With his department’s focus shifted towards job creation, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi says he will not risk sidelining worker’s rights to create more work.
“There are some who argue that an any jobs [approach] — which yields more jobs — is better than the decent jobs we are striving for,” Nxesi told the Mail & Guardian, which caught up with the minister this week during a break in his busy schedule.
“As South Africans, we are not going back to those dark days — certainly not under the watch of this government,” he said.
One of the biggest hurdles Nxesi faces in his tenure as minister is to balance the sixth democratic administration’s plans to create jobs with the department’s mandate to protect workers from exploitation by championing their rights and regulating the labour market.
In the department’s budget vote speech earlier this month, Nxesi emphasised that realising its new mandate would require co-operation with other government departments and the private sector, which it depends on to “propel employment”.
Nxesi dismissed speculation that the department would have trouble reining in the private sector through regulations when it depends on the sector to drive employment.
Instead, he argued that a vigilant department that works closely with organised labour and the private sector will help to stabilise the labour market and drive job creation.
In his budget vote speech, Nxesi said the department will leverage the Unemployment Insurance Fund and the Compensation Fund, which compensates workers who lose their ability to work, “to preserve jobs and to invest in job-creating initiatives”.
He also announced that the department hopes to drive employment by offering hiring subsidies to private-sector employers.
Nxesi told the M&G that there is “no contradiction” in the department’s mandate to protect workers’ rights and its efforts to engage with the private sector on job creation. “We are government, and as government, we have to speak to everybody … We must be able to bring the social partners together,” he said.
“Because, in reality, government can only create jobs to a certain extent. But government’s role is also going to be to create a climate and intervene when necessary. But a number of jobs come from the private sector … We have to engage with the private sector and deal with the issues they are raising.”
Nxesi also said the department has already started to meet employers to hear their views on the effect of regulations on the labour market.
“Where there are justified claims of red tape and bureaucracy, we will act,” he said.
The department intends to strengthen institutions such as the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), which were designed to help trade unions and the private sector “find each other”, he added.
In his budget speech, Nxesi said the department will embark on consultations to review the constitution of the Nedlac “to promote greater inclusivity”. Nedlac has come under scrutiny in recent years for dragging its feet in admitting the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), a decision that prevented the country’s second-largest trade union federation from having a say on the National Minimum Wage Act and other changes to labour legislation.
The tenure of Nxesi’s predecessor, Mildred Oliphant, was punctuated by major changes in labour legislation, which imposed new regulations on both business and trade unions.
Nxesi has fought the perception that the R20 an hour national minimum wage would pose a risk to employment by making it too expensive for businesses to pay their workers. He has also announced that the department will bolster its inspection and enforcement services, adding 200 inspectors to the team working to ensure the implementation of the national minimum wage.
This week, Nxesi challenged criticism of the changes to legislation governing strike action, which detractors have warned will roll back workers’ rights to strike.
The amendments to the labour legislation ushered in alongside the National Minimum Wage Act set out new rules for picketing, which have to be followed before a certificate of nonresolution is awarded to unions that want to go on strike.
The picketing rules specify that unions have to state when and where a picket will take place. These details may be decided by a Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration commissioner if they cannot be agreed on. The amendments to the legislation also require unions to conduct ballots before their members can go on strike.
Nxesi told the M&G that the new rules relating to strike action will help prevent industrial action from becoming “long, intractable [and] violent”. He said he views strike balloting as “a democratic procedure and it also ensures the legitimacy and strengthens the action taken”.
Nxesi also addressed speculation that threats to deregister trade unions are part of a crackdown. Since his appointment last year, labour registrar Lehlohonolo Molefe has sent more than 100 unions letters warning them of noncompliance.
The registrar can place trade unions under administration and deregister them if they fail to comply with their own constitutions and the Labour Relations Act.
If a trade union is deregistered, it loses organisational rights and the right to represent its members. The industrial relations framework is set up so that workers can sometimes access their rights only through trade unions.
Molefe has taken on a number of high-profile trade unions, including the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).
In the wake of the threat to its registration, Amcu has warned that deregistration is “a political attack”.
But Nxesi, once the general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, told the M&G: “I do not wish to see any unions deregistered. What we want to see is an inclusive system in collective bargaining …
“We have seen a lot of horrible things in some institutions, but if unions continue to flout the law, they effectively deregister themselves … But, as a start, we will have to sit with them and hold them by their hands and say, ‘Let’s correct all that we have not corrected.’”
Nxesi conceded that trade unions are “clearly somewhat weaker, and certainly more divided than in the past”. The expulsion of Numsa from trade union federation Cosatu, and the formation of Saftu in 2017, introduced a powerful opposition to the ANC’s alliance partner in the labour movement.
“My own view is that we must jointly take responsibility for what has happened, not just union leaders, but politicians as well,” Nxesi said. “The conflicts and factionalism that have characterised the national liberation movement and the ANC has spilled over into the trade union movement.”
Nxesi said he wants to see the labour movement reunited, “not on the basis of political or ideological purity — but on the basis of their common interests”.