Labour and business champions go head to head over minimum wage

Cape Town – Parliament’s portfolio committee on labour on Tuesday put the two most eminent voices from both sides of the labour spectrum in one room on a public platform to discuss the minimum wage and, as expected, sparks flew through most of the meeting.

South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi and National Association of Employers of South Africa (Neasa) CEO Gerhard Papenfus went at each other during the portfolio committee meeting on the laws aimed at implementing a national minimum wage.

The committee hopes to start charting a way forward on the National Minimum Wage Bill, the Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill and the Labour Relations Amendment Bill. Getting the national minimum wage off the ground was a project President Cyril Ramaphosa has been close to since he was deputy president.

This comes after the country learned that the bills could not be turned around in time for the minimum wage to be introduced on May 1. There were also accusations that the bill currently before Parliament has been sanitised significantly since organised labour and civil society groups made their inputs.

Papenfus told the commission that much of his oral submission focused on section 32 of the Labour Relations Amendment Bill and its provision for the extension of wage agreements.

He said Neasa believes the amendments are undesirable, especially for small business, and would cause an influx in legal disputes.

“We already have extensive knowledge and insight on the subject of extending agreements and have spent an enormous amount of time and resources embroiled in litigation over this particular matter.

"It is our view that the current proposed amendments to particularly section 32 of the Labour Relations Act will result in even more discontent and litigation,” said Papenfus.

Vavi agreed with Papenfus only in the view that the bills would not improve labour relations in the South African economy.

However, he insisted that while “business owners have continued to get rich” in the past 24 years, workers have languished in “slave-like” employment conditions.

“I am of the view that this government’s policy on this particular matter has been that business must be allowed to grow and prosper and that somewhere down the line, the workers and the poor will benefit.

"But that clearly hasn’t been happening and we have waited 24 years,” said Vavi.

Vavi said that, contrary to improving the lot of workers in South Africa, these bills go in the “complete opposite direction” of what the Constitution intended.

He said the bills could be challenged in court if government ever seeks to implement them.

“Strike notices must be taken out of current law. The employer must not presume to think that it is their business to manage the affairs of unions. We fundamentally disagree with anything that can be considered as advisory arbitration,” he said.

There is also a long-running quarrel between the two over what Papenfus meant when he said during his submission that “African countries do not have collective bargaining”, with Vavi taking it as a racial slur.

The committee members battled to get the two to steer back to the subject matter of the meeting after that major detour.

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