/ 1 August 2012

Companies use brokers to avoid labour laws, says judge

The Labour Appeal Court's judge president says South African companies use labour brokers to shirk labour laws.
The Labour Appeal Court's judge president says South African companies use labour brokers to shirk labour laws.

"Many firms have … adopted strategies and tactics to avoid labour laws," the judge president told a labour law conference in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

"These strategies include outsourcing, the use of fixed-term contracts, temporary and part-time work, and labour broking … research commissioned by the department of labour … demonstrates that there has been an exponential increase in the use of labour broking. This has deprived many employees of labour law protection."

Mlambo said the country's laws needed to be evaluated to assess if they provided employees with "decent work".

"Labour broking fills the pocket of labour brokers at the expense of the employee, while the client gets the fruit of the employee's labour, leaving the employee with no protection … I'm afraid that the emerging entrepreneurs, especially those who were previously disadvantaged, need to be reined in. Otherwise, as history has shown, the poor will be ground into the dust under punishing labour conditions and declining wages, so that the captains of industry grow fatter."

Mlambo said much more needed to be done to rectify the situation.

"Allowing labour brokers to continue to place workers in terrible and uncertain working conditions on the contention that 'half-a-loaf is better than none' will only serve to alienate the working class and harden the attitudes of unions with labour broking … Yes, we need employment. But we also need decent work. In that way, at least the individual has dignity and spirit, and [it] gives him or her a sense of pride in being able to do an honest day's work at decent pay."

'Bakkie brigades'
Mlambo said the term "labour broker" was synonymous with " bakkie brigades" who picked workers off the street to work for clients.

"If a labour broker who engaged workers for a client failed to pay them, the employees have no recourse against the client, because the client is not their employer," Mlambo said.

There is no mechanism available for employees to [then] recover their wages. More importantly, the client cannot be sued directly in the CCMA [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] or in the Labour Court.

He said it was no wonder that the topic of labour broking had become a "hot potato".

Big business also needed to help find a way to adequately protect workers, Mlambo said.

"It is in the long-term interest of companies to accommodate young, skilled employees … especially from the townships. Otherwise we may face a … revolt from the youth that may lead to instability of the kind manifested by the Arab Spring revolt … Let us remember that in times [like this] … business cannot go on as usual, [or else] we will all suffer."

Mlambo said there needed to be a greater focus on educating workers.

"The Constitution protects the rights of everyone to basic education. But given the dismal situation at schools, the poor infrastructure, inadequate learning materials and a dire shortage of skilled teachers capable of teaching mathematics and science, the future looks bleak … They [workers] will remain hewers of wood and drawers of water, as was the lot of their parents under Bantu education." – Sapa