Our workers are in trouble

2018-04-29 06:05
Workers the world over have been in a protracted state of crisis since the industrial revolution of the 18th century. PHOTO: Tebogo Letsie

Workers the world over have been in a protracted state of crisis since the industrial revolution of the 18th century. PHOTO: Tebogo Letsie

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As we commemorate yet another May Day/Workers’ Day/Labour Day on May 1, I cannot help but link the coincidence of the public holiday’s moniker with its namesake distress signal. The universal audio distress signal, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…” has its origins in the French phrase, “M’aider!”, which means, “Help me!” It is fitting to sound this alarm on behalf of workers at a time when we get nothing more than a public holiday to show for our role as the engine of the economy.

Workers the world over have been in a protracted state of crisis since the industrial revolution of the 18th century, owing largely to the bourgeoisie-proletariat debacle. Within the South African context, not only do we have economic class struggle, we also have a legacy of monopolistic colonialism and oppressive apartheid to contend with. This has created a triple threat for most workers. Mayday..!

We now find that the restructuring of the labour market since the advent of democracy has fallen far short of the promise of equality, stable employment and poverty alleviation. It is here that I zero in on the catastrophic effects of labour flexibility, as just one aspect of labour market reform. This notion of flexibility has restructured the conditions of employment, destabilised trade unions and compromised the livelihoods of workers in general.

Guy Standing, John Sender and John Weeks, in their book Restructuring the Labour Market: The South African Challenge, explain that labour flexibility means different things for employers, workers and government policymakers. Government and business define it as the ability to make speedy and cost-effective changes in the workplace, while workers perceive flexibility as increased and intimidating managerial control, with accompanying job insecurity. Mayday..!

The South African government has been at pains over the past two decades to try to balance the interests of employers and workers. This balancing act between the employers’ need to compete internationally and the simultaneous protection of workers’ rights was idealistically named “regulated flexibility”. The idea sounds like a fair middle ground but global competitiveness and profitability determine the tune that the microeconomic sphere marches to. The foot soldiers on the front lines, doing the marching, are the workers. Mayday..!

Labour flexibility consists of three aspects. First is functional process flexibility, which does away with job descriptions, replacing them with multitasking and multiskilling. It is also a changed structure of working hours, replacing it with averaging schemes, flexitime, compressed work weeks and changes in shift systems. Second is wage flexibility which creates various forms and levels of remuneration reconciled to the company’s general performance. And thirdly, numerical flexibility, which allows changes in numbers of employees, depending on the company’s periodic needs.

Functional process, wage and numerical flexibility appear to be practical measures instituted by a government committed to the growth and development of South Africa’s economy. Reality, however, has shown that our current economic policy is altogether responsible for an unemployment rate of 26.7%. In addition, the underemployed casual labourers cannot service monthly living expenses as they do not earn a living wage and so the permanently employed in the population have the added financial burden of their unemployed relatives, which spreads resources very thin. Not to mention the hunger for all forms of security, which breeds crime. Mayday..!

Decidedly, employers have the right to hire and fire with no complication and without incurring extra costs. Incidentally, the cumulative effect of all these forms of flexibility is more temporary, contract, part-time, flexitime and casual workers, referred to as “atypical workers”.

Sociologists Bridget Kenny and Edward Webster note that, “flexibilisation is creating an insecure, lower-paid and unprotected workforce. Lacking a social security safety net, these workers carry the costs of reproduction to an even greater extent than primary sector workers. Increasingly, the poorest paid segment of the population covers the costs of restructuring.”

Trade unions have also been hard hit by the re-segmentation of workers, with casualisation of the workforce increasingly robbing them of members. So unions are undermined by being based on a shrinking section of the permanently employed working class, while failing to organise and defend the growing number of flexible workers. Negotiation clout for decent conditions of employment, fair wages, retrenchment regulation, subcontracting and labour broking mitigation suffers when the trade unions lose numbers. It is a losing battle as business pleads high labour and production costs and dwindling profits to justify what appear to be inhumane practices. Mayday..!

As for how labour flexibility tangibly affects the lives of average workers, the fear that work which is here today might be gone tomorrow looms overhead, meaning that even those who are permanently employed have no guarantee that they will maintain their status quo. Then there are those who are constantly drenched by the sporadic thunder showers of “piece jobs” that never amount to sufficiency. Just when they have landed on the fortune of work, the lightning bolt of workplace restructuring hits, striking at their desperate effort to make a living. Employees who had work before being laid off or retrenched and those who have had the misfortune of never securing employment, live in the ruins of a storm that flooded their hopes of economic security. Mayday..!

The winners in the game of labour flexibility appear to be the employers who have the blanket prerogative to hire, fire, allocate and remove with minimum fuss or loss. They have recourse to cushion the ebbs and flows of their production demands with the surety that they will always have casual, temporary or contract employees on standby.

An even more disturbing effect is the one felt particularly by the black labour force. The current state of affairs is a throwback to the apartheid era workplace flexibility, when black workers were employed as “permanent casuals” and were not protected from dismissal. The irony is that the democratic government has in a sense introduced the same conditions as apartheid flexibility, according to Karl von Holdt and Edward Webster in their paper, Restructuring of work: Examining union responses.

Nelson Mandela declared at the International Labour Organisation conference of 1994: “We cannot rebuild our society at the expense of the standard of living of ordinary men and women. We cannot develop at the expense of social justice. We cannot compete without a floor of basic human standards.” Twenty-four years later, labour policy has clearly breached Mandela’s recommendations with dire consequences for the average South African.

The reality check, all things considered, is that, given South Africa’s grave history of inequality and poverty suffered by the black majority, some textbook theories of economic policy – like labour flexibility – cannot be applied clinically without sabotaging the levelling of the employment “playing field”. Thus the desperate distress call of the worker: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!”

- Setlaelo is a writer, author and personal development speaker. Follow her on Twitter @sarahsetlaelo

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