I’m a Slave, but at least I’ve got a job

By Cobus Fourie

I am your average corporate weasel. There, I said it. I confess. I am neither a rabid libertarian nor an unthinking progressive. Cosatu will not burn me at the stake along with my hypothetical Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand collections and neither will I get honorary life-membership by extolling the virtues of Friedrich Engels.

According to the Department of Labour, I earn too much to qualify for some essential labour law protections, so I see our “progressive” labour law as not egalitarian enough. Yet it is a case of the rather devil you know than the devil you don’t. Strangely enough, Allister Sparks, writing for the Business Day, made my blood boil the other day.

Mr Sparks in all of his libertarian wisdom proposed some pseudo Industrial Revolution labour law relaxations in AT HOME AND ABROAD: Tiny puff of a possible wind of change. Mr Sparks hedges his assumptions on the warm welcome South Africa got when it was invited to the BRIC bloc of self-congratulating nations (I suppose it is BRICS now).

I have worked for shysters and have seen our esteemed labour law in action. I propose calling Johannesburg the Wild West of Exploitation since I have seen so many transgressions and constructive dismissals that I am immune to any of it and consequently suffer compassion fatigue. Worst is that employers get away with these violations with total impunity.

I know a couple of lawyers who will not touch labour law with a ten-metre stick. I completely understand. Labour law is a messy business. I had to deal with a couple of situations and I would be lying if I said I was completely unscathed.

I cherish the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, 1997, the Employment Equity Act, 1998 and the Labour Relations Act, 1995 – although in practice, I have seen that the lofty provisions contained therein are not even worth the paper it is printed on. Women still face the infamous glass ceiling and continue to be relegated and objectified. It is still very much an “old-boys club” out there and despite being male I just don’t feel any belonging there. I think my feelings towards the Old Grey Suits border on disgust.

My previous director often summoned me regarding the sectoral and ministerial determinations of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the subsequent wage increases. We discussed a certain sectoral determination and unexpectedly the question came from the 46 year-old: “do women get the same amount?” I nearly fell off my chair in disbelief and had to force my mouth shut before any insects could accumulate. I feigned nonchalance, answered a couple of other equally bigoted questions, and excused myself.

I vividly remember my mother bitching in the late 1980s that they were paid less than men for no other reason than gender. Even as a small child I couldn’t comprehend this inequality, let alone the other vast and ruthless inequalities that existed. I discussed this income disparity with one of my colleagues who lived through those times and the discrepancy was largely unquestioned. I cannot fathom why, but then again, those were different times. These days the 1950s stereotype nuclear family doesn’t really exist and many household are headed by single (female) parents.

As we are inundated with speak of job creation and having to listen to the President saying the word “jobs” so many times in 80 minutes, we need to look were we came from before we consider giving up equality and a semblance of human dignity and implement slave wages. Do we really want to revert to a crude winner-takes-it-all labour market? What will happen to women who fall pregnant? Will they be deemed an economic and ideological burden?

I feel there is almost an unhealthy obsession with jobs amongst politicians and economists and columnists alike. I am lead to believe this panacea will be our saving grace and miraculously all of our problems will disappear while we are working together doing more.

There are supposedly so many hurdles and red tape that private enterprise isn’t incentivised to employ people. Apparently our minimum wages are too high. I wonder if these pompous columnists ever tried to live on a minimum wage. I wonder if they considered that a lot of women raise their children by themselves with the fathers disappearing long before birth.

Sparks et al argue that it is better to employ people on ridiculous wages than to have the outrageous levels of unemployment that we face. I see a catch here. The first thing that will happen is that the classic supply-and-demand economics will kick in and wages will fall to inhumanely low levels.

I can just imagine the Tea Party speak; it might sound something like this:

My skiewie from the DRC is prepared to work for R10 a day, so why would I employ these arrogant South Africans? They’ve got human rights now, remember. Human rights! We didn’t have human rights and we survived just fine.

I see exploitation and a lot of it. If our current lofty labour laws cannot even protect the average worker, how on earth will our society look on ruthless, anarcho-capitalist policies?

But don’t forget those jobs; they will cure all social malaise.


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