Banning labour brokers

2009-10-16 00:00

ANGER was evident in the voices and on the faces of those who gave testimony against labour brokers at the Winston Churchill Theatre in Pietermaritzburg last week.

Members of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on labour were in the city on a mandate from the national government to conduct public hearings on the issue of labour brokers before a decision is taken on whether to ban or retain the practice of labour­ brokering.

The hearings were accompanied at lunch time by country-wide pickets by members of

unions affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which has declared categorically that it wants labour brokering to be banned.

Those against labour brokers described the practice as “enslaving”. They said it strips workers of their rights and robs them of permanent and decent employment. Some testified to how labour brokers leave workers with no room for career advancement or job security. They argued that people working for brokers are the first to be laid off when employers cut back.

Those calling for the banning of the brokers were animated in their hostility towards the practices. Some used vulgar words which cannot be printed. Union members were quick to draw similarities between workers’ rights under the old regime and the treatment of workers by

today’s brokers.

For their part, labour brokers argued for more policing and regulation of the industry, which would identify the bad eggs but keep the industry alive. Various owners of labour brokering businesses argued that the industry is contributing to the country’s economy and the fight against unemployment. Some even went so far as to argue that they aren’t in the business to make a profit, but to help the disadvantaged find jobs. They said that wiping out the industry would raise unemployment and affect economic growth even more negatively,

So which way do we go? It’s not easy to dismiss the heartfelt stories told by workers who feel they are facing inhuman working conditions at the hands of profit-hungry business owners who are concerned only about their own survival and profit margins.

But are all of the brokers bad?

In today’s economic climate, it would be extremely rash to eradicate any practice that is successfully placing people in jobs and which plays a role in linking those hungry for work with those who need to employ.

That’s not to say that one should be downplaying the very real legacy of exploitation which exists in this country as a result of apartheid. But I’d say it is time for caution rather than rash generalisations about the past repeating itself.

Let’s keep our heads cool and put measures in place to ensure that workers’ rights are not violated and give brokers a chance to redeem themselves.

Why has the situation been allowed to get to the point where banning is presented as the only option? It’s time for the Labour Department to take responsibility for policing the industry more vigorously, to tighten up on legislation and to hold people to

account for violations. That’s the job the government should have been doing all along. And it’s the job it can’t avoid any longer.

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