conclude and enforce collective agreements regulating wages and working conditions for its designated sector and area.

Bargaining councils are supposed to prevent and resolve labour disputes; promote and establish training schemes; establish and administer pension, provident, and medical aid schemes. One would think these are good things.

In practice, bargaining councils make determinations for the sector or area on wage scales, working hours, training, health and safety, overtime, grievance mechanisms, and rights to participate in workplace or company affairs. This is true whether or not those on the bargaining council represent the majority of workers in that field.

For example, let's say you are in a small KZN town like Winterton and you decide to set up a factory producing overalls for mineworkers. There are only 300 workers in the factory and you receive an order for several thousand overalls with a deadline of a month.

The only way you can make the deadline and keep the order is if you work through the night and weekends without paying overtime.

Your workers are willing to do so, but the law does not allow you to do so. The end result is that you lose the contract, you are forced to shut down, and your workers are out of jobs.

That's a simplified example, but it sums it up. The end result is that as people get to be too expensive to employ, business moves increasingly into automation.

The FMF has touted the specific example of Newcastle where there are almost 17 000 workers in the clothing sector. Agreements reached by the bargaining councils in urban areas are being extended to these Newcastle workers who, unlike their city counterparts, are willing to work for less money and are willing to link their pay to productivity.

The court challenge comes at an interesting point in our history. The International Monetary Fund as well as Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus have in the past fortnight urged government to relax labour laws to allow for job creation and economic growth. It's a call that has been made several times in the past but the ANC government has kowtowed to its labour allies.

Today, however, union membership is plummeting because employment is plummeting. And the court action allows the ANC to sit back and "let the courts decide".

Is that the case? Well, the Minister of Labour and 27 Bargaining Councils have filed notices of opposition to the Free Market Foundation. Crucially though, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development advised that he would not oppose the application.

Mashaba's view: “I do not want to look back one day and say I saw what was happening and did nothing. We must give a voice to those who do not have one: the 7 million unemployed South Africans who languish on our streets and in our townships, especially the millions of young people whose youth, energy, human spirit and potential is being squandered by our labour laws.

"Winning this case will not end the crisis, but it will remove a key obstacle which prevents many small and medium businesses from hiring people, especially unskilled youth who need that first critical foot on the employment ladder.”

• Mashaba's biography, "Black Like Me", is worth a read.