Workers’ rights are human rights

Solly Phetoe is Cosatu’s general secretary. File image.

Solly Phetoe is Cosatu’s general secretary. File image.

Published Mar 25, 2024


By Solly Phetoe

This should be an obvious concept for all, yet on a daily basis we witness, as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), workers denied their most basic human and labour rights by employers.

If we are to advance as a society, then we need to ensure all South Africans, including workers, and in particular our most vulnerable, enjoy their full constitutional rights.

Cosatu was formed not only to improve the working conditions of workers, but also the lives of the working class.

We were created by workers not only to defeat apartheid and to replace it with a non-racial, non-sexist constitutional democracy, but also to ensure that the workplace was transformed from where black workers were treated little better than slaves to one where workers could enjoy a rewarding career that would lift their families from poverty and offer a better life for their children.

With all of our challenges, we should not lose sight of our achievements. We are now a robust democracy.

Our Constitution spells out the inalienable human rights of all citizens, including the rights of workers and compels the state to extend socio-economic rights to all communities, in particular the poor.

The government, led by the ANC, has done well to allocate 60% of the Budget to working-class communities. It is no small feat that no-fee schools with free meals, funding for tertiary education, public housing and transport, as well as social grants, have been rolled out to millions of our most impoverished citizens.

We are proud as Cosatu that we have ensured that workers’ rights are not only enshrined in our labour laws but also our Constitution.

Workers are guaranteed the right to unionise, collective bargaining and to strike. Workers now have the right to minimum and maximum working hours, to paid time off and overtime pay, to paid leave including maternity, parental and adoption leave.

The government under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who played a particularly important role, enacted the National Minimum Wage Act, uplifting the wages of over six million workers, in particular in the farm, domestic, construction, transport, fuel, hospitality, construction and security sectors.

Not long ago farmworkers were paid as little as R6 an hour. They have since moved from R18 an hour in 2019 to R27.58 today. Domestic workers have seen their wages nearly double from R15 an hour in the same period.

During Covid-19, the government worked closely with Cosatu and business at Nedlac to release R65 billion from the Unemployment Insurance Fund to help 5.7 million workers take care of their families. Similar joint campaigns were undertaken to manage the pandemic at the workplace and mobilise workers to vaccinate in order to save lives and livelihoods.

In 2023, 900 000 domestic workers were included under the Compensation of Occupational Injuries and Diseases Fund to ensure they are protected.

While we celebrate these progressive victories, more must be done.

There are things the government has done and must do. Equally, there are responsibilities that employers and the private sector must fulfil, and on many fronts, they are failing.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Mine Health and Safety Act guarantee workers the right to a safe workplace. Yet each week at least one mineworker dies at the mines and one police officer is killed in the line of duty.

Parliament overhauled our criminal laws, tightening sanctions on those who harass and abuse women, girls and other vulnerable persons at the workplace and elsewhere. Yet millions are subjected to the most horrific levels of gender-based violence and sexual harassment, including by their employers and colleagues.

Workers are entitled to paid leave and other labour rights, yet are often scared to exercise these rights out of fear of being dismissed, wary of going to an overstretched Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), unable to afford a lawyer to take a case to the Labour Courts and scared of losing their job in an economy with a 41% unemployment rate.

Organised business bemoans the public service wage bill, yet it is silent on the scandalous pay regime in the private sector, where the CEOs of the mining, banking and retail sectors earn more in a single day than their mineworker, bank teller or cashier would earn in a year!

Business tycoons lecture unions on reasonable wage demands, yet the same wealthy businessmen (they are almost all men) run to workers’ pension funds, in particular the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), trying all manner of tricks to convince them why workers’ pension funds should be invested in their companies.

The litany of corruption scandals we have witnessed, in particular at the PIC, are mind-boggling.

South Africa has no shortage of challenges, but our greatest and most dangerous is our 41% unemployment rate and 59% youth unemployment rate. That is a ticking time bomb that we ignore at our peril.

The government has ploughed billions of rand in various employment programmes. Yet, time and again, we witness businesses run in the opposite direction.

Just this week Vodacom announced its intention to retrench 80 workers while it has been posting spectacular profits year after year. Similar retrenchment notices for thousands of workers have been announced by the mining sector and the Post Office, among others.

It is time that leaders of organised business and the private sector play their part. Yes, the government must pass laws, invest in the public service and infrastructure and deal with crime and corruption.

Business, too, needs to do its bit. This includes abiding by our labour laws, investing in the skills and career paths of its employees, looking for alternatives to retrenchments, paying workers a living wage and reducing the wage gap between the highest and lowest-paid employees, supporting locally produced goods and services, and investing in government bonds and infrastructure projects.

These are the foundations for a growing economy and a thriving society. These are the ingredients for a social compact between government, business and labour. What it requires is leadership from business and the acceptance that things cannot continue as usual.

Solly Phetoe is Cosatu’s general secretary.