Address by the Minister of Labour: Honourable MN Oliphant, at the Annual Labour Law conference, Sandton Convention Centre 'Reconciling Workplace Interests'
30 Jun 2011
Judge President of the Labour Court and Labour Appeal Court
Ladies and gentlemen
I am honoured to address this annual labour law conference and to interact with the legal practitioners who interpret and give effect to our labour legislation.
This conference takes place as we celebrate 56 years of the existence of the freedom charter which is the edifice of our constitutional democracy. The freedom charter enunciates a vision of the kind society that we aspire for and is also equally vocal of the kind of labour market we aught have and attendant worker rights. The freedom charter states unequivocally that there shall be work and security.
Thus when the people met on the 25 and 26 June 1955, the Congress of the People that was convened in Kliptown, near Johannesburg, represented a crucial historical moment in establishing a new order based on the will of the people. It brought together 2,844 delegates from all over the country. The Freedom Charter proclaims that ''South Africa belongs to all who live in it" and that "all shall be equal before the law".
The letter, spirit and purport of the freedom charter has translated directly into our Constitution. Section 23 of our constitution guarantees rights both to workers and employers and endeavours to find a balance and harmony between the competing rights of workers and employers. This balance is geared to achieve a labour market which is conducive to economic growth, investment and employment creation and is characterised by rising skills, equity, sound labour relations, respect for employment standards and worker’s rights.
Taking a step back to the mid 90’s and during the early stages of South Africa’s transition to democracy, the performance of the economy was very poor, showing negative growth, and increase in the rate of unemployment estimated at about 30% of the economically active population.
The political imperative for re-writing labour legislation during the transitional period of the 90’slay in the struggle by organised labour for social justice and greater democracy in the workplace. In 1994 it was important for the newly elected African National Congress (ANC) government, to empower organised labour to act as a force for reconstruction and development of South Africa.
The development of the new South African labour relations’ regime was not a smooth ride. However, both workers and employers made serious strides which led to the creation of a platform for socialjustice and democratisation in the workplace: in this instance National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) is a case in point, which is a marvel in the democratic world.
Reconciling workplace interests must be viewed and understood in the context that South Africa finds itself. In so doing we should take the following factors into account which paint a particular picture insofar as the labour market is concerned. As at the end of the first quarter of 2011:
there were over 4.3 million persons unemployed in South Africa
of the unemployed, 2.8 million are long-term unemployed, that is, persons who have been unemployed for one year or more
most of the unemployed are young persons between 25 and 34 years of age, with low levels of skill and work experience.
The above figures tell a sad story insofar as the number of people whose lives are severely affected by lack of income, lack of job security and lack of human dignity. What all of us should be concerned about is that the productive sectors of our economy such as the youth are the ones that constitute the army of the unemployed. Of course I do not need to tell you the dire consequences of this situation insofar as the objective of reconstruction and development in South Africa.
We should also take note that industry and employers have also been affected and severely being impacted upon due to the turbulences of the market place and the economy, amongst which is the global economic meltdown which we are phasing out of. The recession brought about rising costs of doing business, fuel increases and the costs of transportation of goods which, in totality became factors that contributed in slow economic growth and employment.
This dynamic and inherent tension between these varying interests should be managed in a manner that resonates with legal prescripts which inter-alia the labour court has a duty to interpret and give effect to.
Harry Arthurs (2007), in his paper entitled Reconciling Differences Differently: Reflections on Labour Law and Worker Voice after Collective Bargaining; makes an assertion that the; “differences between workers and employers might be reconciled, that perhaps something approximating distributive justice might be achieved in work places”
We subscribe to this view. As a result of which we have taken it step further by the creation of necessary institutions and mechanisms that advances the spirit of negotiations and collective bargaining, mediation and arbitration.
Granted, there have been challenges, for instance the case load at the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration is an indication of the various challenges in our labour relations system which in itself implies that all parties and stakeholders must work harder towards the stated objective of reconciling workplace interests.
Regardless of the challenges, South Africa continues to make strides which become leadership lessons for the whole world. Today we have a New Growth Path that aims to build on the foundation of labour policies that have been introduced since 1995 -to find ways to raise multi-factor productivity on the basis of fair rewards to workers plus greater employment creation.
The New Growth Path framework document talks of sustained productivity growth as a source of competitiveness and a means of improving conditions of work. The New Growth Path states that our labour market system “requires strong partnership at the shop-floor, and, in the South African context, a commitment to expand the market for goods and services in order to increase, rather than reduce, employment.”
As government, we would like to see institutional arrangements at the workplace and at sector level that bring a new sense of partnership between business and labour. Such partnerships should be capable of developing a focus on productivity, fair rewards to workers and job creation.
As Harry Arthurs argues that the state must fill the vacuum left in spaces from which unions have been unwittingly ejected from and I wish to add that the state must strengthen its regulatory role in line with its object of creating decent work through inclusive growth.
We will continue in the context of our portfolio and mandate given to us as the department of labour to make a contribution to the creation of a society based on social justice and humaneness.
Ours is about honour and integrity.
I thank you.
Source: Department of Labour
Issued by: Department of Labour
30 Jun 2011
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