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MPs tussle over labour laws at Oliphant's budget vote

May 15 2018 18:18
Khulekani Magubane

Cape Town – Minister of Labour Mildred Oliphant spent much of her budget vote speech in the National Assembly fielding criticism of South Africa’s labour laws, saying critics were either ignorant of progress made in the lives of workers or selective in the facts they cited.

Oliphant tabled her budget vote in Parliament on Tuesday morning, which prompted attacks from opposition parties over what they considered the gradual subversion of workers’ rights and the reversal of unions’ gains.

The department has faced challenges in its labour market regulation mandate.

The national bus strike that left commuters stranded across the country for almost a month came to an end on Monday afternoon. However, other issues remain unresolved.

Despite hopes that the minimum wage would be introduced by Workers' Day, parliamentary processes meant it was not finalised in time.

Many unions and labour federations have rejected government's national minimum wage of R20 per hour, though the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has supported it. Once the national minimum wage and other labour bills have been through Parliamentary committee processes, they will be discussed by the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).  

Organised labour is also seeking amendments to labour laws before Parliament, wanting more explicit protection for the right of unions to a secret ballot when choosing whether to strike.

Oliphant said those who believed R20 per hour was too little as a minimum wage overlooked the reality that many employers in South Africa could not afford higher figures, and that to suggest a higher wage would effectively wipe out the jobs offered.

“Those who say that the proposed national minimum wage is too low are oblivious to the need to protect jobs vulnerable to loss if the wage becomes too high for their employer to afford sustaining and paying,” she said.

Oliphant added that current amendments to labour laws already implied that voting on whether to strike made use of a secret ballot. She said the South African government would not jeopardise the rights of workers and unions.

African National Congress MP Sharome van Schalkwyk said the minister’s budget vote was emblematic of the progress made in workers’ rights since the advent of democracy.

“The evolution of our labour laws and workers' rights have come a long way. Past laws required obedience and loyalty from servants to masters. Our people were sent to potato farms for failing to produce a dompas or a worker's permit,” said Van Schalkwyk.

Democratic Alliance MP and labour spokesperson Michael Bagraim said Oliphant’s department not only introduced restrictive laws to employment, but that fraud had rocked the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) in places such as Durban.

“We have almost 9.2 million unemployed in South Africa and are on the cusp of losing a further million [jobs] in the coming year. The minister is presiding over a failing department of labour. Our government is doing everything in its power to stop business from taking on new staff,” said Bagraim.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Nontando Nolutshungu said while her party welcomed the national minimum wage in principle, it would continue to advocate for a higher amount.

“We are shocked that the ANC government is hell-bent on the worst attack on workers' rights since 1994, with a slave wage of R20 per hour as the national minimum wage. We support all workers' rights in the union, and proper negotiation,” said Nolutshungu.

She said her party wanted government to ban all labour brokers, and that the EFF would table a private members' bill to ensure that this happened.

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