Georgina Guedes

Employees aren’t pets

2015-12-01 13:13

Georgina Guedes

Last week, EFF leader Julius Malema told the Oxford Union at Oxford University in the United Kingdom that rich South Africans love their animals more than they love people.

"The dogs of rich people in South Africa have got medical aid but their domestic workers, and the university workers, and the farm workers, the petrol attendants, the security guards, do not have medical aid,” he said.

Let’s for a moment disregard that this almost certainly wasn’t based in a scientific survey of the realities of South Africa, and was said with the intention of inflaming audiences both at home and abroad, and instead examine the content of what he was saying.

The state of pay in South Africa

Before I do that, let me first say that South African workers – especially all the types of low-income earners that Malema listed – are grossly underpaid.

They are generally exploited and are not offered any on-the-job perks. Numerous studies have shown that most people in this employment bracket are unable to afford sufficient nutritious food to stay healthy. So I am not for a moment defending the situation as it stands.

We don’t own our employees

However, to see conflation between pets and employees is ludicrous. Without analysing the emotional connection that affluent or middle-class employers have to each, let’s just be clear once and for all that employees are not possessions. By suggesting that they are, Malema is undoing 181 years of progress since the abolition of slavery in this country.

Employees are individuals with agency. While I firmly believe that there should be a minimum wage and a basic set of responsibilities that employers should bear when employing other human beings, the situation of hiring an employee is nothing like owning a pet.

To put it down to its starkest comparison, a pet cannot get medical care from the state. A pet is entirely the responsibility of the person that owns it. That the state has failed its citizens in the provision of quality medical care is a relevant point here - but not one that employers can be held entirely responsible for.

There is work to be done...

Yes, Malema is right, there is a lot to fix in South Africa’s employment policies. And a lot of responsibility can be placed at the door of affluent employers who continue to benefit from and exploit cheap manpower. There’s also a lot that our government could and should be doing to improve the circumstances of all South Africans – and I believe that to his credit Malema often takes them to task for that.

However, when he builds an argument – especially one that he presents at a leading global academic institution – based on a false equivalence that reduces employees to objects and attempts to elicit an enraged response, it is vital that he be challenged on his reasoning.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.



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