The slippery concept of 'decent work'

2012-03-06 00:00

IF a referendum among employers were to be held in our country, a substantial majority would support changes in the labour regimen to make employment easier and less expensive.

Since the International Labour Organisation came up with the concept of "decent work", this has become a rally cry for local unions.

The impression is being given that decent work can be defined in absolute terms, but the reality is that it occurs in particular contexts which are not the same universally. What is acceptable to workers in the Far East, is not acceptable in South Africa, for example, nor in almost all Western economies. Try this for size. Spanish unions are up in arms because the government there has proposed a cut in mandatory retrenchment benefits. Currently, retrenched workers are entitled to a payout equivalent to 45 days' pay for every year of employment in the company. (Our statute demands a week's pay for every year worked.) If the new plan is adopted, the benefit will be cut to 33 days. This, according to the Spanish workers, is an unwarranted invasion of their rights and they have taken to the streets in protection of them.

I'm not sure that Spain among the countries of Europe is among the most liberal in terms of workers' statutory benefits. There are others where so many concessions are expected that our employers' hair would stand much further on end. Paternity leave of over a year (16 months in Sweden), maximum working hours of fewer than 40 hours per week (35 in France) and paid annual leave in excess of 15 days (South African requirement) (30 days in France) are all examples of much higher costs relating to employment than South African employers are accustomed to. Yet this is a theoretical inference, for in many developed countries, despite liberal labour concessions, productivity levels are high.

In South Africa, where labour legislation takes the blame, the real handicap is poor productivity. It seems to me that our people do not have the inherent instinct to work hard, as they do in the Far East, nor the maturity that recognises the balanced reciprocity of wages on the one hand and work on the other. Much productivity in developed economies is related to technological progress, of course, and this, in turn, makes demands in terms of education and training, which, in our country, are notable constraints. I suspect, too, that in developed economies, management has reached high levels of effectiveness. Respect for the statutory framework is afforded by both employer and employee, and the abuse of one by the other is a rarity. This is not the case here. Many of our worst employers are the ones who agitate most vociferously for the lifting of regulation so that they can manage their employees by whim. On the other hand, there are employees who fail dismally to honour their side of the labour contract.

Then we have to consider the historical place from whence we come. Not only does this often colour labour issues with the race card, but liberation of the working class is still part of the anti-colonial agenda. The class war persists here, while more mature societies have come to terms with a much more egalitarian society.

In many countries, working people are recognised as participating stakeholders in the private sector, not just wage-earners who must "do or die". Indeed, the movement towards labour representation on company boards, and the spread of shareholding, have added new dimensions to productivity. It is pleasing that this trend is gaining momentum in South Africa as well. Progressive companies have recognised that their affairs should not be kept from their workers as a matter of autocratic confidentiality, while schemes for workers sharing in a company's equity have resulted in far more harmonious workplaces and greater productivity.

In a way it is a pity that this trend reflects a positive impact of the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment policy rather than a recognition of the value of the human capital that, like it or not, is a company's most significant asset.

• Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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