In 1884 the American Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions sought an eight-hour workday, and this led to a mass strike and the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago. On July 14th, 1889, in Paris, France, the first international conference of socialist parties in Europe declared May 1st to be “Workers Day of International Unity and Solidarity.”

Workers’ Day in South Africa honours the contribution of trade unions, the Communist Party, and other labour groups in the battle against apartheid. May Day was established as an official national public holiday in South Africa following the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), a South African labour group founded in December 1985, proposed the day be commemorated and renamed “Workers Day” in South Africa. Thousands of schoolchildren, students, taxi drivers, hawkers, merchants, domestic workers, self-employed and jobless individuals joined the call for a stay-away. The majority of the rallies took place in the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging region, which is now known as Gauteng. Despite the Apartheid Government’s ban on many of them in advance, demonstrations were held in all of the main cities.

This year, Workers Day will be observed amid a particularly challenging year for workers. With us only recently emerging from various stages of lockdowns that adversely impacted an already fragile job market and caused many individuals to lose their jobs. As developed as our country is, too many of our people live under the poverty line. With one of the highest unemployment rates soaring past the 35% threshold in the fourth quarter of 2021. As a South African, it’s become tough to see any positives, especially when it comes to the workforce. But, there are many reasons to stand tall and today I’d like to shine the spotlight on our world-class labour laws.  

How do Do South African Labour Laws compare to Other Countries?

  1. Unemployment Insurance (UIF )

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently stated that Seventy-five per cent of the 150 million people unemployed worldwide lack any unemployment insurance protection. South Africa falls within the 25% of countries with an Unemployment Insurance Fund. In the 1990s, even the world’s wealthiest countries in Europe and North America reduced unemployment insurance protection ( World Labour Report 2000: Income Security and Social Protection in a Changing World). During the pandemic, South Africa was among approximately 25% of countries to offer social relief via TERS ( Under UIF). Yes, those heavily criticised R350 grants and food parcels were unique to South Africa; most governments across the world did not offer any or similar assistance and international organisations like the UN Global Compact praised South Africa for their Social insurance and the speed at which social assistance was provided.

The pandemic’s economic misery necessitates a response based on new concepts for expanding jobless benefits. Cash transfers to households are the most effective income support strategies in low-income nations. Where cash transfer programs already exist, they might be supplemented to guarantee that additional resources reach the poor. Extending paid sick leave and increasing access to employment insurance are two further initiatives that other countries implemented. Senegal, for example, pays a portion of the earnings of workers facing layoffs and vulnerable individuals such as those who are self-employed.

Figure 1- Availability of unemployment protection varies widely by income and region 

Source: World Bank

I am in no way stating that anyone can live off R350 per month. However, I wish to highlight that although we need to improve, we are a long way ahead of most of the world in recognising the issues unemployment and poverty cause and actively working towards improving the systems and processes we have in place. South Africa has an outstanding unemployment insurance fund and extended conditions of sick leave also ensure that our workers are covered during such vulnerable times. 

The International Labour Organisation (ILO)-supported employment-intensive programs currently exist in Botswana, Kenya, the United Republic of Tanzania, and South Africa. South Africa, by far, has the more developed programs to support the unemployed. Most countries align their labour legislation to the ILO. The ILO sets the standards for fair workers rights globally, and countries voluntarily subscribe to this organisation. Each country uses the guidelines and a benchmark but factors in their country’s unique issues.

  1. CCMA

The CCMA is self-governing and overseen by a three-person Governing Body. Within the labour arena, the CCMA’s tasks include conflict resolution, dispute management, institution-building, education, training, and information to employers, employees, and their organisations. The CCMA has the authority to accredit negotiating councils (sectoral bargaining entities jointly established by employers and labour unions) to conduct conciliations and arbitration within their sector. The CCMA is supported entirely by the federal government, and there are no fees associated with referring issues to it. Employees can refer problems to the CCMA or the labour court on their own or with the help of their union or, in rare situations, attorneys.

The CCMA offers an aggrieved employee relief that does not require legal assistance or any cost to find relief. No other country has a forum that operates to the extent that South Africa does.

I feel that most South Africans do not appreciate or are unaware of the uniqueness of this organisation and the fact that it gives us all access to justice most South Africans would not have access to due to poverty.

  1. Comparison of different countries’ labour landscapes:

From the graph above, South Africa is on par, if not more developed in its legislation around workers rights and creating a fair and equitable environment.

  1. The right to strike and collective Bargaining

In South Africa, the right to strike and Collective Bargaining is entrenched in our Constitution. Section 23(2)(c) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (hereafter the Constitution, 1996) enshrines “every” worker’s “right to strike; section 23(5) confers on every employer and every employee the right to “engage in collective bargaining,” and section 23(1) guarantees to both employers and employees a right to fair labour practices.

The right to strike is one of the most cherished and fundamental rights. The right to strike along with Collective Bargaining helps employees even the playing field in the workplace; without it effectively, most employers would be able to do as they please.

Collective Bargaining- Employers and their organisations and trade unions use Collective Bargaining to create equitable salaries and working conditions. It also serves as a foundation for good labour relations. Wages, working hours, training, workplace health and safety, and fair treatment are common topics on the negotiation table. These talks aim to reach a collective bargaining agreement that governs employment terms and conditions. Increasing the inclusivity of collective bargaining and collective agreements is one of the most effective ways to reduce inequality and expand labour protection.

Of course, the hermetic dictatorship of North Korea and the increasingly notorious “kafala” countries of the Persian Gulf, such as the Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, are among the few countries where employees have no right to strike. When an employer refuses to negotiate good wages and working conditions, or when workers are at risk of injury, disease, or death on the job, it is a necessary last resort. 

Our legislation is unambiguous on how a legal strike should happen, and South Africans are known globally for their active strike action and Collective Bargaining. We need to appreciate that these rights are legally allowed and offer us a way to ensure we are heard in the workplace.

The above mentioned are just four points in our labour legislation that, along with our history shows, our government’s commitment to ensuring a fair and equitable workplace for all. Our legislation in South Africa is well developed; institutions like CCMA further ensure that we all have access to justice concerning our rights at work. The department of labour offers relief, even though it is not discussed in this article. It is important to note that access to justice is provided free of charge and subsidised by the government, something most countries do not have.

The government remains committed to ensuring the welfare and good conditions of service for workers. The government has put progressive labour legislation and critical programs in line with the Constitution to achieve this.

The Department of Labour regularly amends the Labour Relations Act to address the rise in labour brokering, particularly the abuses associated with the practice and how it deprives many workers of basic labour law protections.

South Africa is addressing unemployment, inequality, corporate ownership, and other socio-economic problems that contribute to racial conflict in our communities to achieve racial reconciliation. 

There is no question that we still have a long way to go, but on this Workers Day, can we take a moment to appreciate the progress made and our well-developed labour landscape. On this day, let’s not only recognise the heroes who fought for our rights and the work of all unions in getting us to this point but let’s also continue the work to ensure that future generations are not subjected to the current inequalities, especially those that are experienced by women and other members of marginalised communities.