Human rights violations in workplaces continue to blight companies
Labour-related violations account for the second-highest number of complaints commission receives
Human Rights Day marks a significant day on the country’s calendar as it reminds South Africans of the huge sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for democracy and the establishment of a non-racial, non-sexist society in which civil liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, association and movement are upheld.
During the struggle for democracy the workplace became a terrain of struggle as the fight for workers’ rights became intricately interwoven with the struggle to overthrow the apartheid regime. This was due to the fact that prevailing labour regulations were racially exploitive and discriminatory.
Twenty-six years into democracy great strides have been made and as we celebrate Human Rights Day, it’s worthwhile to take stock of the application of these human rights in the workplace and identify what still needs to be done to improve the human rights culture in workplaces.
It was found in the latest “Annual Trends Analysis Report” by the SA Human Rights Commission that labour-related human rights violations account for the second-highest number of complaints about human rights violations the commission receives, after equality. Most of these cases relate to unfair dismissals and other unfair labour practices, which speaks to widespread discrimination in the workplace.
The report findings are based on statistics and data on human rights violations received by the commission and compiled cases from all nine provinces.
Despite the promulgation of a series of laws that protect employees and entrench a culture of human rights — such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, which gives effect to the right to fair labour practices; the Employment Equity Act, which protects employees from unfair discrimination; and the Labour Relations Act, which governs and regulates all industrial action including strikes, lockouts and picketing — the human rights of many employees are still trampled upon.
These laws were meant to protect employees against pre-1994 workplace practices in which employers had a blank cheque and complete discretion over employees. They could fire them willy-nilly, work them into exhaustion with little compensation, abuse them at will and in certain instances even physically assault them.
A series of laws such as broad-based BEE and affirmative action have been promulgated to provide preferential treatment to the majority of the population that was systematically excluded from economic opportunities. Some of these laws have largely achieved their objectives while others have not.
Challenges that remain in workplaces include exclusionary practices in some workplaces, salary gaps relating to gender, and racial biases.
According to research conducted by Stats SA, the labour market is still heavily racialised and gender biased. It highlights that the labour market favours men over women, and men are more likely to be in paid employment than women, regardless of race. On average, female employees earn about 30% less than their male counterparts in the same roles.
It is critical that we reflect on our history and the motives that necessitated our labour laws, and apply these laws to change the status quo.
It should also be recognised that organisations comprise of people from different demographics. The question is, how do we ensure compliance with the prescripts of the law without making white counterparts feel alienated and excluded? It is something that the law cannot remedy.
Companies should find a way to strike a balance between compliance with legislation and giving a leg up to previously excluded people, while ensuring that they win the hearts and minds of white, mainly male South Africans who feel that they no longer have a future in the company.
No-one should look at these laws and the regulatory framework as an antithesis of white aspirations to those of previously disadvantaged groups — mainly Africans (blacks, Indians and coloureds). Instead the two can coexist. However, this is something that requires a caring, inclusive and transparent organisational culture that recognises the framework in which change must occur.
The enactment of the labour regulations was meant to shelter employees from wanton discrimination and wholesale abuse, and many of these issues have been addressed through legislation. But several outlier issues remain. These issues cannot be addressed through the regulatory framework. Issues of culture and inculcating these practices deliberately as part of an organisation’s culture remain one of the biggest challenges.
A number of corporations are still battling with a tick-box mentality, and until that can be overcome, upholding human rights will not become part of a culture, but will remain just another regulatory imperative. This will continue to stifle creativity beyond the regulatory requirements to significantly improve the livelihoods of people and communities.
If there is no genuine buy-in, workplaces will continue to battle with anecdotes of employees being dismissed without a fair hearing as is common in certain instances. Some workers are still paid far below the minimum wage, while sexual and racial abuse remain rife. Unskilled and semiskilled workers are the most vulnerable.
Freedom of religious affiliation is one of the cornerstones of our Bill of Rights. However, often when people talk about freedom of religion much of the focus is placed on the major religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hindu and Judaism. Critical to discussions on human rights should be a diverse conversation around a holistic view on religion — a view that also acknowledges minority religions and indigenous practices and religions, as workplaces should be places where people feel that their religions and practices are respected and acknowledged, especially as workplaces are critical spaces in which people spend most of their time.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it is pleasing to see that these laws have formed a strong foundation for human rights to be upheld in the workplace; and for the protection of employees across workspaces.
Leveraging various laws including the Disaster Management Act and some provisions of the Labour Relations Act and the Compensation for Occupational Industries and Diseases Act, the president took decisive steps to ensure that preventive health and hygiene measures are taken in workplaces to protect employees from the spread of the coronavirus. Companies countrywide have devised strategies aligned to the various labour laws to protect their employees against the virus.
We should be flexible in our approach in resolving challenges in workplaces, and as we celebrate human rights, take a closer look at how we can uphold core human rights values in workspaces.
All stakeholders — the government, trade unions and the employer and employees alike — have a role to play.
Putting up a poster that spells out what the Basic Conditions of Employment Act says will not suffice.
• Lungile Langa is group human resources director at Servest.