R20/hour a step closer for workers

The National Minimum Wage Bill was submitted to the National Assembly on Tuesday, where it was debated and approved — an effort Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant called “groundbreaking”.

Oliphant also presented two other labour Bills — the Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill and the Labour Relations Amendment Bill — that were passed and all three have now been sent to the National Council of Provinces to ratify.

The purpose of the national minimum wage, according to the legislation, is to promote “social justice by improving the wages of the lowest-paid workers, protecting workers from unreasonably low wages, and promoting collective bargaining and supporting economic policy”.

But the Bill has not been without its detractors, and Oliphant accused MPs, such as the Democratic Alliance’s Michael Bagraim and Thembinkosi Rawula from the Economic Freedom Fighters, of not properly reading the legislation up for debate.

The proposed national minimum wage is R20 an hour for the average worker, R18 an hour for farmworkers, R15 an hour for domestic workers and R11 an hour for expanded public works programme workers.

The parliamentary labour portfolio committee, which redrafted the Bill after public hearings and input from the labour department, initially recommended that, by 2020, all workers receive the full minimum wage, but this two-year deadline is not reflected in the amendments.

The Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill, which includes provisions for enforcing the minimum wage, will uphold wages determined by each sector that are already higher than the national minimum wage. These wage structures have been designed to protect vulnerable workers.

This Bill was initially intended to repeal the provision for sectoral wage determinations in light of the minimum wage but the portfolio committee has decided to retain them. They “must be increased proportionally to any adjustment of the national minimum wage”.

But the Bill does not stipulate that sectoral wage determinations must be reviewed regularly to confirm that the increases are being upheld.

In terms of the National Minimum Wage Bill, it is considered unfair labour practice for an employer to unilaterally alter work hours or other conditions of employment in implementing the minimum wage.

But the Bill does make space for exemptions for companies that cannot afford the prescribed minimum wage. These companies will have to apply online to the labour department for exemption, which can be granted for no longer than a year. If a company has registered as a small business, it is exempt for two years.

The department reserves the right to withdraw exemptions if employers violate labour laws.

Under the proposed amendments, the enforcement of the national minimum wage will move from the labour department to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which will need additional resources and capacity to perform this role.

If a worker is being paid less than the minimum wage, they will have to refer a case to the CCMA. The average time for a case to reach arbitration is 60 days.

The amendments to the Labour Relations Act also enforce “more stringent” regulations on workers’ rights to strike.

The Labour Relations Amendment Bill introduces a mechanism that allows strikes to be resolved by an advisory arbitration panel led by a CCMA commissioner.

Such a panel would be empowered to resolve strike action without employers necessarily having to engage with their workers directly.

And, by extending the previous 30-day conciliation period by up to five days, the amendment in effect delays strike action.

It also requires trade unions to hold secret ballots when deciding whether to strike. In the past, unions could hold such ballots openly and quite informally.

The new legislation amends “ballot” to mean “any system of voting by members that is recorded and in secret”.

If the employer considers the ballot to be improperly conducted, they will be able to seek an interdict before a strike has begun.

Although many unions have the ballot clause in their constitutions already, it was never previously imposed by the government.

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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