Criminalise wage thieves - Mdladlana

2010-10-12 16:45

Cape Town - Employers who do not meet minimum wage levels are no better than thieves and should face criminal sanctions, Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana said on Tuesday.

"What I am proposing, and I know that many people are going to fight with me... we want to criminalise people who do not comply with the law," he told the annual meeting of the clothing industry bargaining council in Cape Town.

"I'm ready for the battle."

He said some clothing manufacturers appeared to regard non-compliance with wage levels set by the council as "the norm".

However, even in the apartheid era, non-compliance with labour law had been a criminal offence.

"I'm very simplistic about this matter. I don't know the difference between a person who steals somebody's television and a person who steals somebody's fundamental human right," Mdladlana said.

He said the council had done all it could in terms of "accommodating, massaging, soothing" non-compliant firms.

"So what do you do in a situation where you are even begging people to comply?" he asked.

The council should not be quick to put up a white flag of surrender in its battle against offenders.

"The war is not over. It's probably just the beginning," he said.

The minister's remarks follow controversy over pay at some clothing factories in the Newcastle area, where the statutory minimum wage is R324 a week.

Business statement

The council says, though this is disputed by the Newcastle employers, that some workers are getting as little as R90 a week.

Some of the factories shut down briefly in August saying they could not afford the minimum.

However Mdladlana told the council on Tuesday that those employers were making a "political statement.

"Because that's not a business statement: that's a political statement," he said.

Employer spokesperson on the council Johan Baard told Sapa employers fully supported re-criminalising the Labour Relations Act.

Before 1995, any employer in breach of a bargaining council agreement would appear before a magistrate, who would either ask them to remedy the breach, or impose a punishment such as jail.

"It just seems to us that in the absence of an effective deterrent, the current civil remedy is certainly proving to be ineffective and is being abused by many employers," Baard said.

He said the most severe sanction under the current system was a high court writ of execution to attach the assets of a company against its indebtedness to its workers in respect of underpayment of wages.