Nedlac struggles with inclusivity

Fighting for their rights: Saftu members march for a fair minimum wage. The trade union federation has been unable to participate in Nedlac discussions about changes to labour legislation, as it's not a member of the council. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Fighting for their rights: Saftu members march for a fair minimum wage. The trade union federation has been unable to participate in Nedlac discussions about changes to labour legislation, as it's not a member of the council. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) has been criticised for failing to represent the interests of workers in policy discussions, but a bid to make the council more inclusive has provoked mixed reactions.

The general secretary of trade union federation Cosatu, Bheki Ntshalinshali, who is also Nedlac’s labour convenor, warned that making the council more inclusive than it already is could make it harder for its members to agree on crucial policy changes.

He told the Mail & Guardian this week that admitting every organisation that applies to be in the council would make it “not workable”.

“Because Nedlac works on a consensus basis, you have guidelines about who can be admitted and they have to meet certain criteria. Otherwise, it is going to become a platform in which you can’t do anything,” Ntshalinshali said.

He added that the council — where government, labour, business and community organisations go to sign off on the country’s social and economic policies — is already inclusive.

“The Nedlac constitution can be as inclusive as possible, provided that parties meet the requirements … It’s supposed to be tripartite; it is more than tripartite,” Ntshalinshali said.

In his budget vote speech last month, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi announced the department’s plans to consult with all social partners to review Nedlac’s constitution “to promote greater inclusivity”.

The council is mandated to reach consensus between government, business, community organisations and labour on matters relating to social and economic policy.

It considers all significant changes to labour legislation before they are tabled in Parliament.

Under Nedlac’s constitution, the representation of labour in the council is determined by the founding trade union federations: Cosatu, the National Council of Trade Unions and the Federation of Unions of South Africa.

In an interview in Business Day, Nxesi was quoted as saying that: “The admission of other stakeholders or social partners cannot depend on those inside”.

Kaizer Moyane, Nedlac’s business convener and social policy chair at Business Unity South Africa, said that the council is already “looking into the founding documents of Nedlac to see whether they are still fit for purpose”.

He said a task team was set up by Nedlac’s executive committee last year to address inclusivity.

“We accept that Nedlac must be an institution of social dialogue — the more voices we can accommodate the better. But obviously it must be done within accepted principles … Because there are rules,” Moyane said.

On whether he thinks the inclusion of new members at Nedlac would derail the council’s ability to reach consensus, Moyane said: “Yes and no”.

“The idea is to be inclusive, but sometimes it is not necessary to be inclusive in the sense that everyone is inside the tent,” he said. “So you can accommodate voices of people outside the organisation and take into account their views, without necessarily diluting the structures within Nedlac.”

Moyane added that, in recent years, the relationship between social partners and “certain political parties” has led to commitments made at Nedlac being watered down. “That has been a blemish on the performance of Nedlac in my opinion,” he said.

Meanwhile, South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told the M&G that, if Nxesi’s plan to promote inclusivity at Nedlac is an indication of a “change of mind” about the balance of power in the council, “it will be most welcome”.

Nedlac has come under scrutiny in recent years for dragging its feet in admitting Saftu, a decision that prevented the country’s second-biggest trade union federation from having a say on the National Minimum Wage Act and other crucial changes to labour legislation.

The council’s agreement to the R20 an hour minimum wage has been widely criticised by the left for being too low. The accompanying labour legislation, which imposes new rules on strike action, is viewed by critics as representing a major win for business.

On whether Saftu’s inclusion in Nedlac would have had an effect on the outcome
of discussions about the changes to labour legislation, Ntshalinshali said: “I don’t know what they would have done differently … There are requirements and if they [Saftu] were to meet those requirements, nobody would stop them.”

Vavi said Nedlac’s current membership does not represent the interests of most workers: “That is why it can afford to sign the deals that it has, like the deal for a slave national minimum wage, which entrenches apartheid inequalities … That is why it has signed off laws that basically undermine and limit the rights of workers to embark on strike action,” Vavi said.

As of last year, Cosatu had about 1.6-million members. According to Statistics South Africa’s (Stats SA) recent quarterly labour survey, in the second three months of 2019 the country had an employeed workforce of 16.3-million across both the formal and informal sectors.

This means that the country’s biggest trade union federation, and the most powerful labour representative in Nedlac, represents only about 10% of the workers in South Africa.

Saftu has about 800 000 members.

According to the StatsSA survey, of 13.6-million workers with contracts, 3.9-million (29%) belong to trade unions. But of the total employed South Africans, only 24% belong to trade unions.

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. Read more from Sarah Smit

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