M&G Critical Thinking Forum: Labour fraught with challenges

Labour feels business are exploiting the workers. (Gallo)

Labour feels business are exploiting the workers. (Gallo)

SA's labour sector faces massive challenges that speak directly to the country's political future and its ability to fight poverty and inequality.

This is the overarching theme that emerged from the Mail & Guardian's Critical Thinking Forum on labour relations, which was hosted by the German embassy at the University of Cape Town on Thursday.

Posing the question about what can be done to mend the rift between business, government and  labour - in light of current labour disputes in South Africa - the debate touched on a number of issues which underpin problems experienced in the country's labour relations.

"We must remember that South Africa is rooted in a terrible history of coercion and cheap labour," said Ben Turok, ANC stalwart, member of Parliament and one of the panelists.

"During negotiations prior to 1994, there was no hardcore conversations on economic issues and labour relations. We were more concerned with political settlement and that's what we're dealing with now."

Turok's view was echoed by Michael Spicer, another panelist and vice-president of Business Leadership South Africa, who said South Africa's current labour landscape can't be divorced from its past.

"We need to talk because at the moment  the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) makes decisions that serve themselves but not the masses. Decisions that don't take us forward," he added.

Nedlac is a forum involving government, labour, business and community organisations seeking to bring about cooperation on economic, labour and development issues, and related challenges facing the country.

'Think properly'
"The moment you are honest and frank at Nedlac, your legs are chopped off and you are told to think properly and this is not helping," Spicer added.

Sej Motau, the Democratic Alliance's national spokesperson for labour, said divergent intests have resulted in an adversarial approach to industrial relations.

"Labour feels business is just there to exploit workers and government says some companies are unpatriotic, so the language we are using is problematic," he added.

"We must realise we are on the same team and need to find the glue that will get government, labour and business working together."

Cosatu Western Cape secretary Tony Ehrenreich claimed that workers rights are the last thing on South Africans' minds and is leading the poor to believe they are disenfranchised.

"Workers are getting tired of the opulence in our society along with the inequality. We can either fight each other or we can have a proper discussion about the problems in this country," he added.

Dr Max Price, vice-chancellor of UCT, countered Ehrenreich's view and claimed union relations with their members had exacerbated labour issues.

"A big elephant in the room is unions relationship with their members. Union leaders haven't always been representative of workers and the Marikana tragedy is a symptom of that," he said.

Inequality and poverty
Former German justice minister Herta Daubler-Gmelin perhaps offered the most poignant view of the evening when she spoke of the critical importance of bringing all parties together to fight inequality and poverty in  South Africa.

"Business and labour know each other in Germany. There is a mutual respect that cuts through differing views and it works because we know it has to. The same for you, your future depends on it," she said.

The debate was moderated by political analyst Eusebius McKaiser and included a broad range of inputs from the audience assembled at UCT.

"Its wonderful to see a hot topic like this so robustly debated," said M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes during his vote of thanks.

"It depicts how important gatherings like the Critical Thinking Forum are and will continue to be in the future."

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