Despite legislation, workers’s rights are still abused


The call for the expropriation of land without compensation emerged again in the Economic Freedom Fighters’ call for poor people to occupy vacant land. This call has also culminated in a questioning of whether Section 25 of the Constitution needs to be amended to address the land question.

This has brought about the realisation that social injustices and inequalities are still prevalent among the black majority, despite the democratic dispensation, and are manifested in the constant battle for access to dignified jobs, decent healthcare facilities, the equality of women and free quality education. This call has further prompted more protest action in demand of social change.

Although the call for the amendment of the Constitution with regard to the expropriation of land without compensation is an important call, it is also equally important that we do not turn a blind eye to the adverse conditions that workers continue to be subjected to. The introduction of the division of labour and assembly-line work in factories disoriented many societies who understood work differently at the time. An example, is the Bambatha Rebellion in 1879 and 1880 in which 3 000 to 4 000 Zulu people were killed in protests against the poll tax, which was created to put pressure on Zulu men to enter the labour market.

Further, in post-apartheid South Africa the nature of work has not changed, even in the presence of trade unions and pro-worker organisations that claim to fight for the rights of the workers. The reality is that the majority of workers, most of whom are still poor, remain exploited.

Women are constantly marginalised and prohibited from equal opportunity and fair treatment in employment, despite the various measures instituted to eliminate unfair discrimination as stated in the Employment Equity Act, for example. The small representation of black women in highly recognised positions is a case in point.

Xolela Mangcu, in an article published in the Mail & Guardian in 2015 titled “Why are there so few black professors?”, highlights that there are only 194 black South Africans who are professors out of the country’s total of 4 000, a mere 4% of the total. Women professors occupy only 34 places, which is 0.85%.

The continued exploitation of migrant workers in most sectors led to protest actions in KwaZulu-Natal in May and June last year. In this instance, truck drivers protested against their company hiring a migrant worker who works with two other migrant drivers for quicker deliveries, in exchange for the payment of one. This is not only unfair to the migrant workers but has also deprived local truck drivers of work.

Undesirable working conditions in mines have also led to a number of deaths in mining companies, for instance, the Sibanye-Stillwater mine accident left 20 workers dead in 2018. The continued killings of farm labourers and many other cases of unfair working conditions are recorded on a daily basis.

Even though the African Charter on Human and Peoples Right, Article 15, states that “every individual shall have the right to work under equitable and satisfactory conditions and shall receive equal pay for equal work”, the implementation of this charter remains questionable. The abuse of workers’ rights not only affects the workers themselves but also their families. It perpetuates the number of children who grow up in households without proper parental guidance. It is this brutality and abusive nature of work that undermines the provision made by the Constitution to improve the quality of life for all citizens.

Section 10 of the Constitution states that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”. The continued exploitative and unfair working conditions that poor black workers are subjected to on a daily basis violates this right. This means the narrative of work needs to be changed, and this can only be achieved by including the right to work in the Constitution as a fundamental human right and not just rely on policy and legislative provisions.

Tseliso Thipanyane is chief executive of the South African Human Rights Commission. These are their own views.

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Tseliso Thipanyane
Tseliso Thipanyane 1
Tseliso Thipanyane is chief executive of the South African Human Rights Commission.

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