Employment inequity

2008-03-28 00:00

It’s no secret that the employment environment is very much more challenging that it used to be. The success of labour brokers is attributable to the preference of some employers to avoid these challenges as much as they can. Many employers remain convinced that it is the legislation that has discouraged employment and they yearn for times when the employer held all the aces and the rights of workers were minimal by comparison. In fact, laws and regulations are much fairer than many think, but they do require a meticulous attention to procedural rectitude, a challenge which itself is beyond business operators who either do not have access to the necessary expertise or remain dismissively non-compliant.

The reality is that in many cases, such as those involving unfair dismissal, for example, employers are implicitly held to be guilty unless they can prove otherwise. According to the CCMA report for 2006/7, 59% of arbitration awards were made to employees. This confirms either that the system is loaded in favour of the employee, or that employers remain notably cavalier about complying with the law. They have improved, however, since 2004/5 when employees won 61% of awards.

Among the regulatory minefield are other nasty things that might also explode unexpectedly. Some of these fit the description of “unintended consequence” and relate to the employment equity legislation or, at least, the implicit pressure on organisations to employ black people. In our country, affirmative action in this regard is entirely justified, but the market has not kept pace with the demand.

The difficulty for employers is at least twofold. Such is the demand for competent black people that anyone worth his or her salt is unlikely to stay put in one position for any length of time. The encouragement of better remuneration is often more powerful even than the individual’s ambition. The choice for employers is obvious; they must either lose their protégés and their succession plan, or offer an even higher salary which, as events will prove, is unlikely to make much difference in the long run. The poacher is always in a position to make a better offer. The other side of this coin is the second difficulty. In order to fill a vacant position by appointing a black person, the salary that has to be offered is usually higher, by some margin I might add, than the job itself is worth. This is particularly significant when the new appointee is to be given responsibilities similar to those already undertaken by current employees, some of whom may have worked for the organisation for a long time.

In a case where a new black appointee was offered a salary more than 40% higher than a management counterpart who had loyally served the organisation for over 10 years, it might be argued that the extra value brought to the organisation by engaging the black person was worth the difference. This may very well be true. But it is no comfort to the disadvantaged colleague whose increase has most likely been curtailed so that the extra salary could be afforded. The challenge to the employer is to manage this aspect of transformation in such a way as to minimise resentment, resentment which is not necessarily racist at heart, but which may manifest itself as such over time.

It begs the question as to whether it is the job or the person to which value should best be attributed. For the most part, we accept the former. We are accustomed to salary scales and job evaluations based on the level and degree of responsibility which the incumbent is expected to accept and carry successfully. This paradigm is generally accepted as fair. Attributing the value to the individual may be palpably unfair and is likely to be perceived as such.

These are facts of our South African working lives. That they have added a dimension of artificiality to employment, and the employment market, in particular, is clear. However, the legally imposed artificiality of apartheid job reservation and economic and employment repression was far more sinister and widely discriminating than that determined essentially by market forces. Yes, there are laws which relate to employment equity, but these do not require that on the basis of colour some people should be better remunerated. Despite the legislators, employment equity has resulted in employment inequity which is attributable, in fact, to past inequities in education, opportunity and employment.

Paradoxically, the public sector suffers more penalty than the private, for the former does not offer discretionary remuneration. It is the private sector that has the money to entice. Those who have regular contact with government departments know the frustration of finding that the relationship so carefully nurtured with an official has collapsed because he or she has moved on. And every time the position changes, delivery is disrupted. The new person has to start from scratch and even before he or she has brought influence to bear, the lure of extra pay has proved irresistible.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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