For several decades, we’ve embraced the concept and spirit of decent work. Unions have been at the forefront, spreading the word, making sure everyone knows what’s at stake for workers. But decent work is more than a policy; it’s our moral obligation. Decent work isn’t just a job. It’s dignity. A fair wage, a safe place to work, and respect for workers’ labour rights.
What Is Decent Work?
The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Decent Work Programme is our roadmap. Creating jobs, guaranteeing rights, extending social protection, and fostering dialogue. It’s the key to inclusive development and social justice. When workers are respected and well-paid, our society can thrive.
The Role of Wages
Wages are at the heart of our fight. Too often, discussions on decent work skirt around this crucial part, preferring to focus on conditions of employment. At a global level especially, multinationals and global supply chain projects focus on softer improvements on conditions of employment, instead of wage increases.
Fair wages mean living decently, acknowledging workers’ skills and education, and ensuring equity within an economy and industries.
More Than Laws
The Minister of Labour reminded us that worker rights our set out in our Constitution and labour laws, including workers’ right to join unions, strike and engage in collective bargaining.
The Decent Work campaign is about making sure these rights are enforced but importantly more than that: the constitution and laws should be used as a springboard to achieve more for workers, even better wages, even better conditions, even better benefits.
What Does It Mean?
Around the globe, the ILO lights the way on decent work. Jobs, worker rights, social protection, and social dialogue can transform nations. The ILO’s Decent Work Country Programme has shown us examples from other countries and that progress is in our hands. Here at home, we’ve made strides but face hurdles: unemployment, inequality, gender pay gaps, workplace safety, and strengthening worker’s rights.
Our strategy to deal with these hurdles? Dialogue. Tripartite talks to reshape laws and, where this does not work, using our collective power to push employers towards justice and government towards action.
For us as trade unions, government commitment in making laws and enforcing them is critical, otherwise our decent work dreams remain only on paper and are never enforced to transform places of work and benefit workers.
The Minister cited the example of the extension of collective bargaining agreements and the amendments made to the labour laws to ensure this can be done where workers are representative. This is a positive contribution by the ANC Government to help us achieve decent work.
But much more needs to be done. We have often spoken about improving our labour market institutions, including the Department of Employment and Labour’s (DEL) enforcement capacity. Without a strong DEL inspectorate and well-funded institutions, like the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation & Arbitration (CCMA), decent work will remain a dream.
What Have We Achieved?
Our landmark victory? The National Minimum Wage in 2019. Both its introduction and the above-inflation increases of recent years. It’s boosted millions of incomes.
At industry level, we have made decent work a reality for workers by linking government incentives and industrial loans to companies paying bargaining council wages. We have got the trade authorities to only give trade relief or protection to companies that pay decent wages.
At sectoral level, we have negotiated and agreed Masterplans to grow industry and jobs. Many of these Masterplans have decent work entrenched including by setting up industrial dialogue to give workers a voice on their jobs and their industries.
At company level, we have confronted companies undermining decent work principles by deduct benefits from workers but never pay these over and mines that benefit from state support but do not pay workers decent wages.
There are many other examples.
Decent Work on the Global Level
Our fight spans borders. In BRICS, in AGOA, we’re making decent work central.
For instance in BRICS, the first Employment Working Group meeting was held in February 2023, where the link between decent work and productivity was highlighted.
At the AGOA Summit of November 2023, for the first time ever, a side-meeting of trade unions were held, attended by unions from South Africa, other African countries and the United States. This put governments and business on notice about our campaign to promote decent work on the continent.
We are also pushing for decent work to be a pillar in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) by making the case for the agreement to be amended to include a social clause. Such a clause will see countries having to comply with labour standards to enjoy trade preferences. We are agitating for space within all AfCFTA discussions for trade unions so that this is a trade agreement built on decent work and not a race to the bottom.
The ILO must be a key ally in this global conversation, including by ensuring that there are platforms for engagement and the sharing of best practices.
Not Without Stumbling Blocks
Achieving decent work for our members and workers will not be achieved easily. Worker rights are under threat. The Minister spoke about the calls for the review of labour laws and yesterday the Labour School reminded us of the attacks on collective bargaining.
This is the opposite of what we want to do. So we need to defend decent work but we also need to go on the offensive. We need to develop strategies and campaigns to achieve decent work.
What Is To Be Done?
Our major decent work challenges are unemployment, and inequality. We fight these daily.
But there are more campaigns and programmes we can undertake to help bring victory and make decent work more than a dream.
I wanted to propose a 6-pack of programmes to consider:
- We have won a NMW but the level of non-compliance is too high. We must work harder, including with government, to ensure greater compliance so that workers can benefit from the legal level of the NMW
- Many workers have social benefits deducted from their wages but never paid over. During COVID, we realised how many employers did this with UIF. Unions need to do regular audits and shop stewards and workers need to do regular checks to ensure employers pay the right amount of UIF for the right number of workers
- We have several industry bargaining councils. They have proven themselves to be good vehicles in delivering decent work. But where are the bargaining councils in retail, agriculture and other sectors?
- We give decent work a real practical role by linking it in some industries to incentives and loans. But this needs to be expanded to other industries and to tenders. No IDC grant, Land Bank loan, Department of Health tender or Department of Forestry contract can be given to a company that does not comply with the relevant bargaining council agreement or with the NMW.
- Following COVID, many industries have experienced greater informalisation, with former decent work companies moving into the shadows and turning into sweatshops. This is part of the general attack on centralised bargaining; in some cases it is linked to the push for greater localisation. We need to reverse this: formalise those sweatshops to ensure the workers receive decent wages and social benefits
- How are we going to win the 40-hour week? We understand that many workers do not enjoy the benefits of a 40-hour week, working many more hours that affect their health, families and communities negatively. What do we need to do to achieve this?
These are just a few examples, intended to get you thinking about making decent work a reality. There are many other campaigns and programmes we can add.
For instance, David Dorkenoo of the ILO suggested several conventions that South Africa should consider ratifying including Convention 187 on occupational health, 129 on labour inspection in agriculture, 151 on labour relations in the public sector and 189 on domestic workers. A campaign on this would follow our successful campaign on Convention 190 on the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, which South Africa ratified at the end of 2021.
But ratification is not enough: we need to ensure their successful implementation also, for instance Convention 182 on child labour.
Unions are the voice of change. Our unity and solidarity can make decent work more than a dream, ensuring every worker enjoys the fruits of their labour. Let’s move forward, united by our past achievements and the challenges ahead. Together, we can make decent work a reality for all.