Criminalise employer wage ‘thieves’ – Mdladlana

2010-10-12 14:56

Employers who do not meet minimum wage levels are no better than thieves and should face criminal sanctions, Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana said today.

“What I am proposing, and I know that many people are going to fight with me... we want to criminalise people who do not comply with the law,” he told the annual meeting of the clothing industry bargaining council in Cape Town.

“I’m ready for the battle.”

He said some clothing manufacturers appeared to regard non-compliance with wage levels set by the council as “the norm”.

However, even in the apartheid era, non-compliance with labour law had been a criminal offence.

“I’m very simplistic about this matter. I don’t know the difference between a person who steals somebody’s television, and a person who steals somebody’s fundamental human right,” Mdladlana said.

He said the council had done all it could in terms of “accommodating, massaging, soothing” non-compliant firms.

“So what do you do in a situation where you are even begging people to comply?” he asked. “Yours is to enforce the law [sic].”

The council should not be quick to put up a white flag of surrender in its battle against offenders.

“The war is not over. It’s probably just the beginning,” he said.

The minister’s remarks followed controversy over pay at some clothing factories in the Newcastle area, where the statutory minimum wage was R324 a week.

The council said, though this was disputed by the Newcastle employers, that some workers were getting as little as R90 a week.

Some of the factories shut down briefly in August, saying they could not afford the minimum.

However Mdladlana told the council today that those employers were making a “political statement”.

Employer spokesperson on the council Johan Baard said that employers fully supported re-criminalising the Labour Relations Act.

Before 1995, any employer in breach of a bargaining council agreement would appear before a magistrate, who would either ask them to remedy the breach, or impose a punishment such as jail.

“It just seems to us that in the absence of an effective deterrent, the current civil remedy is certainly proving to be ineffective and is being abused by many employers,” Baard said.

He said the most severe sanction under the current system was a high court writ of execution to attach the assets of a company against its indebtedness to its workers in respect of underpayment of wages.

Currently the council was busy with writs against several hundred companies, of which it had served and executed 55.

It has agreed to a moratorium on serving the rest pending an industry summit convened by Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel.

General secretary of the SA Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Andre Kriel, told Mdladlana in the council meeting that the union was grateful for his support on compliance.

The matter had come to the point where there was no option but to “forcefully enforce” the council’s decisions.

He said the unions had sponsored a resolution on criminalisation at the Cosatu national conference last year, which was adopted.

Mdladlana also criticised the way the industry had established differing wage levels for particular regions, in terms of which workers in the Western Cape, for example, were paid more than their counterparts in semirural Botshabelo.

“I’m leaving you to think seriously about it, because sooner rather than later you might find yourselves in the Constitutional Court for discriminating against people.”

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