'You cannot regulate exploitation of workers'

The Rea Vaya workers who staged a two-day illegal work stoppage in Johannesburg this week demanding permanent employment once again brought the issue of labour brokers to the fore.

On October 7, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) plans national demonstrations in support of the banning of labour brokers.

A 33-year-old cashier at Rea Vaya, whose last employment was overseas, spoke anonymously to the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday: “From day one the employer promised us permanent status. Because of my experience from abroad I was happy that something like this was happening in my country and I wanted to contribute to its success. Now it’s a success and the employer is still taking us from pillar to post.”

She said getting permanent status would change her life drastically.
“I’d be able to take my kids to a private doctor when they are sick because I’d have medical aid. I’d be able to buy a car, buy a house and take my kids to a better school; a lot of things would change.”

What promises were made are unclear. According to Rehana Moosajee, the mayoral committee member of transportation, workers were not promised permanent employment by the city at any point.

“The workers are demanding permanent employment of all the staff in all the BRT stations, which we cannot do,” said Metro Trading Company (MTC) CEO Alfred Sam on Tuesday. The MTC is a municipal-owned entity contracted by the city to manage the Rea Vaya stations.

“We can only employ 60% of the current staff.”

‘Regulating labour brokers would not help’
Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was reported in the Sunday papers as blasting “the ANC leadership for having ‘no backbone’” in the lead-up to this week’s ANC national general council (NGC) in Durban.

Vavi said: “All we want them to do is to have a backbone and implement the Polokwane resolutions. When are we going to do away with labour brokers?”

One of the pillars for economic transformation highlighted in the Polokwane resolutions was “making the creation of decent work opportunities the primary focus of economic policies”.

Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven told the M&G on Tuesday that Cosatu delegates at the NGC would be sure to raise the issue. “We would like to see the whole practice banned by law and we will continue to argue and campaign for all employers to be directly responsible for their employees,” he said.

Regulating labour brokers—rather than banning them—would not help, said South African Municipal Workers Union’s (Samwu) provincial organiser Menzi Luthuli

“The Department of Labour needs to play a major role to do away with labour brokers, not regulate them, because you cannot regulate exploitation of workers. How can you do that?”

Samwu is currently representing workers from Rea Vaya who have been employed on temporary contracts for over a year. Some of them were employed through labour brokers.

‘One needs to find a balance’
Independent labour analyst Andrew Levy believes labour brokers have a role to play in assisting employers who need temporary staff, for example when an employee goes on maternity leave.

However, he said “the greatest part of the labour-brokering business has been used to create greater flexibility of hiring or firing and to avoid labour laws”.

Levy said labour brokers add to the economy. “But one needs to find a balance between employee exploitation and employer needs. You can’t do away with labour brokers completely.”

Cosatu’s call for the banning of labour brokers, he said, would have strong and negative consequences. “I’m prepared to state categorically that it is not going to happen; it would tamper with people’s constitutional rights. It’s like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

“There is no denying that there is some kind of worker exploitation, but one needs to strike a balance between job creation and protection, and I believe this can be done.”

Levy said labour brokers could be regulated by some form of registration so that they can be vetted and become tax compliant. He added they would also need to follow fair labour practices, especially in regard to dismissal.

Craven stressed the need for labour legislation that guarantees workers their basic rights to a minimum wage and reasonable benefits, and said Cosatu is open to alternatives other than banning labour brokers. “Regulation would be better than no regulation. We believe that there are inherent problems in regulating labour brokers because the whole basis in which they have grown is an attempt to avoid regulation. So we would still prefer a ban.”

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