Since 1995 South African people in leadership positions have talked at NEDLAC about the need for drastic steps toward our economic development. Nearly three decades later, South Africa is so underdeveloped that we have frequent water outages, blackouts for many hours almost every day, the burgeoning of organised crime, record levels of violence, extremely high unemployment rates, and widespread poverty.

‘NEDLAC’ stands for the National Economic Development and Labour Council. This is a high-level forum where, amongst other things, legislation regarding labour and economic development issues is debated and formed in preparation for enactment in Parliament. This body, therefore, has a major responsibility to arrive at proposals for legislation that will promote economic development and a healthy labour economy.

The parties represented at NEDLAC include Government, labour unions, businesses, and the community. Their deliberations aim to achieve goals such as legal protection for workers and reversing unemployment. However, two key factors bedeviling the success of this forum are the severe conflicts between the above two goals of NEDLAC and the hugely disparate agendas of groups represented on the forum.

The two goals of protection of employee rights on the one hand and of reversing unemployment, on the other hand, need not necessarily be conflicting goals. However, in the current South African situation, they do seriously conflict with each other. This is because, the more the unions and government conspire to tighten up labour laws in the ‘interests of employee welfare’, the more employers are reluctant to employ people in South Africa.

The current labour laws impose strong impediments to termination of employment for operational, misconduct, and poor performance reasons. The law thus provides limited flexibility for employers and imposes very heavy obligations on them. Again, the more that employers suffer under this yoke the more reluctant they are to employ people. Thus, the very laws that are designed to protect employees have the effect of reducing their employability. The burden of the labour law yoke is felt all the more by smaller employers who do not have the resources to manage the labour law burden but who represent the great majority of businesses in South Africa.

In 2011former Minister Trevor Manuel said that our labour laws are hampering the creation of employment. Against the backdrop of then President Zuma’s failed goal of creating 5 million jobs by 2020 Minister Manuel’s statement was hugely significant. The government has simply moved the target to 2030, and when that fails they will move it again. A major concern is that, even in the unlikely case that five million jobs are created by 2030, it will not be nearly enough to solve the unemployment problem in SA. This is because of the many millions of school leavers that will be entering the job market over the next eight years.

Labour legislation enacted in 2014 and 2015 has inflicted severe damage on employers. For example:

  • Fixed-term employees can take employers to CCMA if they have a reasonable expectation of being offered permanent employment
  • Employers have the primary legal responsibility for the rights of people placed with them by temporary employment agencies and labour brokers
  • The con/arb process is being used more often.

Business owners and aspirant business owners, in response to this problem, are:

  • Cutting back on existing labour
  • Resisting the need to hire people
  • Turning to mechanisation
  • Looking for non-labor-intensive opportunities
  • Keeping their businesses small
  • Closing their factories and moving them to the far east, thus exporting South African jobs to the orient
  • Choosing not to open new businesses here
  • In the case of potential foreign investors, (with a few exceptions) finding other countries to do business in.

Those few foreign businesses such as Walmart that are willing to open up here are not always welcomed by the unions.

All of this shows that strong elements in the labour movement do not see job creation as the number one priority for South Africa. Ironically, our government is well aware of the serious damage that our labour laws are doing to the creation of jobs.

Instead of carrying out its mandate to develop South Africa’s economy NEDLAC has become a battleground for business and labour. As a result, the citizens of this country cannot rely on NEDLAC to turn our economy around; and need to form a civil society organisation to implement constructive measures for rescuing their families from unemployment, poverty, disunity, and our cold future.

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