28th April 2017
The first “Workers Day” occurred on 1 May 1886 when 300 000 workers in 13 000 businesses in the United States walked away from their jobs to protest for a working day of not more than eight hours. Today it is hard to imagine that an 8-hour working day was the culmination of a long series of events in which the working class managed to get their employers to agree to a 12-hour working day (in 1848 in France), an 11-hour working day (around 1860 in Philadelphia in the United States), and a 10-hour working day (in 1847 in England).
A resolution calling for an international demonstration to campaign for an 8-hour working day adopted at the Marxist International Socialist Congress in Paris resulted in protests in the United States, Europe, Chile, Peru and Cuba on 1 May 1889. Subsequent years saw more countries celebrating labourers’ rights on May Day: Russia, Brazil and Ireland in 1891, China in 1920 and India in 1927. Ironically, due to its association with Communism, International Workers’ Day is currently not celebrated in countries such the United States (where it originated) and Canada. Instead, these countries celebrate Labour Day on 1 September.
Although Mayday has been celebrated unofficially in South Africa since the 1980s, 1 May only became an officially recognised public holiday after the democratic elections of 1994. Following the country’s labour history and the workers’ struggle, the link of this public holiday in South Africa to International Workers’ Day seems to be less prominent. Instead our Workers Day seems to be focusing more on celebrating the role played by Trade Unions, the South African Communist Party and other labour movements in the struggle against Apartheid.
Workers Day nevertheless provides an opportune moment for industry leaders and businesses owners to reflect on the relationship between employers and employees and the significance of the current labour legislation for our society in general and our economy in particular. While we would like to believe that our current labour laws are designed to address unemployment, poverty and inequality, perhaps it is necessary to investigate the extent to which this is indeed the case.
A case in point is the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the purpose of which is to advance economic development and social justice. Is it possible that this act actually works against the reduction of unemployment in that it dis-incentivises employers – especially small-business owners – to employ more staff or to replace staff who has left their employment? To what extent does this act discourage entrepreneurs from formally registering their businesses in a bid to, as part of the informal sector, escape the myriad of administrative red tape associated with employment? (Ironically, while government on all levels seems to suffer most from the unintended consequences of BCEA as officials are often not well-versed in the intricacies of the labour legislation, everyone loses at the end as it is tax money that is used when such labour disputes need to be settled).
More recently, proposals to introduce a National Minimum Wage of R20 an hour next year may be flowing from a belief that the exploitation of the modern working class is hidden in the wage system. However, is it possible that, while designed to reduce wage inequality in our country, the proposed National Minimum Wage might work directly against the objective of decreasing unemployment levels by resulting in vacant jobs not being filled or fewer jobs being created?
Amidst all of these questions and uncertainty, the appointment – in January 2016 – of former president Kgalema Motlanthe as chair of an advisory panel tasked to assess key legislation passed by Parliament since 1994 represents a light on the horizon, albeit ever so tiny and dim. Comprising of a wide array of experts from various sectors of the economy the 17-member panel had 12 months to investigate the unintended consequences of laws, identify gaps and propose action steps to eradicate inequality in society and to forge nation building through economic transformation. While preliminary reports – in the area of land reform, restitution, redistribution and security of tenure – are about to be made available, businesses owners can only hope that the panel’s exploration of the areas of “the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality” and “the creation of equitable distribution of wealth” will indeed lead to amendments that will support economic growth (irrespective of whether it is called radical economic transformation or not). After all, is economic growth, which is the only viable path to sustainable job creation, not what Workers Day should be all about?