Clothing council is doing its job

Over the last three weeks, M&G Business’s Kevin Davie has written a series of articles relating to the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry. Much of it is based on incorrect information selectively fed to Davie by mischievous employers.

A general trend of the articles is the unsubstantiated assertion that the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Industry (NBC) is a cosy club of the union and large employers who seek to impose onerous wage levels on smaller employers. In fact, the latest NBC statistics show that the average size of clothing companies registered with the council is only 78 employees.
Wage levels in the clothing industry are the lowest in manufacturing in South Africa.

The starting rate for a machinist in non-metro areas such as Botshabelo is R220 per week, and in metro areas such as Cape Town, it is only R398 per week. In non-metro clothing areas such as Newcastle there are no prescribed benefits such as healthcare or retirement funding. Over the last few years, the actual labour cost increases have just kept track with inflation. Despite low labour cost levels, there is still widespread non-compliance with legitimate wage agreements in areas such as Newcastle, Botshabelo, Ladysmith and elsewhere, where actual wages are often as low as between R100 and R150 per week.

The NBC only published a wage agreement for the non-metro areas in 2003. Before then, wage levels were governed by a sectoral determination, made law by the Department of Labour. Much of the non-compliance stems from this sectoral determination period. Many of these non-compliant employers were not prepared to comply with minimum wage levels set by our democratic government.

Another false assertion is that the NBC has not shown flexibility, such as in the case of exemption applications. On the contrary, the really small companies, those employing five employees or less, are automatically exempted from clothing bargaining council agreements. Further, the bargaining council’s exemption statistics report shows that, for the period January to December 2004, of the 815 exemption applications considered by the council’s exemptions committee, 84% have been approved and only 16% have been declined.

The council has even established an Independent Exemptions Board (IEB), to consider appeals from employers who believe exemption applications have been unfairly refused. The NBC has shown flexibility by granting a facility for non-complying employers to phase in collective agreements over a period of 12 to 15 months.

Non-complying employers are being presented as angels, while those companies who obey the law lose market share because of unfair competition emanating from horrific breaches of legitimately set employment conditions.

Another myth is that the NBC would now be unable to extend its agreements to non-parties because the Department of Labour has allegedly refused to grant it a certificate of representivity. On the contrary, the NBC remains highly representative of clothing workers. For example, SACTWU represents over 75% of employees registered with the NBC. In addition, among employer parties, the NBC is highly representative for large parts of the country, certainly sufficiently representative for its agreements to be extended to non-party employers in all parts of the country.

Another incorrect report is that the NBC, at its meeting on June 23 2005, failed to muster enough votes to get a new deal to replace the main agreement which expired on June 30. In fact, there was no vote in the NBC on the matter. There may have been a vote among employers only, but this does not constitute a vote of the NBC.

The union holds 50% of all votes on the NBC and would have voted in favour of the new agreement if required. At the meeting on June 23 2005, the major employer parties to NBC and the union reached full consensus on a new wage agreement, and this agreement has now been signed by them.

Andre Kriel is the deputy secretary general of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union

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