By Eustace Davie, Director of the Free Market Foundation, the author of Jobs for the Jobless and a contributor to Jobs Jobs Jobs.
Much is written about inequality, decrying high salaries paid by companies to their executives as being one of its main causes, while no consideration is given, or attention paid to the plight of the unemployed. Those who earn zero! Why is government grinding them into the ground with job deprivation laws?
Mass unemployment in SA is a travesty of justice and a consequence of a failure of government to respect the contractual and other rights of the unemployed as enumerated in the Bill of Rights, which is intended to protect vulnerable people such as the unemployed.
Section 7(2) of the Constitution requires the state to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights”. The unemployed are “forgotten people” as far as constitutional rights are concerned. The legislative and regulatory ill-treatment of the unemployed is arguably the most egregious violation of constitutional rights of any group of South African citizens. With more than 9 million people already unemployed government, labour unions and business representatives met at Nedlac and, with the enthusiastic support of the President, adopted a National Minimum Wage (NMW) that they had been told would put more people out of jobs.
In anticipation of the introduction of the National Minimum Wage (NMW), employers are retrenching staff and not taking on new employees. In the quarter ending 30 June, Stats SA’s unemployment figure (including discouraged workers) increased by an additional 153,000 to 9.634 million, which is 37.2% of the potential workforce. How is it that the protections that are built into the Constitution to ensure proper treatment of vulnerable citizens of the country are persistently and deliberately ignored in the case of the unemployed? Is the government blind to the barriers to entry into the job market?
Apart from the people who have already lost jobs, and those who will lose jobs when the NMW becomes law, there are 9 million plus who were already unemployed and could not get jobs at wage levels of R2,000 or R2,500. These unfortunate people will face the higher jobs barrier of R3,500, which will make them even more unemployable.
On the government Nedlac page the organisation is described in the following terms:
“The mission of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) is to give effect to the Nedlac Act by ensuring effective public participation in the labour market and socio-economic policy and legislation, and to facilitate consensus and cooperation between government, labour, business and the community in dealing with South Africa's socio-economic challenges.
The Nedlac Act requires the institution to: strive to promote the goals of economic growth, participation in economic decision-making and social equity; seek to reach consensus and conclude agreements on matters pertaining to social and economic policy; consider all proposed labour legislation relating to labour market policy before it is introduced in Parliament; encourage and promote the formulation of coordinated policy on social and economic matters; consider all significant changes to social and economic policy before it is implemented or introduced in Parliament; and consider socio-economic disputes in terms of Section 77 of the Labour Relations Act.”
Nedlac does not appear to be an organisation that gives substantial attention to the question of unemployment reduction. This is not unexpected because it is an adjunct of the Department of Labour (DOL), which appears to regard itself as the guardian of the employed and not the unemployed. The latest Annual Report of the Department of Labour does not contain a feature on ways and means of reducing the number of unemployed people in the country. There is mention of the “creation of decent employment” and the problem of “poverty, unemployment and inequality”. It would be much more useful if the discussion were to be about reducing red tape, removing unnecessary regulations, and adopting measures that will increase the demand for labour to reduce unemployment and poverty. Instead of carrying out its constitutional duty of promoting “the formulation of coordinated policy” to reduce unemployment as rapidly as possible, Nedlac and the DOL have been complicit in the institution of a NMW that will decimate employment in some areas.
That the Human Rights Commission has not seen fit to come to the aid of the unemployed to compel government to respect their constitutional rights is a travesty. The functions of the Commission include a duty to “promote respect for human rights and a culture of human rights” and to “promote the protection, development and attainment of human rights”. One of the most fundamental rights of any person is the right to use their skills to earn a living to support themselves and their families. The Commission should recognise that they have a constitutional duty towards the unemployed to induce government to remove the barriers to entry into the job market which are the primary cause of their unemployment.
Section 9(2) of the constitution provides that “To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.” SA’s unemployed people are clearly being discriminated against – why else would 9.634 million of them be unemployed? Section 9(3) provides that, “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone “on one or more grounds”.
The labour laws, including the minimum wage, directly or at least indirectly discriminate against the unemployed whilst unfairly protecting only the employed. A drastic change of policy is essential. Discrimination must cease, and policies must be adopted that promote the protection, development and attainment of the human rights of the unemployed.