Litmus test: Cosatu supported Cyril Ramaphosa in his bid for the ANC presidency in December. Now unions have objected to changes in labour laws they say will erode the rights of workers. Ramaphosa will have to decide how the conflict is resolved. Picture: THULANI MBELE
Litmus test: Cosatu supported Cyril Ramaphosa in his bid for the ANC presidency in December. Now unions have objected to changes in labour laws they say will erode the rights of workers. Ramaphosa will have to decide how the conflict is resolved. Picture: THULANI MBELE

Since Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president in December, there has been rapid change in the political landscape. The most dramatic changes relate to the important issue of wresting back control of the state from the most kleptocratic aspects of the Zuma regime.

Unsurprisingly, these developments have tended to overshadow discussion on what a Ramaphosa presidency would aim to do with the state.

Impending legislation that would dramatically transform the labour-relations regime may provide a litmus test for where Ramaphosa’s allegiances lie and who the new ANC president regards as his key constituents.

A legislative package constituted by the National Minimum Wage Bill, together with amendments to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Labour Relations Act is now before Parliament. Its agenda constitutes a significant setback for the working class and its ability to represent its interests.

The amendments to the Labour Relations Act would weaken the ability of workers to strike, and by allowing employers to seek binding strike resolutions more easily and quickly from a Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration advisory board, they dramatically reduce worker influence over the terms on which a strike is resolved.

The amendments to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act would reduce protections for particularly vulnerable workers employed in low-wage and hard-to-organise sectors.

Until now, sector-specific minimum wages and key protections for these workers have been determined by the Employment Conditions Commission, but the amendments mean these determinations would be phased out and replaced by the national minimum wage legislation.

This need not be a bad development for workers – advocates of the national minimum wage argued that it would certainly be beneficial, and in early 2017 a national minimum wage proposal was agreed upon by National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) constituents, including labour representatives.

Ramaphosa was a key broker of the version of the national minimum wage proposal adopted at Nedlac, and noted his involvement in his ANC election manifesto in 2017. He heralded it as a victory for the working class in an address to Cosatu.

However, as outlined in a City Press report published on the eve of Ramaphosa’s election to the ANC presidency, the version of the National Minimum Wage Bill gazetted for parliamentary scrutiny is different from the document agreed at Nedlac — it omits core labour demands central to the character of the initial agreement.

The definition of "worker" has changed so that the bill excludes independent contractors, which could result in some of the most vulnerable casual workers being excluded from the protection of the national minimum wage bill.

There is no longer a mechanism whereby farm and domestic workers’ wages, initially set below the national minimum wage, adjust over time to full minimum wage parity.

It is unclear how this legislative agenda has been placed before Parliament. It is easy to read it as a deliberate effort to disempower workers

Provisions concerning minimum wage exemptions seem more expansive than in the original Nedlac agreement, while provisions concerning medium-term targets for the wage and guarantees that it would increase annually by at least inflation are missing.

The bill also has no mechanism for protecting those sectoral determination workers who lose their Basic Conditions of Employment Act protections.

A transitional arrangement ensures that where sectoral determination wages are higher than the national minimum wage, these will increase at the same rate as the national minimum wage for the first three years of its implementation, but after that there is no longer any mechanism for sectoral determination adjustment. Workers in these jobs might face substantial real wage decreases to the national minimum wage level.

Because the Minimum Wage Commission, unlike the Employment Conditions Commission, will not be empowered to consider issues beyond the rand value of the hourly minimum wage, other protections that sectoral determinations provide, such as provisions on housing for farm workers, may be lost too.

It is unclear how this legislative agenda has been placed before Parliament. It is easy to read it as a deliberate effort to disempower workers, erode certain protections and provide more scope for some employers to determine the terms of workers’ remuneration.

But after unions publicly raised objections about how the definition of "worker" was changed in the gazetted version of the bill, the Department of Labour quickly issued a contrite statement, blaming the change on a drafting error they promised to fix.

The department insisted it was not its intention to deviate from the Nedlac agreement. Cosatu and the Federation of Unions of SA seem to have accepted this explanation.

Other deviations from the Nedlac national minimum wage agreement seem to remain unresolved, in addition to the anti-worker amendments to the Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

It would seem unlikely that all of these changes could be attributed to bureaucratic errors – suggesting that at least some aspects of this agenda are intended to undermine the gains of workers.

In any case, even if these questions about the origin of the legislative agenda are set aside, how these changes are dealt with going forward will be consequential for workers.

At this potentially precarious moment for the broader labour movement, one would hope that unions would exert further pressure on the ANC and the government not to implement these regressive changes to SA’s labour laws. This could be a pertinent course of action, particularly for those elements of the labour movement that endorsed Ramaphosa’s ANC presidential bid, presumably in the expectation that he would champion workers’ interests.

How Ramaphosa and the ANC respond to such pressure may give us an idea of his ideological vision, his political-
economic project and whose interests he plans to prioritise as SA’s possible president.

From his extraordinary political history, people have drawn various and contradictory conclusions about who Ramaphosa is and what his agenda as president will be.

Is he the Ramaphosa of the National Union of Mineworkers and the United Democratic Front, who pitched his presidency as one for workers?

Or is he the Ramaphosa who turned to business and intervened on behalf of Lonmin during what became the Marikana mining massacre?

His response to this attack on workers, at a time when organised labour is divided and disorganised, may suggest an answer to this question.

• Aboobaker and Budlender are economics PhD students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Aboobaker was a researcher for the National Minimum Wage Research Initiative.

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